I’ve been on strike for a couple of days this week, Monday and Thursday – or at least I think I have.
It’s my first time actually on strike as a lecturer, although when working at the University of Glasgow I participated in ‘action short of a strike’ by withholding marks. This was extremely unpopular with students, because the action took place towards the end of the academic year and we had people going for job interviews and not knowing their degree result. However, it was possible to hold the line by explaining that the marks would be released once the dispute was resolved.
So I thought actual strike action would be relatively straightforward. I had a lecture to give on Monday but nothing on Thursday. I informed the students and said I would be rescheduling the class at a later date. There were no complaints. I turned up on both Monday and Thursday mornings at my usual time and spent a couple of hours picketing my workplace, which involved amicable discussions with colleagues and some students. I was the only person in my School to do any picketing whatsoever, but was supported by someone from another Department – my building has two entrances so we took one each.
I had time on both days to reflect on the new categories into which I could place my colleagues:
1. Not a union member. My School includes Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering, so is not a hotbed of radicalism. Most people I spoke to were not union members and some were not even in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – much of the reason for the strike was about changes to USS conditions. Obviously I encouraged them to join.
2. Union member but not on strike. I had more sympathy for this than you might imagine. Of course it’s possible to reschedule an ordinary lecture, but I knew of two cases in my department where cancellations would have been more complex due to the involvement of outside speakers or visitors. I’m not sure what I would have done if, for example, the strike had taken place on the day of one of my field trips. OK, I do know, I would have cancelled, but it’s a more difficult issue than people might think.
3. Union member on strike but invisible. UCU guidance said: ‘tell your students that you will not be teaching them or providing them with any form of service on the 21st and 24th March’. I interpreted that as meaning it was perfectly OK to spend some of the day working on research-related items. One of my colleagues spoke at a conference and interpreted that as being within the remit of strike action. Some may have just stayed at home and not done any work, but this would have been rare. Contrary to popular belief, academics do work quite hard, and about 50 per cent of what we do doesn’t involve teaching or student-related administration.
4. Union member on strike and on the picket line, for a few hours at least. That was, er, me.
And that was how my bubble of self-righteousness was punctured, while chatting to a member of the UCU committee on the Thursday. I mentioned that I was rescheduling my Monday lecture and was told that shouldn’t be happening, rather I should leave out the lecture altogether. That wasn’t at all clear from our local UCU written guidance.
I’d had some time over the two days to think about what going on strike means for professionals. In my case, I have an obligation to my students. I’m prepared to miss work on particular days to make a point, but I’m not prepared to omit a key part of the module on a permanent basis.
When I took part in ‘action short of a strike’, we did eventually give the students their marks. For me, not rescheduling my lecture would be like permanently withholding the marks.
So now I’m confused. Was I on strike or wasn’t I?