On the final day of a fourteen day strike across UK universities against cuts to pensions, four historians discuss camaraderie, solidarity and picket line poetry, and consider how to build on the achievements of the past four weeks.
Andrew S. Tompkins, Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Sheffield
The ordinary occupations of the struggle freed us partly from anxiety and bitterness. Everything was taking on a meaning. For once the hurts and humiliations of daily life were not lost in the bottomless well of our impotent rage.
The words above were written by Robert Linhart to describe his experiences of organising among Citroën factory workers in 1968–69, in the aftermath of a General Strike that many at the time perceived as a failure: a moment of possibility had evaporated, with workers and students receiving comparatively small concessions in exchange for a ‘retour à la normale’ that preserved undemocratic university structures, the drudgery of alienated wage labour, and the rule of Charles de Gaulle. I use this text with students in my class on protest movements in postwar Europe as a way of discussing how the narratives people created for themselves about ‘1968’ led them to act in particular ways afterwards—and as a means of relativising the often superficial memories of May ’68 that flood the media at every ten-year anniversary.
Since the strike to defend USS pensions began, Linhart’s text now resonates with me in a more profound way than it ever did before. To be sure, university lecturers are not factory workers, and we should remain cognisant of the many privileges we enjoy. Yet the sense of possibility that the strike has awakened is, I think, very similar to what Linhart describes: we are finally fighting back against the ‘anxiety and bitterness’ that years of marketisation have generated, and it is extraordinarily empowering.
One of the most empowering aspects of the strike at the University of Sheffield has been the support we have received from students. They have been the visible – and audible – force behind the ‘roving picket’ that until recently toured campus every morning, reinforcing our ranks, strengthening our resolve, and providing us with the soundtrack to which we have danced ourselves warm in rain, snow, and freezing winds. Their daily roving picket has now been converted into an ongoing occupation of our campus’s iconic Arts Tower, presenting us with an opportunity to return the favour by bringing food to the occupying students and singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ with them across the cordon created by campus security.
The strike has also unleashed creative energies that surpass what we can summon on ordinary work days. On day one of the strike, the Jessop West building was re-baptised ‘Jessop Left’ and bestowed with a ‘Department of Solidarity’ and a ‘School of Strikes’. These new departments outside the building have witnessed far more interdisciplinary activity than was ever possible within the sectioned-off corridors on the inside. Together with staff from the English Department, Modern Languages and the Public Engagement office, we have learned the words to the ‘Internationale’ in English, French, and German—and infused the music of Madonna, Dolly Parton, and the Spice Girls with our own meanings (#danceforUSS). We have exchanged ideas about joint film screenings and ways to teach together across disciplines. Most importantly, we have been thinking about how to democratise our own departments.
As with the post-1968 protests that I study in my research, the most profound changes are the most difficult to pin down. As Linhart writes, everything has taken on meaning: when we speak now, it is with the knowledge that our grievances are shared; when we act now, it is with the confidence that comes from doing so collectively; and when we go back to work next week, it will be with a new awareness of our own power. The stories we tell ourselves about the moment of possibility that this strike has represented will shape what we do well after it ends. The possibilities for change within Higher Education may not be limitless and our window of opportunity may turn out to be brief. But the usual boundaries have been breached, and we will decide where the new ones will be placed.
Dan Healey, Professor of Modern Russian History, University of Oxford
The current battle over pensions is the first time in my life that I’ve stood on a picket line, waved a placard (for anything other than gay rights), or handed out leaflets about industrial action. It’s the first time I’ve sung ‘Solidarity Forever’ (what dramatic lyrics!); and ‘Bread and Roses’ I haven’t sung since I was a young gay activist in Toronto in the 1970s. I was stunned when I first arrived at the picket line. The number of young people was a real shock: when I was their age you couldn’t get me to think about pensions, still less march for them.
It is deeply moving to see young colleagues fighting for decent pensions. We all know that this is a universal pay cut that hits the youngest hardest, and disadvantages women significantly more than men (yet again!). The intergenerational injustice of the pension changes is enormous, and palpable now. I’m 61 years old, and already my just-retired colleagues speak to me with embarrassment about the dispute, aware that they exited just in time and enjoy a better deal than I likely will in five or six years’ time. How difficult it is to imagine a better world for the next generation!
