The Strike That Made Me

Strike Syllabus

In February and March, 74 British universities are participating in UCU strike action over the sustainability of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and on universities’ failure to make significant improvements in equality, pay, casualisation and workloads.

Even though the success of the strike seems to depend on a substantial if uneven core of members, and the outcome is in the balance, one thing is clear: the widespread anger & frustration of staff and students about the day-to-day realities of university life. Once again, there is no part of universities now free from scrutiny. It is clear that grievances run through everyone involved as staff or students. On many counts, universities are seen to be failing those whom they are meant to serve. The glossier the PR, the more grievous and grubby the realities.

The anger of those driving the strike is palpable. As the anger deepens, the demands escalate. It feels like old-school, IWW/Wobbly syndicalism: place on the bargaining table the impossible, ask the impossible. Admirable though this is on many counts, it does not bode well for a resolution. It is not clear in these circumstances what a victory could entail. Expectations are high, realities unforgiving. With the collective energies released, dangers press in. The employers really don’t like the situation for which they are responsible. We’ve arrived at a critical juncture. The options are narrowing but there is all to fight for.

– Bill Schwarz, History Workshop Journal editor

History Workshop put out a call for contributions to a “strike syllabus”: texts (of all sorts) to inspire and galvanise; texts to stir righteous anger or provide necessary solace. David Hitchcock at Canterbury Christ Church writes: “this moment feels like a time for fundamentals, for books that shake up the basic assumptions we have not just about ourselves, or higher education, but about the whole damn game. It also feels like the right moment to read not ‘for work’, heads down, running breathless towards yet another excellence exercise, but perhaps, because of the work we do instead.”

In that spirit, we present texts that shake us and shape us, with thanks to both the contributors named here and also the many others who provided suggestions, links, and signal-boosts.

Strikes in Theory and Practice 

“A strike is an organized cessation from work. It is the collective halting of production or services in a plant, industry, or area for the purpose of obtaining concessions from employers. A strike is labor’s weapon to enforce labor’s demands.”

– John Steuben, Strike Strategy (1950)

Simon Stevens, University of Sheffield, writes: “Joe Burns’ Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (Ig Publishing, 2011) is US-focused but his argument – for the importance of ‘powerful, production-halting strikes’ – has much broader implications.

“Jane McAlevey’s two books – the first more autobiographical, the second more sociological/programmatic – are both absolutely essential reading for anyone involved in unions or any other kind of political or activist campaign: Raising Expectations and Raising Hell: My Two Decades Fighting for the Labor Movement (Verso, 2013) and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press, 2016).”

David Hitchcock suggests David Graeber’s Bullshit JobsThe Rise of Pointless Work and What We can Do About It (Penguin, 2019), as a “provocation, in a way I found productive. There’s absolutely no doubt that the proliferation of bullshit tasks is rife in higher education, but the core enterprise of academia at least remains resistant to the effect this book describes. What Graeber shows is how successfully that model of meaninglessness has been applied to entire jobs, and to create huge ecosystems of employees whose main purpose is to make the boss look bossier… Interesting to read and argue with, or against.”

Also recommended by our contributors:

“But in fact, one doesn’t become an organizer by reading theory, or at least I didn’t. I went to graduate school to study political theory, in hopes of figuring out what to do about the dilemmas that weighed on me. But it took something else to give that theory meaning in my own life. This was the experience of graduate school, which wasn’t necessarily your typical workplace — so the Yale administration kept telling us.”

– Alyssa Battistoni, “Spadework“, n+1 34.

Strikes in History

Jan de Graaf, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, suggests “Padraic Kenney’s great work on strikes in post-WWII Łódź”: “Working‐class community and resistance in pre‐Stalinist Poland: The Poznański textile strike, Lódz, September 1947″ (Social History 18:1, 1993).

Elly Robson, History Workshop Online Managing Editor, recommends Barbara Kingsolver’s Holding the Line (1989) as “an incredible account of women’s role in the 1983-5 copper strikes in Arizona. Kingsolver arrived as a young journalist & stayed to record how strikers’ wives & daughters ended up on the frontline of the struggle. Her first book, before she began to write fiction, it is part oral history, part first-hand experience, part social commentary.”

Image by Marcus Spiske for Unsplash

Historian Sarah Wise says that “Margaret Harkness’s journalism is excellent on late 19th-century industrial relations, accessible via the wonderful Harkives website.”

