Historians' Watch

E. P. Thompson, the USS Strike and the ‘Servant Problem’

The spring of 2018 saw fourteen days of industrial action across over 65 UK university campuses. UCU members struck in defiance of ‘reforms’ that would cost some academics over £200,000 in retirement income. These proposals – part of a longer term erosion of the USS pension and based an evaluation perceived as flawed – led to action that impacted upon over one million students before the strike was suspended in April. On a 63.5% record turnout, almost two thirds voted to accept ‘a joint expert panel… [tasked to] re-examine the USS valuation and make recommendations’ – a process currently ongoing. 

While the strike was widely labelled ‘unprecedented’, the debate that it prompted has deep historical resonance. Echoing within the public outrage was an enduring strain of anti-unionism going back to the nineteenth century, a strain identified by E.P. Thompson in his scathing 1970 essay Sir, Writing by Candlelight (later republished in 1980 as part of the similarly titled anthology Writing By Candlelight). In the midst of industrial action staged by electricity workers, Thompson compared the attitudes toward the work to rule expressed in The Times letters page during the dispute with those expressed by the Victorian and Edwardian middle classes – and found telling parallels. These same parallels prove revealing when applied to the USS pensions dispute.

The Servant Problem

What is, of course, ‘grotesque in its selfishness’ is the time-worn hypocrisy of the bourgeois response to discomfort. Anyone familiar with the Victorian and Edwardian press cannot fail to detect, in these tones of moral outrage [in response to power cuts] the old bourgeois theme for moralisms: the ‘servant problem.’ But the servants are now out of reach; an electric light switch is impervious to the scolding of the mistress; a dust-cart cannot be given a week’s wages in lieu of notice.

E. P Thompson addresses anti-nuclear weapons rally, Oxford 1980. Photo by Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Sir, Writing… was one of a series of essays that arose ‘unbidden and without premeditation, because events insisted that something should be said’. The particular ‘event’ was the angry response to power cuts resulting from the electricity workers’ dispute. Seeking a 25% rise in the face of government pressure to restrain wages, these workers began a work to rule and overtime ban on 7th December 1970. By 15th December, after much handwringing, the go-slow was called off whilst an Official Court of Inquiry investigated their pay claim. Thompson, then at the University of Warwick, saw his essay published on Christmas Eve. About a month and a half later, the Inquiry reported its results. The electricity workers were awarded a 12-15% rise, an outcome that broke the wage restraint policy and made it clear that strike action got the goods.

The ‘servant problem’ Thompson referred to was, by 1970, not one problem but two. Echoing earlier bourgeois outrage, there is the familiar condemnation of unreliable servants who do not simply supply the expected service when demanded – the problem of being inconvenienced. In Thompson’s view, the ramifications of the work to rule for most was ‘tens of thousands petty inconveniences’, grievances that if publically raised would reveal their pettiness for all to see. Thus, as it had been in the past, ‘it was necessary to generalise these inconveniences as a “national interest”… a “threat to the whole community”‘, to ‘moralise… convenience’ and cloak personal comfort with ‘altruism’. This in part meant dramatising the discomfort by drawing upon the plight of society’s vulnerable, such as the elderly. Far from showing genuine solidarity, in Thompson’s view, the vulnerable would likely be forgotten when the strike – and their rhetorical usefulness – ceased.

But an additional servant problem had also developed since Edwardian times. The source of inconvenience had moved from the housemaid to the public sector employee, who was out of sight, enrolled in a union, and no longer at the employer’s beck and call. The second servant problem, in short, is one of control: the letter writer can no longer deal with the discomfort themselves by hastily dismissing and punishing the wayward employee. Hinting at their own impotence, the letters therefore were at the very least an implied demand for someone with power to restore order.

