Art School Strikers Are Turning the Tide on Apathy

by Joe Hayns

12 March 2020

Charles Hutchins /Flickr

Last week, the largest room in central London’s Conway Hall began to fill with people who work together and, in many cases, have known each other for years – but were meeting together as a particular set of workers for the first time.

Mainly spread through newly-started WhatsApp groups, the invitation included no details except a time and a place, yet it drew around 50 art school workers from the Royal College of Art (RCA), University of the Arts London (UAL), the Courtauld Institute of Art, Goldsmiths, and the Slade School of Fine Art. Most of the group attending the meeting – titled ‘Art schools on strike – a reflection on strategies’ – have been on strike since 20 February as part of the largest work stoppage in higher education history.

Despite the ambiguous application of the term ‘art school’, which has no particular basis either in law or in HE-wide institutions, the phrase is used almost spontaneously by the people who work in them. The term suggests a type of university, and perhaps a set of types who work in them. But what those types are – and what their potential is, beyond the clichés – is being newly posed as art school workers begin to organise laterally across their institutions.

Four fights.

The University and College Union’s Four Fights campaign is possibly less well-known than the union’s long-running pensions dispute (also known as the USS dispute), but while the pensions dispute involves only pre-1992 institutions, the Four Fights campaign is sector-wide. In reality, the campaigns are related, with many universities currently striking for both.

It’s not that the four fights – against low pay, casualisation, gender and ethnicity pay-gaps, and workload – are themselves new, but creating a strike strategy around them has taken time, particularly at art schools.

At the RCA, a turning point was in 2016. “Management restructured the only union rep out of the job,” says Kevin Biderman, vice-chair of the UCU branch. “He was the head of a programme, well-respected, and from a working-class background. He still drove a bus once a week.”

A 2016 UCU report on precarious work showed the RCA using a sector-worst 90% casualised staff; while white job applicants were twice as likely to be hired as BME people. A worker from UAL told Novara Media the RCA has a reputation among art schools for “trying to turn the place into a Deliveroo-style university”.

“The exploitation has become so clear,” says Biderman. “The fact students are paying such huge fees and we have some of the lowest pay in the sector is ridiculous. There’s been a class cleansing at the RCA – students and staff.”

In October 2018, a pay ballot returned 75% in favour of strike action at the RCA, but on a 35% turnout – falling short of the 50% threshold now required to take industrial action. UAL – by far the biggest arts university in London, with six colleges – was 81% in favour on a 30% turnout, almost exactly the same as Falmouth University. The Courtauld Institute and Brighton University both passed the 50% threshold, but were two of only eight to do so out of the 147 HE branches balloted.

Nationally, the ballot appeared to reveal that while a third of the union’s membership were ready to strike, and the majority were disengaged. A subsequent ballot was aggregated in the hope that strong turnouts in well-organised branches would raise the national average about the crucial 50% threshold. In February 2019, the result showed 70% in favour of strike action, but on a national turnout of 41%.

Negotiations between UCU and the University and College Employers’ Association continued, but a marginally improved offer was met with disappointment and concern. In May, delegates to UCU’s annual congress voted for a further ballot on precarious employment, pay inequality, workload and salary erosion in the HE sector. In June, the union set out its timetable for a third ballot of members, this time disaggregated; the logic being that strike-ready branches would be able to do so while branches that narrowly fell short could be re-balloted.

When the result was returned in October, 52 branches surpassed the 50% threshold – a vast improvement on the result a year earlier – including Brighton University, the Courtauld and Glasgow School of Art. A national turnount of 49% vindicated the decision to disaggregate, but hardly any art schools were able to join the first round of joint USS-Four Fights strikes in late November, the majority having fallen short of the turnout required.

New energy.

“Yeah, the October result was really very disappointing,” says David Morris, who became a branch rep at UAL’s Central Saint Martins just as the university’s 34% turnout was announced.

Branch activists had seen three failed pay ballots in under two years. Over the same time, the strength of the pensions campaign had transformed pre-1992 branches, and even ushered in a new union leadership. The disappointment prompted fresh attempts to organise across London’s arts schools through November and December, particularly at the RCA and two of UAL’s colleges, Central Saint Martins and Camberwell.

“This time new people came forward,” says Kyran Joughin, secretary of UAL’s UCU branch. “That’s the most encouraging change, people who are quite a lot younger coming through.”

“What happened hadn’t happened before, people said. [A] concerted push across UAL, putting a lot of energy into it – weekly phone banking and emailing,” adds Morris.

On 26 November, UCU announced a re-ballot. Union members at the RCA soon set about transforming an atmosphere of near-desperation. The ballot was one reason; another, says Biderman, was “the historic defeat of the left in parliament”.

“There were a lot of people who put a lot of energy into that and didn’t get what they wanted,” he says. “And some of them said, ‘we’ve got these ways of pooling labour for political purposes, let’s try and aim this at our own institution’.”

