In light of the ongoing UCU strikes, Charlie Macnamara asks university workers taking industrial action for the first time to reflect on their experience.
PhD student and tutor at Exeter University.
It was a difficult decision to go on strike. I’ve been a trade union member for over a decade and am a firm believer that striking is a basic human right, but also love teaching my students and doing my research. I think it’s this love of our work that UUK thought would mean we’d not come out on strike. Personally, the financial impact is also going to put me in a really tricky position.
It was hard enough for me to make the decision to go to university in the first place. I’m a working class student and neither of my parents went to university, we struggled to find money to cover fees and living costs already when they were at the lower rate. If I was starting out now, I don’t know if I’d have gone.
The strike is not just about pensions – it’s also about neoliberalism creeping into the academy. The logic of subjecting pensions to market forces is the same one that drove the rise in tuition fees which I and many of my colleagues opposed back in 2010. The only way we can take a stand is if we withdraw our labour. It’s the only leverage we have. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, when it should be a public good and accessible to anyone.
The increasing casualisation of academic labour is also a major concern for me – working conditions are becoming more and more precarious, especially for early career scholars. But if we can fight and win on the pensions issue, we can organise and fight on broader issues too. This should just be the start of a rethinking of how we want the academy to be.
Gareth Davies, student support advisor at Cardiff University.
I’m 56 and this is the first time I’ve gone on strike. I joined the UCU on the first day of strike action and have been on the picket line every day. I didn’t realise that being a revolutionary would involve a lot of standing around, but it’s allowed me time to take a step back from my normal work routine and meet staff who I may not have met otherwise.
I’ve worked in student support for 20 years and was worried about how colleagues and students might react to me going on strike and not being available to support students in need. I wrote a pamphlet to give to colleagues explaining my reasons for taking strike action. Their response has been very supportive. Many colleagues feel similarly aggrieved by the pension issue and have taken time to stop and chat while I’ve been on the picket line.
What’s struck me most is the indifference shown by university management to our concerns, the lack of understanding about why we are angry at the threat to our pensions and what is happening to how our universities are run.
Contrastingly, I’ve felt galvanised and inspired talking to staff and students on the picket line who really care about the future of our universities. The current scattergun model of management often leaves me feeling overwhelmed rather than engaged. It doesn’t allow space for reflection and can lead to feelings of anxiousness and insecurity. The tension between how we work and how we feel about our work is made worse by PR hyperbole where the impression of what’s happening is more important than what’s actually happening. This has the effect of making me feel like it’s my fault that my wellbeing is affected. The pension issue has opened up a space to talk about these wider concerns. It would be great if management would take time not just to hear but to listen.
Angelo, postdoctoral researcher at Warwick University.
I finished my PhD in physics in September, so this is the first full-time job I’ve held for more than a few months. By the end, I was pretty disillusioned with academia, as many postgrads are. But, having gotten back in the lab, I started to remember what I love about my work and was beginning to think I could sacrifice some stability early in my career if it meant doing work I enjoy.
When I saw that UUK were so flagrantly gutting the pension scheme, I felt I had no choice but to join the UCU and go on strike. If I spend the rest of my career on a USS pension scheme I face a 55% cut in my pension. If they thought they could get away with it, they’d try to do the same with our current wages. Instead, they’ve attacked our future wages, thinking we won’t take a stand.
My working conditions are fairly good. Of course, there are the common problems associated with working in academia – the hours can be very long and weekend working is often required. However, you have a high degree of flexibility and are afforded a lot of creative freedom in terms of your day to day work that, as a physicist, I wouldn’t get in the private sector. As a researcher I don’t officially have teaching responsibilities like I did as a PhD student. Although in reality, I end up being heavily involved with the supervision of undergraduate students undertaking their final year thesis projects in our lab. You end up doing a lot of work that you are not actually paid for.
Being on strike is weird. On the one hand, the atmosphere’s fun on the picket lines; everyone is welcoming, there are dogs, and you get to speak to people from departments you wouldn’t normally interact with. On the other, it’s been a ferociously cold winter and you’re not being paid. I go home feeling guilty. There are low levels of participation amongst physicists and I’m the only person from my research group to go on strike, which makes me feel like I am letting the team down.
