Teachers take part in the first national pay strike in 21 years, as they march through central London. Lewis Whyld/Press Association. All rights reserved.In an excellent reflection on the University and College Union (UCU) strike over changes to their USS pension scheme last week, Brendan McGeever illuminates the thread that connects some of the current strikers to the Millbank demonstrators of 2010: it’s basically the same people, and one could quite easily tell that this is the case by looking at the faces of many of those marching at the UCU demo in central London last week.
As we enter the second week of our strike, I think it is important to highlight another fact: the fact that many of us now fighting through the UCU and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ranks also carry histories of struggle elsewhere — histories that may clash with or complement struggles in this country.
I have been thinking over this in my intense ongoing discussions with international colleagues here and those back in Greece: discussions on the potential effectiveness of the strike, on the use of the picket line as a tactic, on the not-quite radical nature of the demands, on where each of us stands — or should stand — based on their line of work, on their capacity and their needs.
We have been amazed at the success of the picket line as a method, we have been wondering about the intense mix of solidarity (“I’ll strike even if the dispute does not affect me as much”) of sheer individualisation (“the strike does not concern me”) and straight-up, baffling contempt even for one’s self-interest (“I won’t strike, even if this will really screw me over”). We have been gazing with interest at the mainstream news, to see if they would go down the same route as they did in Greece during the peak of the anti-austerity struggles: shredding fair demands to bits, vying to position each social group in struggle against everyone else — in a race to the bottomless pit of apathy and individualisation.
And a lot of us have also been reflecting on our individual position in this collective struggle, reflecting on our place in the politics of the university as a whole.
It has been fairly common for some radical academics to treat their place of employment as a space that is apolitical-by-default: shielded from the “real” world, a somewhat neutral site where they can carry out their admittedly privileged labour and then take their whatever social or political struggles outside. To keep, in other words, the “radical” separate from the “academic”.
I am also thinking here of David Graeber’s old “scholar in New Haven, activist in New York” split-mindset, common among so many, which he had to confront at the moment when Yale decided they had had too much of his radical ways, whether on campus or not. For those of us with a reference to another social context — in my case, the political struggles in Greece — the divide has been much easier: we were quite literally saved by the geography of it all, which did the hard work of neatly dividing professional and political affinities on either side of national borders.
Until this strike came along...
Amazingly enough, it has been ten years from December’s 2008 uprising in Greece, and it feels surreal to be thinking and writing about a struggle of such a different nature a decade on. But at the same time, it feels like a seamless transition: December was about taking back control of our lives amidst the ever-destabilising force of late capitalism, shredding continuities in space and in time apart, disciplining us into compartmentalised individuals.
“No more discipline, life’s magical” — the slogan from these days has been singing in my head as I see colleagues laugh in the face of the absurd claims by the all-round absurdness that is university management. Ten years on, the UCU strike is pretty much exactly the same essential demand — making it all the more impressive as it strikes (excuse the pun) at such a different place and time.
Up until days before the December uprising, we would have thought it utterly impossible for those who took action to do so. We would have thought it inconceivable for that fascinatingly mixed amalgam to meet outside, in the streets. And what is fantastically breathtaking is that we would have never been able to see what was coming, not even the night before.
And now, today? Up until days before this strike, wouldn’t we still have thought it impossible to find connecting dots between ever-precarious, ever-individualised, ever-self driven and self-absorbed academics only fighting against the REF clock, only fighting off sleep in order to finish that one more article, that batch of marking?
Is this a revolt? No, of course it is not. But it is a welcome and refreshing reminder of something we had been too comfortable to forget, that social tension brews everywhere and it can burst into a struggle wherever the conditions are ripe, with zero notice. We never thought the university would be this kind of breeding ground… …until this strike came along.