How Have the #USSstrikes Changed My Working Life?

Wednesday 9th May, 2018

Jen Remnant

Totally, irreversibly and not at all. The timing of the strike wasn’t great for me – though I suppose there is never a ‘good’ time for industrial action. I had just been awarded my PhD and was working in my first (fixed term) research job which finished two days after strike action began, with my new position beginning the following Monday. The first week of the strike felt somewhat like house arrest, especially with the addition of the snow and resultant limited travel. I didn’t go to the picket line for those first few days – I didn’t know where to go and was nervous to go to my new workplace. In hindsight this was a mistake, as it was here that I found the solidarity I needed to strengthen my resolve throughout the action, as did so many others. 

I attempted to ignore passive aggressive emails from my University’s VC and social media outputs from UUK. Whether it is naivety or ridiculous ideology, I still fail to understand how people who have feathered their nests so well, would be so against the idea of myself and others like me having security in older age. Their use of jargon-heavy language was discombobulating, especially in combination with the outpourings of resentment and anger on Twitter by striking staff.  This was the first unexpected impact of the strike: how individually destabilising it was. Whenever I was on my own I would be second guessing myself; was I mistaken, did I truly understand the options available to me? So pleasant to have my imposter syndrome enhanced in this way.

Beyond destabilising how I felt about myself, I could feel relationships around me fray. Other striking ECRs lamented our position – I knew it was important to let them air their grievances but found it difficult to have my hardship mirrored back at me. Jealousy stalked in, uninvited but so incredibly persistent. Colleagues who complained about losing docked pay, but in the next breath said they might spend strike time car shopping or going on holiday. How dare they be able to afford that when some of us are working out if we can afford to eat, or how much further into debt we’ll sink. But then, at least they were striking. 

The bitterness toward (some) non-striking colleagues was, is, sometimes unmanageable for me. For a brief time, in pre-ballot hopefulness when I thought we might be successful in our fight, I had to do a lot of work to dissipate the build-up of resentment that I felt, blooming like mould on grouting. I was making this sacrifice for their pensions when they didn’t care about mine. Among this number is my brother, and it is acutely hurtful that our differences in this exaggerate our already heavily gendered and discipline-specific stereotypes; him, a logical scientist who specialises in ‘the voice of reason’; me, a social scientist bleeding heart liberal who cares too much and takes politics ‘too much to heart’. My dad still refuses to engage with me on strike action, anti-trade unionist as he is.

Even kind words from friends working in different industries, or post-92 universities, feel claustrophobic and conversations with them only really stimulate feelings of irritation in combination with guilt that I must be a broken record. Guilt, of course, is another unexpected ongoing outcome of having been on strike. Guilt, because all things considered I’m still lucky. I still have a reasonable salary. I have a job where, in comparison to previous jobs I’ve had, I am physically safe, doing something I love, and where I have inspiring, kind and fascinating colleagues from all over the world. 

So, my work life and my personal life (is it truly possible to separate the two?) have changed. I am completing a fellowship where the ‘to do’ list remained fixed throughout the strike. I just have less time in which to complete it. As a consequence, I have immediately resumed long days and weekend work, as much as it shames me to admit it. I don’t know that my participation in industrial action landed a decisive blow on anyone but myself, though I have spoken with my funder and they are expecting an invoice from my employer less my docked pay so that is a small victory.

My developing workplace relationships, I am still new, are self-curated, censored or policed depending on my colleague’s participation in strike action. Fortunately, friendships from the picket line have translated to friendships in and beyond the department. And so much trust exists in these relationships. It is replenishing. I am also lucky to be represented by an excellent local UCU branch, in a time where my faith in the university workplace social contract is so fractured that I don’t believe it can be fixed. It is gratifying to witness extraordinary, caring leadership like this. It is this that I am holding on to, and trying to engender in my workplace practice, as I complete the remaining 11 months of my contract.

Jen Remnant is Mildred Blaxter post-doctoral research fellow, School of Management, University of St Andrews and is on Twitter @JK_Remnant.

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