Why I went on strike yesterday. #ucustrike

(photocredit from UCU Action Live)

Yesterday I was on the University and Colleges Union (UCU) picket-line at DMU from 8-12, protesting in solidarity with other institutions around issues of pay and pensions. Up until last week, I didn’t know I could be part of the UCU due to the nature of my sessionality (I work part time, in different roles, at several institutions) and the fact that I only get paid hourly (limited support for holidays, limited support for sickness – I just go without a wage in January) – I’m also a “funded” PhD student (on a half bursary which certainly doesn’t increase with the cost of living) so essentially could define myself as a ‘freelance’ lecturer/researcher. In fact, somebody once suggested that I register as a contracter and deal with universities as if I was an outsider, billing them for my time and outputs (not a route that I wished to go down) – a cash-in hand academic.

I am a student and a part time lecturer and exactly the type of person who (when I finish my PhD) be expected to work in an academic institution where the students will be carrying a burden of debt larger than I could ever imagine taking on myself (even if when I was 16 I had an idea what higher education actually might be), where my subject area and research interests will be considered unprofitable by the ‘market’ and all these bonkers, and frankly transformative experiences which have made me who I am during my PhD will be considered as disruptive and out-of-place as any other commerial, private business I’ve worked for in the past. My postgraduate survey asks me (on behalf of the position that my university will suffer in the ranks if I do not fill it out) if I my institution’s postgraduate degree has (finally) prepared me for the world of the work system. Tick a box. Agree or disagree. Nothing else. This is before I even get into the issue of what I get paid, what I prepare for the future and what rights I’ll have in this new world.

But with support from my colleagues, I found out that not only could I join the union, but also UCU offered a wide range of support and action around people like myself who exist between the cracks of the institution (which is not always a bad thing – I get a lot of ‘freedom’ to explore things that I wouldn’t get to do if I was tied to just one place) – union support is just not built into the literature that comes with a monthly time-sheet where I am expected to quantify the amount of time I spent thinking about stuff that I deliver in the classroom into 3 or 4 hour chunks. I guess it is also worth noting that none of my family have been in unions (all but a small minority have worked in the private sector) and my involvement in Scottish student politics got as far as a NHS woman’s conference where I didn’t feel like I identified with enough -isms to contribute to the (same old?) organisational structure of the event.

Not only did I feel like it was my duty to strike, to withdraw myself from the labour market for the day (although what does an academic do when it is on strike?) I felt that it was my duty to make explicit my concerns about the future of the university and higher education. Or society in general. Who knows? As I said before, I have no experience of striking, nobody in my family ever has (so I can’t ask them), I had no idea what to expect nor what to do – and reached my decision on my own consensus based on the thoughts I’ve been having for a long time (yet possible struggled to articulate) Working through my PhD research which was orginially framed in the context of transformative work practices of creative industry workers (thanks to digital technology) and the conflicting nature of mega media events have on the transformation and privatisation of space under the guise of ‘solidarity’ and (potentially) psuedo-philosophical concepts has led me here (and should help me finally articulate my first chapter – I’m obsessed with the purpose of the university in the whole of this madness. Embedded research, removed from institution, crossing between environments, shutters coming down, technology as an enabler – it frames the whole thesis, it is to even be a considered a hardback beyond the viva anyway..)

So strike I did – and I listened to the excuses and the apoligises for the people who decided to cross the picket line. Some were like me, and identified as freelancers – who had travelled miles to teach one class a week, others didn’t agree with what we were doing (but didn’t articulate exactly why – they didn’t have to), some had arranged ‘guest speakers’ who could only speak on the same day as national union action (did you really need the university building spread your message, probably), some thought it was a selfish act, some didn’t agree because they had essays or lectures or work they needed to be doing – they wanted their university education. The line was symbolic – but gave me an idea that the world that I was feared might come has always been here – just I didn’t feel so alone in it. My pocket was buzzing from support towards the third university, many other universities were tweeting about their solidarity, students were occupying and for once the physicality of the environment did not matter. It did not matter if people felt they had to take an important phone call as they passed us – avoiding eye contact, it did not matter when a young girl shouted at us for handing her a leaflet about the strikes or when others blogged about why they weren’t striking (using terms like selfish and dissapointing towards the action of the UCU)  as or many years we’ve expected to put up and shut up around the situations which are local to, that we are phsyically attached to, the person we live and work beside – and if they don’t agree, then it is time to quieten down and accept that things have to change in the way that is dominant. We have instruments such as the mainstream media to provide us with those community experiences and group concenseus on topics, with the news focusing on football and celebrities before social unease (unless it involves “troublemakers”) – the media is an educational tool and anybody that questions that purpose is participating in an act of soft pointlessness.

 

So why did I strike really? When I called my mum on the drive up to Scotland last night, I said I did it because I want to show that I appreciate the help and support they’ve given me to allow me to be in the position I am in order to make decisions about my position in the system (where there struggles may have been around different contexts) and that I want to stand beside anybody who believes that the privatisation of spaces which exist for transformative good is intrinsicly wrong. I’m also about alternatives and how we can use what is available to us in order to achieve great things – so perhaps the symbolic nature of protecting the building in which the university is housed is not the right action (although powerful in its device to communicate unease) From now on, I will be there without question – regardless of how much stuff I need to catch up on.

 

Under my watch, I want to pass on whatever the hell somebody passed on to me to make me feel this way about the world (not what I think about the world – there are no experts), something I’ve always felt uncomfortable with in the past but now beginning to accept is part of who I am. You have to be a particular type of crazy to reject the system as it stands, but I like it.