The ballots are out, the wheels are in motion. Union members have until Thursday 10 October to vote on strike action over the latest derisory pay offer of 1% (if you haven’t received a ballot, go here). The justness of the cause seems clear enough. Since 2009, every pay award has been several percentage points below inflation, leading to a consistent real terms drop in pay. And some of those paltry increases were only attained after negotiations. Yet, despite the protests from above (and excepting a brief dip in student numbers), British higher education is in fine financial health. The overall wage bill is decreasing at the same time that surpluses are growing. And for “growing” read “more than doubling”, from £488 million in 2007/8 to £1.1 billion in 2011/2012. Managers are reaping their rewards accordingly, and a significant portion of Vice-Chancellors are seeing their pay go up by 10-20%. At Sussex, for example, Michael Farthing is now paid £280,000 (including pensions contributions), as compared to £178,000 in 2007 (that’ll be a 57% increase then).
And yet there is a foreboding. Fear is a factor, nondescript anxiety another. Perhaps an awkward sense that any level of action is somehow at odds with the academic code.
Articulated objections come in two stripes. First, the we-haven’t-got-it-so-bad defence. Beyond the usual ‘all in it together’ austerity ideology, there are pay increments (which most permanent academic staff get automatically). Real wages aren’t declining so hard if you move up a pay step each year. This is on its own a pretty restricted ambition, since it amounts to a kind of career “progression” that leaves you standing still. It is also, for all the talk of solidarity with lower-paid workers, a selfish analysis.
In the last 5 years, the pay for new lecturers and tutors has dropped 13% in real terms. Following the USS pension saga, they (we) have each had tens of thousands of pounds taken from them over the course of their careers, while staff that retained their old rights are paying more every month into a scheme that was, let us recall, nowhere near crisis. There are fewer scholarships and research grants than before, and an increase in teaching-heavy posts. Consumer-driven logics are set to make that worse. On the horizon, just over there, is a US-style expansion based on precarity, a prestige elite, and debt bubbles. Some at the top are already breaking from the national pay spine, inaugurating a two-tier system. Consider this trend alongside the state of university finances. What is it to look at this and say things aren’t so bad? I put it to you that such a position is detached, complacent, and irresponsible.
Second, there is the strikes-change-nothing complaint. This has better justification. Local actions over the last years have not reversed policies. Pensions were stripped down anyway. And there is something peculiar, isn’t there, about the idea of day-long walkouts and picket lines in a sector so based on relatively scattered student-teacher interactions. There is no machinery to fall silent, no buzzing shop floors to stand empty. Just a day of saved wages for management and probably a whole stack of reorganised lectures, academics not really being the types to withhold knowledge (or, rather, unwilling to see knowledge as labour). There is a sense that the old tactics are dead, and should be left in their graves.
On the one hand, this is an argument for more radical action. If employers can handle strike days, we need more. Or, alternatively, forms of action that do not fetishise the picket line. Something that will make VCs pay attention, like a marking boycott or withholding final grades. In a customer-orientated culture this is the pressure point, especially if action begins to alter the results of the National Student Survey, that Big Other of the academic scene (what do students really want?). The complaint goes up that the national union lacks the imagination to instigate these actions, and that we should therefore turn to more vibrant kinds of opposition. But new forms of resistance nevertheless confront established modes of punishment. When full pay is withheld day on day, when even partial performance leads to the forfeit of full wages, how quickly will we really buckle? We know something has to break the pattern, but we’re not sure we’re capable of it, or that the sacrifice is worth it. In other words, we find ourselves a little too close to text-book academic bitching: something more fundamental needs doing, but we’re not likely to be the ones to do it.
On the other hand, the fear and the paralysis can be found closer to home. Complaints about the union form do not produce their alternative ex nihilo. There are possible replacements, but no actually-existing ones. Nor does the appetite for creating one seem to exist. And for good reason. The paradoxical character of academic subjectivity is both to consider ourselves in a position of real epistemic and social privilege and to be so despondent about our influence on things as to merely absorb the changes thrust upon us (working conditions, impact agendas, research restrictions). The legal protections of strike action have no parallel, truncated as they are. Creative alternatives have raised energy, and served as political classrooms in their own right, but they haven’t actually stymied ‘reforms’ (whether on fees, outsourcing or investment portfolios). And, strange as it may sound, universities are probably happier taking draconian action against their workers than their students. A faculty occupation, if we could even imagine such a thing, would not end well.
None of that is to say that we (there’s that intangible collective again) should walk zombie-like to the picket. Fersure, let the rejuvenation of academic democracy proceed apace. In the meantime, we have to ask ourselves seriously what the consequence is of another pliant year. There are murmurings that a failure to win this ballot will endanger collective bargaining itself. If we cannot muster the resolve to deliver a strong yes on action short of a strike, and a strong yes on strike – if we cannot even deliver a serious turnout – that’s probably as much as we deserve.