What the strikes have taught me so far…

I had never been on a picket line until the USS strikes. It was a terrifying – and very lonely decision to take – to be on strike for 12 days (alas I was ill for the first 2 of the full 14). I took courage from friends and colleagues striking at other universities (especially @amy_ryall in Sheffield and @rotster in Leicester), but I had no idea what my own colleagues would think (and still don’t – I have been the only one striking from my department – the Sainsbury Centre at UEA).

I was consciously leaving piles of work behind (some of it already delayed due to large workload), at a time when I was already incredibly stressed and dealing with things at work beyond the remit of my contract. I was leaving unsupported the team I manage. I was not doing things – my own CPD for example – that ultimately would have left me better off. I was not communicating with colleagues on the management team, including my own line manager. I took striking, withdrawing my labour – not doing any work and consequently not being paid – very seriously. I did not check my work emails, or even use the time for ‘work-related’ research and writing. I have been completely on strike. And it has been stressful.

But as time has gone on, I have understood more and more why this has been important. More and more why this has been the single most significant thing I have done in my post, and beyond it. After years in universities (Birmingham, Cambridge, Leicester), as a student and now working in one (UEA), I couldn’t *not* have gone on strike. What was the point of all that education, of everything I have fought for up to this point, if I didn’t demonstrate and practice what I preach? Fairness and justice.

So – why? The strike began as a pension dispute about a change from a defined benefit system, to that of defined contribution, and a potential loss of £10k per year, or £200k in retirement. Money which is deferred payment for work already done and promised through our contracts, but that was effectively going to be taken from us. This affects worst those setting out in their careers, those on zero-hour AT contracts, those who are still students. Those whose current posts are precarious.

About six weeks ago, I had no idea what DB/DC really even meant, let alone all the other pension details I’ve learnt about, or at least come to recognise, so quickly. And then things began to unfold and crumble in front of us. Thanks to some fantastic academics and journalists, especially on Twitter (@DrJoGrady, @ProfAFinlayson, @JosephineCumbo, @mikeOtsuka, @jntod) things were unpicked very rapidly. The pension valuation was based on dodgy maths. We discovered that the process for voting to accept the valuation was undemocratic, and the number/type of people who had signed it all off was fudged. That Oxford and Cambridge colleges had been counted bizarrely and wrongly. That tiny institutions were part of USS and having the same weight as massive universities. We witnessed a farce on twitter late one night with regard to negotiating meetings with UUK not having a clue what they were doing. And to cut a long story very short, a proposal was eventually put on the table. It was rubbish (check the pension calculator to see how – meaning paying in more and getting less from it, and also including having to reschedule teaching lost by striking – unpaid). There was despondency. It was a horrible day or two of waiting and wondering. Really horrible. There was self-doubt. Despair. But the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. By all of us. #NoCapitulation

Numerous twitter streams and blogs explain all this far better than I do. So instead of analysing things I don’t fully understand, here’s a list of some of the things I have learnt – lessons for life:

1) Solidarity

I haven’t met so many amazing, interesting, wonderful, friendly people since starting my job 18 months ago. Despite working at UEA, I have never felt such a part of the university. It’s been far better than any one to one meeting, or networking scenario, or trying to work out who does what in which department, when I’ve been to meetings in other buildings on campus. It has been real. Social. Political. Dynamic. Passionate. Coffee-fuelled. Baking-shared. With dogs. And singing. And snow. Gather a group together who are fighting for the future of education and this is what happens. We are the university.

2) The union makes us strong

It does. I had only just joined the union (actually not because of the strikes, but because the safety and unity of membership is important). I am in awe of how I was welcomed in. In awe of the hard work done on our behalf by the union reps and staff and all those working hard to share the latest updates (thank you Brett, Claudina, Trevor, Amanda et al.) We all share a common purpose and a common goal. Strength in unity. And strength in number. And it’s across the whole country. We are part of a big thing. Solidarity with university workers we will never meet, but feel united in this. I watched ‘Pride’ last night and felt it. We are the university.

