As Strike Numbers Fall, Supporting University Strikes is as Important as Ever
Why We Need to Change the Narrative on Strike Action if the Labour Movement is to Survive
This spring the University and College Union (UCU) announced fourteen strike days at over seventy-four universities across the UK. The dispute centred around the increased casualisation and workload of the teaching profession, paired with a decreased lack of pay. For some lecturers, this has meant that the true value of their wages has dropped by 20% in the last decade. This unacceptable decline comprises the future security of the teaching profession, whilst placing more barriers in the way of hopeful educators from working-class backgrounds.
However, the strikes are not just about lost pay and insecure contracts, but something much larger. These protests are symptomatic of the encroachment of market-economics upon higher-education. When the Conservatives axed the caps on student placement, universities rushed into a race to out-do each other.
The prevailing attitude of ‘getting bums on seats’ led to a dramatic increase in money spent on advertisement, and a fatal decrease in money spent on education. University became business and career oriented, and began to sacrifice many of its academic credentials. The Guardian journalist Owen Jones summarises it well:
‘There’s another perverse consequence of marketisation: as debt-laden students head for degrees they think will maximise their earning potential, many vital courses suffer. The University of Sunderland is axing its history, politics and foreign language courses, for example, expressing a desire for a more “career-focused and professions-facing” approach.’
It is clear that university staff are fighting an important fight, but what is not clear is that their strike action will retain public support. The traditional media, such as the Daily Mail, were quick to join in the diatribe by calling the strikes ‘academic sabotage’, but we shouldn’t be surprised by typical conservatives acting conservative.
What should concern us is the reaction of the students themselves. The left-wing narrative shows signs of losing its grip, and some students (who were most likely already unsatisfied with their education) harbour a growing resentment of strike actions that have taken place since 2018. Whilst it is inspiring to see so many students joining the picket lines all across the country, it is those who are staying at home, wanting refunds for their lost tuition, that we should be concerned about.
We should not scorn these unhappy students. They, just like us, are angry at the already abysmal state of higher education in the UK. Instead, we have to convince them to look beyond the immediate effects on their own education, and see that these strikes are not just for the sake of the lecturers: but for the sake of higher education and society as a whole.
The labour movement must begin to re-convince the public of the need for strike action. I say re-convince, because the number of striking workers in the UK has reached its lowest point in history since 1893.
The graph above shows dismal results. Just 33,000 workers went on strike in the whole of 2017, compared to a peak of 4.6 million in 1979, with union memberships sitting at less than half what it was in that year. It is clear to see that the Thatcherite war on union power has been immensely successful, and that, despite an enlarging gig economy and abysmal wage growth, the public do not trust in the ability of unions to improve their lives.
It is vital that we begin to change that narrative.
The first thing we can do is get out there and join the unions ourselves, if you are in the UK, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has a list of unions for each sector. The second thing we can do is counteract the typical myths surrounding union membership, we need to convince the public that by sticking together we can make our voice known. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you convince people, check out, for example, this little list by War on Want.
The final thing we can do is to keep pushing our local and national representatives, so that we may retain the civil right to strike against our employers. If The Winter of Discontent has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot trust a Labour government to commit fully to working people, but without some of its support, we would be at the mercy of the Tories. The candidate for leader, Rebecca Long-Bailey, has publicly stated her support for all strike action. With somebody like her at the helm we might see a growing public belief in the power of unionisation.
New Labour Party organisations such as Black Rose have the potential to push for just this support. As a group for libertarian socialists, I hope they can influence Labour into trade-union support whilst not getting too close with the party itself.
I cannot predict what the future will hold, but I can tell you this: the effectiveness of the labour movement is tied to the people’s belief in their own collective influence. We must stand in solidarity with the UCU, for their loss will most certainly be ours.
Originally published at https://www.thecommoner.org.uk on March 18, 2020.