Friday, March 25, 2011

On strike – or perhaps not?

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?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Popping in for tea

Ed Miliband visited Northern Ireland yesterday, including Bombardier and Stormont. At Bombardier, I hope he met trade unionists who are Labour members and in some cases would have voted for him in last year’s leadership campaign. At Stormont, I hope he noticed the absence of Labour MLAs and wondered why.

His visit was kept very quiet. The press didn’t know, and neither did we Labour members in Northern Ireland.

Martina Purdy, on Stormont Today, commented that this fiasco ‘doesn’t say much for the state of relations within that party’.

She’s right, but not in the way the person who fed her that line might have intended.

There is an issue here about Ed Miliband’s staff and their knowledge of Northern Ireland. The judgements made yesterday reflect far worse on the Leader of the Opposition than on his local party members (or the local press).

First, why visit Northern Ireland and keep it quiet? Do Miliband's advisers still think there’s a security risk? Who thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to notify the press? Surely if you are the leader of a political party, and you visit an area, you want some publicity? Would meeting the general public have been too much trouble – for example a short walkabout in Belfast? How exactly has Miliband’s political capital been raised by his welcome by Robinson and McGuinness at Stormont (during which Miliband looked very uncomfortable)?

Second, let’s look at the business of failing to notify the Labour Party here. The local press knew to get on the phone to Boyd Black. Miliband’s advisers didn’t. Either they didn’t know whom to contact, or they didn’t think it mattered. Either was poor judgement on their behalf. I fail to see how that error can be turned around to appear to be a fault or weakness on the part of the local party.

Ed Miliband and his advisors need to do their homework on Northern Ireland before their next visit. As it was, he looked as if he was parachuted in for the day and couldn’t care less. Which of course couldn’t be true – could it?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why Labour made the right decision yesterday

I enjoyed watching the debate yesterday on whether Labour should go into coalition with Fine Gael. Each side put forward clear arguments, principled and held sincerely. And, of course, something of real consequence was at stake.

Eamon Gilmore and Brendan Howlin proposed and seconded the motion that Labour should go into government with Fine Gael. Gilmore made the general points that it had been Labour’s best election results ever and he believed people voted for Labour to be in government – the implication being that Labour had been given a mandate for coalition as a smaller party, which certainly towards the end of the campaign looked most likely, and so was probably true. Howlin went into more detail about what was in the (then) draft Programme for Government, and I was surprised at the extent of Labour influence: a Strategic Investment Bank and Jobs Fund, reverse the cut in the minimum wage, no further cuts in social welfare, a budget for jobs in the first 100 days, no more transfers to NAMA, action to reduce substantially evictions for mortgage arrears, no compulsory redundancies in frontline public services, and some unclear but promising-sounding measures on universal access to health care – along with a compromise on the 3% deficit date, now 2015.

Arguments for and against were relatively simple. For - Labour has done well out of the draft PfG and therefore is in a good position to protect people; the alternative is a less stable alliance of Fine Gael and Independents. Labour has a responsibility to the people. Or, as Gilmore brilliantly retorted when summing up, people in mortgage arrears now can’t wait another four years for a Labour government.

Against – Labour should lead opposition to cuts both inside and outside the Oireachtas, and build support towards a Labour-led government in the future. A coalition with Fine Gael could put Labour in the same position as the LibDems in the UK and the Greens after the past four years. The PfG is still based on failing neoliberal policies and should not be supported.

The proposal to join the government was won overwhelmingly on a show of hands.

Well, I think they have done the right thing. I am particularly persuaded by the responsibility argument; remaining in opposition may feel very good but it won’t help to preserve jobs, health or education. But I see that in 2007 I didn’t think the Greens should go into government with Fianna Fáil. So what makes this different?

Well, two reasons. First, Fine Gael really needs Labour - for a stable government that will be respected nationally, when difficult decisions still have to be implemented, and internationally, which is just as important for jobs and the economy generally. If Labour walk away, there will have to be another election. Second, the contents of the draft PfG indicate that Labour are tough negotiators, showing greater political acumen than did the Greens. I hope that skill, backed up with debate arising from the tensions between left and right which are found in any Labour party, keep feet firmly on the ground and remind TDs that government at any cost is not what their party is about.

Labour is taking a calculated risk, and part of that risk might be knowing when to walk away. But not to have taken that risk at the present time would have been criminally irresponsible.