Picket Line Perspectives

Picket Line Perspectives

Universities across the UK are taking part in the current UCU strike action over pay, pensions, and poor working conditions. On day 8 of the 10-day strike, three striking historians give us the view from picket lines across the country.

Rosie Hampton, a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Glasgow. She tweets at @rosiehampton_

As a PhD student and a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA), whether to take strike action is both the easiest and hardest decision to make, financially and emotionally. We are often some of the most junior academic staff – we potentially have the longest road ahead of us in academia, if it’s there at all. To take action at this early stage is incredibly important, but simultaneously precarious.

After getting involved in the Get the Vote Out campaign, and as the GTA rep for the UCU Glasgow branch, I’d started to plan for the effects of industrial action for some time. I’d scaled back on certain costs, and mentally tried to prepare for the surreal, hyper-visibility I often feel in being transparent (and loud!) about taking direct, collective action against an employer. But I knew that, fuelled by awe-inspiring union comrades and the re-emerging student-staff organising, I would undoubtedly be taking an enthusiastic part in industrial action. Despite the associated anxieties, I was and am incredibly proud to be a UCU member. I took action joyfully before Christmas, and I am doing so again now.

That joy however prompted more hostility that I’d anticipated. One, more senior, union member “hated” my “cheerful-sounding” attitude to the strike, suggesting I was a “cosplay Corbynite.” The revealing disparity in job security between us aside, there is something gendered and insidious in suggesting that emotively expressing passion as a trade unionist makes me politically unserious. It replicates the same power structures that bosses weaponize to silence unions, disproportionately leveraged against those in the university further marginalised by race, class, gender, sexuality and disability. Therefore, “cheerful-sounding” organising is resistance in itself.

I don’t dismiss the difficulties of striking, I often feel them acutely – but I think finding the joy in the picket line encounters, the poster crafting, the wonderful acts of solidarity, is what sustains us.

Glasgow picket line. Credit: UCU Glasgow.

Sumita Mukherjee, Associate Professor of History at the University of Bristol. She tweets at @smukherjee_hist. 

Striking is hard; it creates anxiety, guilt and we lose pay. It can be very draining. I’ve been reminded again during this strike action of the solidarity of the picket line, how wonderful it has been to talk and engage with colleagues and students, but that the picket line is not the strike. Many colleagues on strike can’t attend the picket line but that doesn’t mean they’re not striking. The withdrawal of all our work for the university is the strike. But, in addition, our work as trade unionists continues beyond the days we strike.

I am reminded of the optimism I had during the 2018 UCU strikes about the power of the collective and the ways many of us thought we could reimagine the university. The solidarity was invigorating then and it felt that there was lots of support and openness around issues that are reflected in the current ‘four fights’ action – around precarity and gender, race and disability pay gaps. I look back at some of the things I said and wrote then but now I feel much more cynical about ‘Equality Diversity Initiatives.’ As a historian interested in issues of representation and identity, in issues of race and gender, I am acutely aware of silences around these issues. At my branch rally on the day we started the ‘four fights’ strike action, for example, I was disappointed that out of all the speakers from my branch, none were people who identify as women or racialised as black or an ethnic minority. Yes, they may have had such representatives at other rallies but the work of feminism, anti-racism, collectivism is to constantly be aware and to do better.

I have also seen the ways in which my own department continue to fail to systematically address issues of representation. I have seen the ways in which far-right sympathies, or racialised and gendered bullying against colleagues has been ignored and rewarded. As a trade unionist and a woman of colour, I get frustrated because I see the wonderful placards and signs of solidarity on the picket line, and I appreciate the huge sacrifices colleagues are taking to undertake strike action, and yet I feel the heavy weight of silence around some of the issues we are striking about when we return to the workplace and get bogged down by catching up on marking, research and our individual endeavours. I know that many colleagues are simply unaware of some of these problems.

I don’t wish to be cynical or critical, but also think we should be honest and reflective about the tangible ways we can improve the working conditions for our colleagues. I wonder where and when the often performative work of the picket line follows through into the greater awareness of the power we all have to speak ‘truth to power’ among our own colleagues – beyond social media – let alone to senior management teams who are happy to let us lose pay, sleep and morale over some fair demands for equality and fair pay now and in our retirement.

Bristol picket line. Credit: @SilviaEspinal8

Bethany Rebisz is a Lecturer in African History at the University of Bristol. She tweets at @BRebisz

While the idea of being on strike brings feelings of anguish, anxiety and frankly, depression, the atmosphere of a picket line can (albeit at times briefly) rewrite this with a strong sense of hope. Picket lines, historically, have been spaces whereby collective action and collective emotion is experienced in inspiring ways. For many historians, especially those of us who have recently finished their PhDs, we are used to being alone. In a study. With an often-blank document staring back at us. So being on a picket line is a unique opportunity to be with colleagues, peers, and comrades. To sing (badly). To dance (also badly). To natter. But most importantly, to imagine. To imagine how things could be different. To imagine our lives and futures in new and exciting ways. So, what if you are a precarious worker? What if you live 70 miles away from your institution because it is impossible to relocate every year at the end of your one-year teaching contract? This, all while knowing that you are set to lose half of your February salary. Knowing that a return train ticket to be on the picket line will cost you £50 (and that’s with a discount railcard!). Well, it means many can’t even experience the picket line. It means you can’t even be with your colleagues on each picket day to share this experience with the only people who truly understand your feelings towards it.

The irony of casualisation is not lost on me here. As we embark on strike action for UCU’s Four Fights, staff are striking for their job security with no economic security to travel to the picket lines. It is very easy then to feel disconnected from the fight. This feeling of disconnect then pops up in unexpected places, not least during the period of strike action when we are fighting to feel connected. But as ECR’s, feeling disconnected is nothing new to us. The ongoing casualisation of staff contracts in Higher Education has resulted in vast numbers of emerging scholars to feel disconnected from their institutions, their colleagues, and more worryingly, their futures. PhD students especially, are now doing more and more work for departments who will call them colleagues when there is some extra marking to be completed, but students when they are not invited to the staff Christmas party. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve now finished my PhD and work in a department that I love. A department that makes me feel welcomed, with colleagues who value my contributions. Sadly, there are many PhD students and ECRs fighting for their place in this system. The digital picket line has never been more important than it is in this current climate.

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