I stand at the picket lines as an expression of solidarity. But I’m doing so at significant expense to my group’s research. That can have a big impact on the prospect of me having a career as a physicist at this critical stage in my career. I’m working on a one year project and need to have something to show for it in order to boost the slim chances I have of making it as an academic. The financial burden of going on strike is also difficult, and we don’t know how much support the union will give us. I’ve heard of many early career researchers who feel they cannot join the strike for these reasons.
Juliana Gerard, lecturer at Ulster University in Northern Ireland.
For me, going on strike seemed like the only way to stop the proposed changes to the pension scheme. I felt there would be no realistic way for changes to be negotiated other than by the union leadership. But if I’m relying on the union leadership to take care of that side of the issue, then it’s on me to go on strike for there to be any power behind the negotiations.
Communicating with students has been rough. I do feel bad that I have not been able to teach, and it’s not easy to get that message out sincerely in an email saying “sorry everyone, class is still cancelled”. But those who have been telling students it’s unfair of us to cancel classes and other services are missing the bigger picture. The proposed changes to the pensions have a lot more of a potential to be disruptive than any action we take.
My workplace is pretty great. I could not ask for more supportive colleagues in my work, and I get to teach and research the topics I want. But the pension changes would mean I would have to leave academia or the UK.
Knowing that it’s not only current university staff who will have to deal with the outcome of this strike, but also current students who will be our colleagues in the future helps put the “disruption” in perspective and makes me feel an extra layer of responsibility.
The most surprising thing to me about the dispute has been how much of it has played out on Twitter. I wasn’t on the picket lines at first, but seeing the momentum build online helped. Another factor was the local union representation, which has been present throughout.
An early career lecturer at Sussex University.
Every lecturer feels fortunate to be teaching and researching in fields we love. Yet we face deteriorating working conditions which puts the quality of students’ teaching at risk. Workloads are increasing year on year, and increasing proportions of teaching are going to workers on precarious short-term contracts. Marketization is not delivering a healthy higher education sector for any student or teacher. Lecturers are striking about pensions, but we are also sending a wider message contesting the marketization of higher education. This is why support from students here has been so strong.
The atmosphere on the picket lines has been exhilarating. We’ve stood (and jumped around!) through snow and rain. We have already seen some effects from the strike: negotiations between UCU and UUK have resumed, and our university management backed down on its original policy to deduct pay for non-strike days during which we work to contract (“action short of strike”). The toughest part of the strike is that every one of us misses our students and wants to be back in the classroom.
Alex Kendrick, PhD student and teacher at Liverpool University.
I became a UCU member as soon as I became a PhD student and started teaching on a zero hours contract in November last year. When talks of strike action were announced and the ballot went out, I voted in favour and started learning about changes to the pension system and their implications.
I’m not currently paying into a pension. I’m living on a stipend and anything extra I earn from teaching on top of that. For me, striking means something slightly different than it does to members of staff on full-time contracts. Besides teaching hours, I set my own schedule. So in practice it’s meant not going into the office, resisting the urge to catch up on work outside of this time and not helping out with any teaching or seminars that I was supposed to be doing during the strike period. The ‘work to contract’ clause does not specifically apply to me because of this, so it’s been interesting trying to negotiate strike action on this basis.
Normally, I watch full-time staff working through their weekends; see their office lights on when I arrive at uni in the morning and way after I’ve left. The pressures are insane; the other day one of my supervisors tweeted about how the strikes have given a good opportunity to talk about working over contract, which has become the norm in this sector.
I was out on the picket line on the very first day of strike action, and am striking for the full 14 days. It’s really important that staff at all levels get out on strike and on the picket lines, standing shoulder to shoulder against UUK. I’ll be losing pay from this, but given my current situation I have fewer payments and responsibilities resting on my wages than some of the other staff members on strike, and that means it feels really important to be out supporting them and keeping morale high.
Given that I’m somewhere in-between a student and staff member, I’ve been able to be out on the picket lines with staff and getting involved in student activity on campus, including an occupation of UUK president Janet Beer’s private suite. It’s been great to see students getting involved and rightly directing their anger at management rather than staff. On the first day, someone from senior management came down to try and break up the picket line because a lot of students had brought their own signs and were joining in. A lot of respect has been lost for university management based on how they’ve treated us. Though the picket line’s been cold, there’s been an infectious feeling of solidarity on campus, between staff members, but also staff-student solidarity, which is something I haven’t really seen before.