What gives me hope is the sea-change in sentiment that I feel around me. Social media gives us what flying pickets probably did in the past: news, solidarity, energy – now played out at an amazingly fast pace. People understand this is more than a dispute about remuneration: the ‘TINA’ system (‘There Is No Alternative’) – the relentless perversion of the university mission from the provision of a public good to the pursuit of private profit – has outstayed its welcome. We are not going back to business-as-usual when this strike is over, that’s for sure.
Onni Gust, Assistant Professor of History, University of Nottingham
Three weeks into the USS strike, and the days are getting noticeably longer and the weather slightly warmer, and yet I feel sadder and angrier. The deal that USS and UUK brokered through ACAS has been a huge disappointment, with implicit acceptance of the deficit calculation, which has been shown to be so flawed. However, for me, it is the Minister for Universities, Sam Gyimah’s claims to ‘hold universities to account’ by extending teaching ratings to each subject – based partly on the absurd idea that good teaching leads to higher graduate earnings – that has made me even more outraged.
The last few weeks on strike have made me realise how much of my everyday sense of satisfaction is derived from my interactions with my students. I miss our shared grappling with how to understand the past. It is for the future of that very relationship that I am striking. The increasingly aggressive marketization of higher education – the expensive ‘frameworks’, endless surveys, an over-reliance on metrics, centralization – places those moments of openness to ideas in jeopardy. Diagnosed anxiety disorders are soaring amongst staff and students and cannot be divorced from the wider culture of individualism and competition. Anxiety fogs up the mind and impairs risk-taking, the very opposite of the creativity, openness to new ideas, and embracing of the unknown that are the vital ingredients for learning and research. This, to me, is what these strikes are about. Yes, we need decent pensions, but we also need to reclaim the university, replacing profit-driven, neo-liberal agendas with what E.P. Thompson (writing about William Morris) called ‘the education of desire.’
Eleanor Davey, University of Manchester
In the past four weeks I have learned how important it is to recognise the distinctiveness of picketing when we are talking about our experiences of being ‘on strike’. Picketing is cold, uncertain, and draining. It is awkward, as it must be. It is heart-warming, though, on the days we draw strength from a good turnout or a tonic conversation. It is educational, as we share our knowledge and ideas about pensions, the negotiations, the university… Picketing over the past four weeks has also been increasingly joyful, as we have gradually become comfortable with being exposed to the potential judgements of others, as we have gotten better at prioritising our own spirits and our practical, glad-you’re-here, how-are-you-feeling form of solidarity instead of worrying what passers-by make of us. Picketing has been fun.
Perhaps most powerful for me, picketing has been a break from the competition-obsessed professional environment of academia. At Manchester in week four we have been holding picket poetry sessions. Colleagues contribute poems that they have invented or adapted, sometimes written on the picket line only just before. No one does it for recognition, evaluation, or ambition. We don’t introduce ourselves by title or department – in fact we don’t introduce ourselves at all, because many are by now familiar faces and everyone is welcome. We raucously applaud every offering. Some of the picket poems are genuinely fantastic, and I’m in awe of the clever, thoughtful, generous minds that produced them. But it doesn’t matter whether they’re good or not, because this is another kind of practical, glad-you’re-here solidarity, in which we perform and celebrate our resolve to challenge the corporate dysfunction in universities today.
I imagine very few people find that picketing comes naturally. It is exhausting, you feel vulnerable, and the emotional labour is very heavy indeed. But the experience of coming together, of sharing indignation, growing in confidence, making new and deeper friendships, remembering that your frustrations are not yours alone, has been inspiring and energising. I hope it continues long after the pickets lines themselves disappear.
by James Sumner, a mid-career historian of technology based in Manchester
I was walking down Oxford Road
Poster on the wall said “Learn how to code!
“Study stereometry or master middle German
“We’ll teach you how to serve a writ, or how to write a sermon
“Discover what to cover when you xenotransplant
“And why Genghis Khan but Immanuel Kant
“We’ve got all the facilities to help you win the race
“There’s an active learning atrium with levitation space”
There were excavators everywhere and scaffolding ascending
Signs that said CONSTRUCTION SITE and signs of major spending
There’s a fleet of ten-ton lorries bringing massive marble slabs
There’s some heavy plant crossing in the biotech labs
This hive of activity is spelling my doom
’Cos they’ve spent my pension on a building boom.