3) Not just lecturers

This has been a very important rallying cry. Universities are all their people. Not just lecturers or academics, but people working in public engagement, libraries, museums, archives, professional services, teaching and learning, administrators etc etc (and huge apologies to those I have missed). I am only sad that membership of UCU is not open to staff on pay-bands below Grade 6 (I think?), as this meant that many of my colleagues at the Sainsbury Centre who may have supported the strike otherwise could not join in. (This tells me both that my colleagues need to be paid much better but also that the union might rethink its membership criteria so that it’s not so lonely on the picket line for a museum professional?) The support from ATs, PhD and other students has been particularly incredible, often losing their entire earnings to strike. We are the university.

4) Students are absolutely amazing

‘Their working experience is our learning experience’ as many inspiring students shouted, amongst many other brilliant statements on the picket line. Students came forth in their thousands. With messages of support. With banners. With Students’ Unions issuing statements in support of the strike up and down the country. And then they started occupying. Calling out the overpaid VCs with their pornstar martinis. Demanding meetings. Demanding fairness. Demanding what it was that they had come to university for. I will never forget the powerful speeches by students Michael Kyriacou and @MaddieColledge. We are the university.

5) Twitter is transformative

I’m a bit addicted to Twitter at the best of times. But this was something else. The speed at which new news emerged, was shared. Statistics were pulled apart. Documents were analysed in real time by world leading experts – for free, and in their own time. Because this is important. But also we saw Dame Lego VC, the Solidarity Dinosaur, fabulous, funny, creative people doing fabulous, funny, creative things with social media. People began sharing more widely. Their stresses and worries and what it was like to work in their situation, talking openly beyond the pension crisis, and to the general state of being overworked and under-valued, with ridiculous systems and metrics to judge us, from REF/TEF/impact, to cultures of bullying and being stressed and being expected to work 50+ hour weeks. We had conversations on and offline. We made new virtual friends. We are the university.

6) Remember this

Space and time for just chatting to each other is vital. We need to recreate, and ensure this interdisciplinary, interdepartmental socialising, idea-sharing and change-making continues. The creativity shown by so many was inspirational. Banners made. Slogans, puns, fabulous statements of support and rejecting the lies we’ve been fed. One of the highlights at UEA was that Jon McGregor refused to cross the picket line for a lecture, and instead, the Students’ Union held a wonderful ‘Writers for the Strike’ event – with Jon McGregor, Rebecca Scott, James Meek and inspiring words from students. There was the alternative university every day. Coming together for a rally. For rousing speeches, not just by politicians, but by students. Who gave the best speeches by far. Going to the pub together. New friends. Rabbits of resistance. We are the university.

7) University museums are the university

Yet it seems as though university museums currently sit somewhere between. Or even, sadly. apart. I was the only one from my university museum striking. It was lonely. But I discovered many others in university museums elsewhere (through twitter) who were on strike. It is not helpful for us to sit outside the university as some would have us do. We sit in a boundary space – not entirely academics, not entirely professional services – we teach, we research, we work with the public, we develop object-based learning. We are asked both to conform to the university (e.g. through REF processes), yet we are somehow set outside it. What can we learn from this? And what will happen (for example through the University Museums Group) as a result? We are the university.

8) Pension cuts hit women most

And in the sadly male dominated museum patriarchy – where most museum workers are women, but most museum directors are men, this is all the more disturbing. In that sense, it was a joy to be on the university picket line which seemed more balanced in terms of gender than the average museum (although I know the patriarchy is alive and well in universities too). But women will suffer the most from the pension cut proposals. And I learnt about Athena Swan, and wonder why we haven’t talked about it at the Sainsbury Centre yet. We will now. We are the university.

9) Marketisation

This is all part of a wider picture. Privatisation. Brexit. Trump. Where education is a commodity and not seen as having intrinsic value. Where it is something to be bought. A culture of students as consumer versus rest of the university as service provider. This makes me feel sick. Where privatisation means that there are more and more people struggling. Where VC pay goes up and up and the empire is worth more than the staff. This is not what education is. We are the university.

10) Strikes work

See what we have done already? It’s amazing. It’s not too late to join UCU (or whatever union you can join) and fight for what is right. The fight continues.

See you on the picket line. #NoCapitulation #wearetheuniversity

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3 thoughts on “What the strikes have taught me so far…

  1. Pingback: USS Strike: A list of blog posts and resources | Anthony Wilson

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