Universities across the UK are taking part in the current UCU strike action over pay, pensions, and poor working conditions. On day 9 of the 10-day strike, Jonathan Saha offers a dispatch from Durham on pickets, offices, and institutional power.
The whole rigmarole of preparing for the picket lines in weather that might, generously, be called inclement is now all too familiar. Thermals, hiking books, cagoule, gloves, woolly hat, and waterproof trousers. Backpacks full of damp leaflets to be distributed to passing students. Those that do not get handed out gradually disintegrate as the week goes on, tired and soggy. On the plus side, there are welcome provisions of sugary baked goods (gluten free and vegan options available) provided by comrades and supportive students. But even with this sustenance, we’re all cold. We’re stood outside of the entrance to our department, metres from our heated offices, and we’re freezing. Shuffling to keep our feet warm, we are depriving ourselves of this comfort in an attempt to make the withdrawal of our labour visible. But the picket line also demarcates a separation that is too often obscured in university employment – that between work and life. Because they aren’t our offices, really, no matter how much we adorn them with family photographs or whatever the extent to which we have lined the walls with well-thumbed tomes with broken spines.
No matter how cold we get, we do not cross the line to warm ourselves in those offices. They are no longer ours. The picket line reveals the office to be a site and symbol of institutional power. This is not to say that they are not important in-and-of-themselves in innumerable practical ways. Office spaces are very much needed by staff for research and writing, as well as for providing pastoral care to students and colleagues in difficult times. As a result, individual offices are much sought after. But they are also increasingly scarce resources, allocated in unequal ways. Not all staff have their ‘own’ offices. At the three Russell Group universities where I have worked as permanent member of faculty, fractional and fixed-term colleagues have been pushed into shared offices. This makes much of their work more difficult, especially the emotional labour of supporting distressed students. This contrasts starkly with the power of the closed office door of a bullying manager or a sexual harasser. Their illegitimate authority is enhanced by the borrowed power of an individual office; enabled by the ability to control and manage space. Meanwhile, casualised staff must negotiate the potential difficulties and indignities of being unable to make space for themselves or for others.
By walking out of our offices, by drawing the line between our place of work and the street, by not crossing that line in spite of the weather, we take power away from the institution. It should be no surprise then that striking colleagues so often report the camaraderie of the cold pickets. They are a place for sociality and solidarity too often absent when those of use lucky enough to have access to them are ensconced in centrally-heated offices.
Jonathan Saha is an associate professor of South Asian History at Durham University. He tweets at @Jonathan_Saha.