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Thursday, 20 February 2020

Why I am striking and why we need to up our game

The more that universities are marketised and viewed as businesses, the more bureaucratic and instrumental they become – staff become ‘human capital’, figures on an excel spreadsheet in terms of research grant income brought in, while students become customers and consumers, income data points, especially if they are international students.
The more that universities seek to treat education as a commodity, the more they need bureaucratic structures to regulate and oversee the functioning of an effective ‘competitive’ system.  And part of this is what we see QUB doing, investing in buildings not staff, extortionately priced student accommodation (but ..with ‘free wifi’!) – FFS
The ‘four fights’ of our current industrial action are simply symptoms of this deeper issue.  So let’s be radical in the proper sense of the term in getting to the ‘root’ of the issue…and us taking the step of strike action is a very significant step in the right direction of getting to the root of the problem of higher education.
But we have a problem…we’re too polite… too orthodox in how we’re engaging in industrial action… too few of us picket and picketing is not near enough what is needed in my view, we don’t call out scabs or really ensure that ‘this university is closed’.
This round and the previous round of strike action has really made me think about the uniqueness of our jobs….our most effective weapons, namely strike action and action short of strike, mostly either damage ourselves or students.  In ‘downing tools’ and picketing, we choose not to engage in both teaching (the bit that gets the most media attention – hence all the ‘student vs staff’ narratives) but less attention is given to our research (something we all love), reading, writing and thinking.   So here, for those of us who are academics, strike action of course damages our careers, promotion prospects, joy in our job etc.  It’s the strange nature of the creative, self-directed and (partially) autonomous work we do.  Not only do we lose wages, like most other workers who go on strike, we have this extra sacrifice.
And then there is of course the impact of strike action on our students… like any form of service work, the removal of our labour means other people suffer.  There’s no way around this whether you’re a nurse, care worker, lecturer or librarian.  And our employers know this, hence their constant attempts to turn students against us, exacerbated of course because while from our point of view they are our students and learners on our modules, where we are trying to open their minds to new ideas and opportunities to enhance their understanding, for management they are simply fee paying customers who have paid for a ‘student experience’.  So while we offer them challenging intellectual exercises, management offer them ‘free Wi-Fi’ for over-priced student accommodation.  All of us who have taken the brave decision to come out on strike know the impact of this on our students.  The scabs amongst us have neither the wit to join the union, guts to sacrifice wages and ensure the sheer inconvenience of strike action.  And not to mention the temporary (and always partial) suspension of the innate impulse amongst every academic to think, read and pursue research, nor the guts to stand in front of a class and explain to them why you are taking strike action, and how angry and sad this makes you feel knowing how it hurts students, and that you will do everything to ensure that you not being there for lectures, seminars, tutorials, supervision sessions, office hours, answering emails, phone calls or texts?  We are the ones who will take ‘mitigating measures’ to ensure students are not disadvantaged because of us being forced into strike action not management!!! And these are the ‘colleagues’ who will benefit from any success of our strike action and work in withdrawing our labour.  No wonder I call them scabs…. 
But what about management, our employers?  How does our strike action affect them, and not our students or ourselves (or relations between colleagues)?  Here we need more thinking….standing in front of the main ‘entrance’ which is not an entrance at all, is simply not enough… handing out leaflets …. Is not enough… accepting so few UCU members are joining the picket line…is not enough… we are too reasonable…
We are smart people… let’s think of way to disrupt management in general and the VC in particular in the coming weeks ahead…. I personally volunteer o drink his wine cellar dry but there has to be lots of other things we can do to disrupt him and senior management in the next 3 weeks… let’s have a meeting to discuss possible actions would be my suggestion…
I’m reminded here of the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who noted that the reasonable person adapts themselves to the world while the unreasonable person adapts the world to themselves.  Therefore he concludes all progress depends on the reasonable person… well comrades it’s time for us to get fucking unreasonable … and aim our action at those who deserve – and just to be clear that is neither ourselves or our students… enough of being polite…time to get creative and militant… why don’t we invite our students to join us on the picket line, have ‘teach ins’ in allocated module times on the strike and related issues, consider occupying buildings and lecture theatres to prevent and disrupt the delivery of the QUB strike contingency management plan, put ourselves on the line, call out the scabs, and for the privileged amongst us, namely professors, to lead the way and take the flack.
Anyhow, some thoughts from #Day1 of our action…  I stand and cycle in solidarity with all my striking colleagues!
John Barry, Professor, cyclist, proud UCU member and recovering politician…

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