My future’s FUBARed, my outlook’s dim
’Cos they’ve blown my retirement on a brand new gym
Can’t pay my darts club subs in the pub
’Cos they’ve squandered my sponds on a media hub
I checked the online modeller, I worked out what I’d got
I thought “Are UUK? ’Cos I’m bloody not.”
I ain’t no actuary, I wasn’t in the loop
They said “superannuation?” I said “I’ll have the soup”
And I’d organise a piss-in, but I can’t afford a pot
’Cos they’ve splashed my cash on a VC’s yacht
A decent retirement is a bit of a draw
When you can’t get a job till the age of thirty-four
And you’re fishing for a mortgage till you’re pushing forty-two
And the papers say you’re lazy and the metrics say it’s true
But my students say I’m prudent and concerned to help them pass
And places need a friendly workforce when they’re not in Cambridge, Mass.
And when you’re Irwell more than Cherwell, with no spot-the-royals fun
And you haven’t got the Louvre or the California sun
You’ll get a Refined Contribution if a pension’s not a perk
So put your pounds and pence in people and let’s all get back to work.
The Love Song of One Striking Worker
by Anna Strowe, University of Manchester (with apologies to T.S. Eliot)
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A professor che mai tornasse al mondo
Questa fiamma staria senza più scosse.
Ma perciocchè del UUK del fondo
Non torno sano alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the morning is spread out against the sky
Like the staff arriving at a freezing picket;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless deans with weird strategic goals
And useless charts from biased student polls:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the board room VCs come and stand
Talking of how to build a brand.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the lecture halls,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the lecture halls
Licked its tongue into the corners of the research,
Lingered upon the fees from overseas,
Let fall upon its back critiques that come from senates,
Slipped by the Old Quad, made a quiet smirk,
And seeing opportunities for profit missed,
Sunk its claws into the place, and got to work.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the lecture halls;There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a sign to meet the students that you meet;
There will be time to protest and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for unionized decisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the board room VCs come and stand
Talking of how to build a brand.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and ascend the stair,
To fight the UUK for pensions that are fair—
[They will say: “She will never vote to strike!”]
My woollen shawl, a purple velvet jacket that I like,
My messenger bag is big, for when I come to school by bike—
[They will say: “But how could she think to strike!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the univers-ity?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the meetings, lectures, conference rooms,
I have measured out my life with REFs and TEFs;
I know the voices fading from the lecture hall
Before the next class starting soon.
So how should I presume?
And I have known the forms already, known them all—
The forms that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
And I have known the terms already, known them all—
Terms that seem to offer good careers
[But in the details, there the rub appears!]
It is shadows of regret
That makes me so upset?
Terms that promise research freedom, and hide the current truth.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone to school at morning
And watched the stress that rises every day
Of cash-strapped kids in lectures, colleagues in the office?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . .
And the afternoon, the evening, works so frantically!
Scripts needing marking,
Email … admin … and it malingers,
Piled on the desks, here beside you and me.
Should I, working as a mere device is,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and written, wept and worked,
Though I have seen my labour (for the REF) brought in upon a platter,
I had not risen—and here’s the great matter;
I have seen the moment of the market flicker,
And I have seen the Board and Deanlets point to us, and snicker,
And in short, I was renewed.
And it is so damn worth it, after all,
After the REFs, the PDRs, the tea,
Among the “Stellify”, among some talk of you and me,
And it is so worth while,
To have picketed the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, Christmas cards next to her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”
And it is so damn worth it, after all,
Yes it is worth worth while,
After the students and the papers and the marked exams,
After the admin, after the journals, after the toiling behind your door—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
So it is all worth while
If one, writing an email, now feeling sort of small,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
. . . . .
Yes! I am no computer, nor was meant to be;
Am no defenseless cog, one that will do
To teach a student, write a book or two,
Serve out my time; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old…
I shall not just sit by while events unfold.
I shall work to free my mind. I DO dare to come and teach.
I shall help to start a movement, as far as I can reach.
I have heard my colleagues talking, each to each.
And now I know that they will talk to me.
I have seen them standing proudly on the lines
Holding the clever, funny protest signs
With students who have come to join the fight.
We have lingered in our offices too long
Under changes that these corporate bullies make
Till our own voices rouse us, and we wake.