Dear Sir…

To understand the how the servant problem manifested in the USS dispute, it is helpful to reimagine Thompson’s housemaid as a private tutor or governess. Here it’s not the collecting of rubbish or the lighting of lamps but the imparting of a qualification that has been paid for – and an antiunion stance is reflected in demanding obedience, for a service to be delivered quietly and without fuss. The subtext is that this is something we’ve bought, now you need to supply it – your problems aren’t our problem.

The USS strikes action ran from 22nd Feb to 16th March, spread over four weeks in an escalating timetable. By examining The Times‘ ‘Letters to the Editor’ page during this period, I discovered that about 20% of letters addressing the industrial action also demonstrated the antistrike logic discussed by Thompson. What is immediately apparent in this select correspondence is that the dispute is mentioned only in terms that emphasize the inconvenience it caused. However sympathetic lecturers may be to the effect of strikes on students, it is abundantly clear that these authors fail to express sympathy in return.

A letter published in The Times a few days into the strike (24/02/2018) allows that ‘it is disappointing that in attending to their own futures, the lecturers… have completely disregarded ours’. In doing so, the author adopts a comparatively liberal stance by at least implying that the business of fighting an industrial dispute is acceptable if it fails to impact on others. The author concludes her argument in the collective pronoun, seeking to draw her fellow students into the experience after outlining her own situation. She isn’t only speaking for herself, but also the wider student body, a campus version of the ‘long suffering public’.

A second letter published on 27 February features an identical rhetorical technique but goes further: the USS strike ‘elderly’ find a plausible echo in the international students who will pay the most for lectures they will not be receiving. The author implies she writes partly on their behalf, before again attempting to collectivise antistrike feeling: ‘discussions with my peers have revealed that a substantial proportion of students and parents are outraged’.

It is this parting comment from which a third author (01/03/2018) – self-identifying as one of the ‘outraged parents’ – takes as his cue. The author isn’t outraged for himself, but for his son, his moralistic rage archetypical and uncompromising: ‘Striking has become an entirely selfish act designed to apply harm to the end user of the employers’ goods or (more usually) services’.

I suspect this would have all been familiar to Thompson, even if it may have disappointed him to encounter it in higher education.

…What about me?

Some current responses to disruptive industrial action echo older sentiments. The presence of servant problems is arguably unsurprising if students approach their education as consumers. The average English student studying at an English university paid slightly less in tuition fees than the maximum £9,250 in 2017/18; it would be strange if some of those investing in future earnings weren’t intolerant towards any circumstances that detracted from the ‘value’ of the education that they had purchased. This is something the second letter (27/02/2018) makes explicit: ‘Furthermore the financial harm these strikes will cause is excessive. Students will continue to pay tuition fees, accommodation fees and living costs while receiving nothing in return’.

Thompson’s servant problem provides a vivid framework that, through comparison, illuminates the attitude of the unsympathetic student-as-consumer and sites it in an enduring anti-union tradition. But it is also worth remembering that the USS strike saw student support, including a wave of occupations. Not all students were writing to The Times; some were bolstering picket lines. A YouGov poll on the eve of the strikes suggested that 66% of students at affected universities supported industrial action.

Despite Thompson having his own battles with university management, in the same essay he is still able to comment that ‘salary increases… are awarded quietly and without fuss’ for university teachers. This note seems almost idyllic in 2018. Viewing pensions as deferred earnings, the USS dispute alone demonstrates that the situation has changed immeasurably since 1970 – the proposed changes could have cost the average member of staff hundreds of thousands of pounds in retirement income. Moreover, academic pay has shrunk by 21% in real terms since 2009 in comparison with RPI and UCU figures show that over half of all UK academics are on insecure contacts. At the time of writing, UCU are balloting in a dispute with UCEA over 2018/19 pay negotiations. Meanwhile, the USS dispute also remains unresolved. This article has focused on one area of continuity and, of course, examining almost a half century of changes in higher education is beyond its scope. Nonetheless industrial peace may be one of these changes. If so, there may be many more servants causing problems.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *