By Alex Powell
During the UCU strike over the proposed cuts to the USS pension scheme, I was on the picket line almost every day, rising early to join colleagues all over the country in standing outside university buildings and telling those who tried to enter what we were fighting for. Often, the media attempts to portray strikers as lazy, suggesting that they simply cannot be bothered to do their jobs. Other times strikers are represented as greedy, suggesting that they are already doing far better than the rest of the country and now they want more. I want to offer another perspective – direct from the picket line – charting how being on strike has strengthened my relationships with colleagues, raised morale among staff and made me a better teacher.
I have never really understood the argument that strikers are lazy. Trust me, academics arriving at ‘the office’ before 8am is far from normal. And yet, for the duration of the strike, every day, the same faces arrived earlier than on a work day to voice their displeasure with the situation. In doing this, we all put aside projects, knowing that deadlines would not move; we cancelled sessions with students, knowing that we would be judged by and through them; we left our preparation, knowing it would still need to be done. To put it bluntly, I have never been busier than when I returned to work post-strike. Making our point was exhausting; catching up after the fact was even more so. My first reflection from the picket line is that it is most certainly not a ‘holiday’.
However, when you’re stood out in the cold (and I mean cold – it snowed on four days of this strike) with people for over two weeks, you begin to form stronger relationships. The shows of solidarity on the picket line have been more than just heartening, they have been earth shifting. As a PhD student who teaches, it can be hard to know your place in the academic environment. On the picket line, I was made to feel equal to the staff who I had joined there. This has allowed me to form stronger relations with many of them, both making my work more enjoyable and diminishing my sense of imposter syndrome.
The strike has also, so far as I can see, raised morale amongst university workers overall. Many staff who felt that the battle against marketisation was already lost now believe that we can turn back the clock. This is shown in the rejection of the first agreement reached between the UCU negotiators and UUK, and in the staff response to the latest offer. Staff now seem to believe that we can win bigger victories, and I agree with them. When we think how many members of university staff, who are at the coalface of education and research every day, oppose tuition fees and the marketisation of education in general, this feeling of renewed determination makes a big difference. As a young researcher, it has become clear to me that the career path I have chosen is not what it once was; nonetheless, this strike has reinvigorated many early career researchers and PhD students with new belief.
while the strike has been exhausting, draining, and at times stressful, I count it as a positive experience
Finally, the strike has offered staff new opportunities to meet colleagues across different departments. This has both given me new avenues to explore within my research and allowed me to improve my teaching. I have heard about many different methods and approaches on the picket line and have been afforded opportunities to discuss my work in different groupings. In particular, participating in a three-minute thesis competition teach out has helped me develop my ability to disseminate my ideas in a fast and articulate manner.
Overall then, while the strike has been exhausting, draining, and at times stressful, I count it as a positive experience. I would encourage colleagues to vote no in the ongoing ballot over acceptance of UUK’s latest unsatisfactory offer. We have already shown what we can do – let’s not weaken ourselves now.
The ballot on the latest UUK offer to UCU members runs until April 13th.
Featured image via CityUCU
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