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I’ve never been on strike before. Here’s why today was different

OPINION: I’m walking out in solidarity with colleagues, even though I have my own problems as a freelancer

Daniel Trilling
1 February 2023, 2.03pm

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) on the picket line outside Edinburgh University, 1 February 2023


Iain Masterton/Alamy Live News

Like half a million other people in the UK, I started this morning by going on strike.

I teach part-time at a London university and I’m joining my University and College Union colleagues in walking out, alongside train drivers, schoolteachers and civil servants who are also striking today.

But by 9am I was already back at work.

That’s because, like an even larger group of people – more than four million, in fact – I’m actually self-employed. I work mainly as a freelance journalist. For me, striking – withdrawing my labour to force the people who pay me to improve my working conditions – is almost never an option.

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As a freelancer, I’m usually working for half a dozen different organisations at any one time. Withdraw my labour from one, and I’ll have to keep on working for the others regardless. Since I'm hired on a variety of short-term contracts (or paid by the piece) it would be very easy for most of the people who hire me to punish me for striking.

In fact, they wouldn't even have to say they were doing so – they could simply never hire me again.

As a journalist, it’s sometimes not much better when you’re on the payroll, since the media is a notoriously anti-union industry. (I’m glad to report that openDemocracy does recognise its National Union of Journalists chapel.)

So for me, even though striking today makes little difference to most of my work, it still means a lot. In fact, it’s the first time in my life I’ve actually been able to take part in a strike.

Over the last few years I’ve done a bit of university teaching, mainly to journalism students, to supplement my editing and writing. Two of the reasons we’re striking are to force university bosses to reverse recent pension cuts, and to offer a pay rise that meets the rising cost of living. Right now, neither issue affects me significantly.

As an occasional, hourly paid lecturer – the university sector's equivalent of a freelancer – I don’t get a workplace pension. More pay would be nice, but my teaching only accounts for a small part of my income.

In these circumstances it would be easy for me to say: “Why bother?” In fact, it would be easy for me to resent some of the people I’m striking alongside. Pensions? Permanent contracts with defined working hours? They don’t realise how good they have it.

But it’s exactly that kind of resentment that the government, plus its cheerleaders in the media, plays upon in order to downgrade working conditions for everyone. “My conditions are shit, so why should these other people have it any better?” is a mood that those on the right work hard to encourage. It demoralises people, and that sense of demoralisation is one reason we’ve been unable to stop wages in the UK flatlining over the past decade.

In fact, that process of divide and rule is under way in universities themselves. While all university staff are facing increased workloads and real-terms pay cuts (except the bosses perhaps), casualised contracts have become widespread, particularly among more junior staff, as universities have been pushed towards a market-driven model. There are wide gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps, too.

I’ve actually found myself a little nervous about striking. I’m still giving up pay, even if it’s only a bit, and I wonder if putting my head above the parapet like this will come to the attention of people who may or may not offer me work in the future. More than that, I really like teaching – I love seeing students develop their practical skills and grow in confidence.

But I don’t want my goodwill to be exploited. If I crossed the picket line, I’d be letting myself be used to undermine other people’s working conditions – and, ultimately, the quality of teaching that students receive.

I’m under no illusions about how difficult the situation is. Trade union membership is only just starting to recover from historic lows, and the UK’s already draconian anti-strike laws are being made tougher. But our only hope of success – in reversing the transfer of power and wealth away from the majority – is if those of us with the opportunity to strike do so, and are vocal in our support for one another.

To put it another way, I’m striking partly to stop universities becoming more like the media. The latter is an industry where someone like Boris Johnson can earn £275,000 a year for writing an opinion column, while a freelance investigative journalist can rack up huge amounts of personal debt while trying to expose wrongdoing, because the fees are so low. Some of the publications I write for have barely raised their rates since before the 2008 financial crisis.

And if we can stop universities becoming more like the media, it gives me hope that one day we can change the media too.

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