Why Do I Strike?
(I gave this speech at a rally organised by my brilliant fellow union members in the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union on the 17th of February, 2022. Power to the union!)
First of all, a big shoutout to all of you here and all those who are striking, all those who have been on the pickets in the cold and the rain, all those who have been organizing pickets and rallies, and beanies and placards. Huge thanks to all the students who have shown their support in ways big and small. Graduate students have been heroic in their picket turnout. Thank you.
So, another year, another strike, another rally, and here I am again. Here you are again. Groundhog Day.
It did not have to be this way. Those on strike –and we strike with a heavier heart than usual this pandemic year–are not asking for anything impossible. We want to defend our modest pensions, ensure fair payment for actual hours work, wages that don’t have people struggling to pay their gas bills or rent, and some minimal contractual job security. We are not asking for fat sums of money — like the salaries of Vice Chancellors and senior management. We are not asking for perks like expense accounts or donations to refurnish our free flats to our taste, the sort of thing our Tory rulers consider to be their inalienable right. This week British bankers will start collecting the biggest bonuses since before the 2008 global financial crisis.
We are not asking for lucrative contracts to be given to our family or our mates. We are simply asking that the labour of those who keep universities running year on year be acknowledged and that extremely modest measures — measures modest in the extreme– be taken to keep them running.
Why Do I Strike? As another cold February brought pickets and pay loss, I have found myself asking this question of myself. Strikes should not be rituals but considered action. And so, we must all ask ourselves: why do we strike? It would be easy to get dispirited by the ideological determination — there is no real financial logic to it — of our employers, represented by Alastair Jarvis of UUK and his band of dishonest PR professionals — to not just keeping paying badly — well out of line with the international standards they like to boast about otherwise — but have us retire in genteel poverty. After all, unlike many others, I have job security and by British standards, a respectable salary although it might not stay very respectable if the unprecedented cost of living increases continue.
I have thought to myself: perhaps I should just accept that there’s no alternative to retiring like this, that I can cross the old age bridge when I get to it, that there are other fights to fought, more consequential ones addressing even more desperate situations. There are, as we speak, people shivering in the cold so they can eat, or people not eating, so they can protect themselves from illness. There are historic numbers of people using food banks, and a shameful number sleeping rough. Perhaps I should just count my limited blessings and get on with getting on or whatever it is one is supposed to do in the face of challenges, leave younger scholars, early career researchers and graduate students to fight the fights of their own generation.
Except it isn’t really just about me or my situation alone. To allow power to take what is ours — our rightful wages today or our deferred salaries in the form of pensions tomorrow — or basic workplace guarantees — is to authorise it to go further and faster, to take more, from increasing numbers of people in multiple contexts. It is to collude in the miserable lie that tells us that modernisation or economics require the vast majority to give up more and more while a global plutocracy take more and more. There is no word other than obscene to describe the situation in which it is pretended that such a disparity is normal, even desirable. For us to give up our modest claims would be to authorise greater assaults from those able to afford it even less than many of us are. The project of gross inequality requires middle-class consent –-and to consent to the vitiation of our own conditions is to authorise even worse inflicted on others, a project of relentless levelling down which would also see access to higher education limited and the content of all education controlled to prevent independent and critical thinking, or an understanding of the realities of history.
On the question of history, my final word. We have heard from our management as well as many others, a commitment to the project of our decolonising the university — everybody claims to be more or less on board other than a few retrogrades whining about removing slave trader statues. It’s another matter that few who bandy that term have a serious understanding of it. But on one thing we can be clear: decolonisation cannot take a place in an institution that capitulates to marketising ideologies and its attendant consequences: a gender and ethnic pay gap, casualisation, decreased democratic access to education, managerialism, outsourcing and privatising. Remember that the Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa where the call to ‘Decolonise the University’ issued was accompanied by the slogan Fees Must Fall, and campaigns to change the conditions faced by both students and workers. You are never going to stand up to the imperium if you can’t stand up to a handful of managers and market ideologues. Historically, struggles for decolonisation have not been just about national sovereignty or cultural self-assertion: they have always been fundamentally about equality and redistribution; racial, gender, caste and economic justice; and democracy. Don’t let them appoint a handful of people of colour to high office and call it decolonisation if the fundamental inequalities & injustices remain not only unchanged but perpetuated –in technicolour.
Decolonisation, as Frederick Douglass reminded us, is about showing those in power the limits of their impunity and showing them the limits of our endurance. We will not endure so that others do not have to endure either. We must not endure. We are reminded over and over again: power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and never will.