“The members list was totally out of date, so the [RCA] branch built a traffic light system: red for no contact, orange for maybe, green for voted. It was an admin job.”

“All I did really was send out emails, communicating the issues, and talked to my colleagues and students,” says Margherita Huntley, who became the rep for Camberwell College of Arts last autumn. “Get to know people, hold meetings, that kind of stuff. To be honest, I don’t think a lot of members knew what the Four Fights were. The number of people at meetings went up.”

The effort across November and December was driven by a set of stronger personalities, all with a new energy. Many had built experience supporting the IWGB and UVW unions, as well as Unison’s anti-outsourcing campaign at UAL. Others knew each from a loose collection of activist groups, some with an arts or education focus. The Conway Hall meeting was part-organised by Antiuniversity.

The campaign worked. On 29 January, UCU announced that the RCA had achieved 90% in favour of strike action on a massive 73% turnout, while UAL reached 82% in favour with 54% voting. Art school workers across London would finally join the USS-Four Fights strike wave from 20 February.

Particular baggage.

Notwithstanding the successes of a winter’s organising, questions remain about the challenges of trade unionism in art schools. Why had UAL needed to re-ballot at all? Why had the RCA’s membership list – basic administration – needed so much work? Why had routine branch activism been so low in many cases? The meeting at Conway Hall was the first time UAL, RCA and Goldsmiths UCU members had met together as art school workers. What took them so long?

The absence of an existing, formalised art school network seems all the stranger for the fact that many of its likely members are already known to each other through their own art practices and the art industry’s institutions, from living-room shows to auction houses.

There’s a sense, only tentative, amongst activists that it’s this second arena – outside of higher education – that remains the more important one for their colleagues.

“There’s a feeling that that’s their identity – their actual work,” says Jenny Warren, a branch rep at Central Saint Martins.

Joughin echoes the point. “Lots of people don’t want to see themselves as teachers, or at least don’t want to get more and more drawn into the admin side of lecturing.”

Activists note that a weaker identification with HE among art school workers appear to have compounded with managers’ drive for casualisation, which, says Joughin, “is ten grand a year cheaper [because] you don’t have to pay out-of-term time.”

“Fractions [of full-time employment] can be useful for having your own practice,” Joughin continues, “and management need people who they can hire and fire – ‘squashable’ people.”

“They don’t want to commit to a salaried, permanent contract when they can use the ‘filler’ approach of covering posts in a shrink-and-grow, wait-and-see pattern. Casualised staff – ‘valued staff’, of course – are used almost like expanding foam.”

Morris says even if there is “a particular baggage to the creative worker”, ultra-casualisation appears to be “very much a management strategy.”

“‘This is what you wanted [they say], this flexibility to pursue your creative ambition’ – but no one wants to be working unpaid days, to be completely stressed out, to be knackered all the time from these totally unreasonable demands.”

In a recent open letter to students, casualised staff  at UAL wrote: “Universities can’t claim casual contracts to be a lifestyle choice either: 97% of respondents [to a UCU survey] on a fixed-term contract said that they would rather be on a permanent contract.”

Perhaps the 3% who don’t want a permanent contract are all art school workers; Hornsey School teacher and New Leftist Tom Nairn once remarked upon a tendency for artists to see themselves as “an elite set apart from society by the mysterious inner fire”. Is there something about the mindset of artistic practice that works against trade union organising?

“There may be a grain of truth to those clichés about artists,” says Morris. Yet here in Conway Hall, strikers from art schools are gathered to question the relationship between art, education and labour – not as a theoretical exercise, but as an industrial force.

A new dynamic.

The Four Fights dispute has shone the brightest light in years, perhaps ever, on how workers across British art schools and departments view themselves, their work, and trade unions.

The personalities and politics that have been illuminated are varying; UAL managers know that some colleges have much weaker pickets than others. Indeed, some courses – even whole colleges – have been largely unaffected. One striking worker reports colleagues having “approached the strike individualistically”.

Counteracting that takes care. Jess Baines, secretary of the London College of Communication UCU branch, explains: “Understanding how vital it is to have [a] presence on the picket, to stand behind the action of striking – that really had to be built over the course of the strike.”

A lack of understanding isn’t peculiar to art schools or their ‘temperament’; pickets are weak because of the restrictions placed upon them. “We’re not allowed to block entrances; we’re not allowed to use the word ‘scab’,” says Baines. But were it not for the 50% threshold brought in by the Trade Union Act, numerous art schools would have struck following the original October 2018 ballot.

Activists are aware of the need to push a new dynamic beyond 13 March, when this round of strikes ends. “We need to be aggressive in moving forward, in building after Friday,” says Warren. Part of that effort will involve collaborating across universities against the Evolving Goldsmiths project – its ‘UALisation’, as UAL activists are calling it, following their own restructuring over the course of 2017.

“We still have people who are interested in what we could salvage from art practice and research, and various forms of critical thinking,” says Biderman. “Management, the other side, is really trying hard to stop those. That’s the fight.”

Joe Hayns is an arts worker.

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