The railway historians came out in force, recommending:

Our readers also recommended:

Strikes in Fiction

From “The Blackleg” by James Sexton

Peter Jones, Editorial Fellow at History Workshop Online, recommends British Socialist Fiction: 1884–1914 edited by Deborah Mutch (Pickering & Chatto, 2013). He picks out two stories: “First, ‘The Blackleg’ by ‘Citizen’, the pseudonym of James Sexton (1856-1938), the son of Irish immigrants who worked in the Liverpool Dockyards until he was seriously injured after which he became self-employed. Second, ‘The Blackleg, an Agitator’s Yarn’ a sketch by ‘Hugo’.”

Onni Gust, University of Nottingham, notes that “Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (Firebrand Books, 1993) is as much about industrial action, trade unionism, workers’ rights and solidarity across difference as it is about gender and sexuality.”

“Faggots!” some of our guys yelled at the strikebreakers. All the butches pulled back from the police barricades. The word seared like burning metal.

“Duffy,” I pulled his arm. “What’s this faggot shit?”  Duffy appeared torn in ten directions.

“Alright,” he said. “Listen up you guys. Stop with the faggot stuff. They’re scabs.” The men looked confused. A light bulb lit up over Walter’s head.

“Aw, shit.” He extended his hand to me. “We didn’t mean you guys.”

I shook his hand. “Listen,” I said, “call them whatever you want, but don’t call them faggots.”

Walter nodded. “Agreed.”

– Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues 

Sarah Wise recommends “Jack Lindsay’s ‘communist-realist’ novel about the 1949 dockers’ strike”, Rising Tide (Bodley Head, 1953).

Our contributors also recommended:

  • David Peace, GB84 (Faber, 2004)
  • China Mieville, Iron Council (Macmillan, 2004)
Photo: Markus Spiske for Unsplash

Strikes and History Workshop

Since its foundation, History Workshop has been committed to producing, publishing and amplifying work which documents the history of industrial unrest, with a view to building a collaborative enterprise that supports activism and trade union struggles.

Work on strikes at History Workshop Journal and at History Workshop Online is manifold and rewards further attention and scrutiny. It seems apt to round up this syllabus by sampling History Workshop pieces relating specifically to the year 1911: a historical phase of nationally significant strikes when, according to Henry Pelling, a ‘remarkable extension of the frontiers of trade unionism took place’.

In History Workshop Journal 66 [Paywall], Ursula de la Mare perceptively analyses the factors that led to Bermondsey factory women going out on strike for around ten days in August 1911. Against a background of industrial action by dockers, transport workers, seamen, bargemen and miners, “the Bermondsey factory women’s successful strikes were startling in their revelation of the power of unorganized, unskilled women to launch an effective campaign for betterment”.

History Workshop Online has also digitised a series of thirteen original History Workshop pamphlets published between 1970 and 1974. According to Luke Parks, these pamphlets ‘began life as papers delivered to History Workshops in the late 1960s and early 1970s’. In 1972-73, they were produced as part of a workers’ occupation (a ‘work-in’) at Briant Colour Printing (BCP) in London.

In History Workshop Pamphlet no. 9, Dave Marson (a working Docker and student at Ruskin college), recorded his painstaking research into ‘Children’s Strikes in 1911’. According to an editorial note the school strikes ‘were part of the huge upheaval of labour in the long, hot summer of 1911.’ Pupils variously campaigned to abolish corporal punishment, for less schoolwork, longer holidays and for fair payment for school duties.

You can read Marson’s pamphlet here:

History Workshop Pamphlets … by The History Workshop Online

Studies like these are of great importance to the work of foregrounding children’s agency in the present-day political process. The recent school strikes which followed schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for climate”) protest in August 2018 outside the Swedish Riksdag (parliament), demonstrate the globally consequential outcomes that can issue from the temporary refusal of young people to participate in compulsory education.

Greta Thunberg at the FridaysForFuture demonstration on 29. March 2019 in Berlin. Available via Wikimedia under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

What are the learning outcomes of the History Workshop #strikesyllabus?

The value of the bringing together this collaborative body of thought relating to strikes in theory, practice, history and fiction, is to begin forming bonds of unity and association within a fragmented corpus. In a 2018 article for HWO, Jack Saunders asks:

Where’s the power in a union and why is it important?

This syllabus, and the learning programmes which we hope might emerge from it, are imperative for gauging the singular powers of the trade union movement for galvanising political change in the past, the present and the future.

One Comment

  1. Not directly strike related, but an eye-opening ‘state of world’ book: Caroline Criado Perez, ‘Invisible Women’.

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