The Emotional Complexity of the USS strikes

Image: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Monday 26th March, 2018

Ranjana Das

I have been prompted to write this short note, partly reflexively, with the aim of recognising and working through the range of things I have felt as I have taken part in strike action in solidarity with colleagues across the UK, to save our pensions from being crushed. In other words, handing us an effective pay cut. But equally I have been prompted to write this because of the many accounts I have heard, some at length and some in passing, from colleagues and friends as each of us have had individual journeys through the strike. And most recently I have been inspired by this excellent account of the emotional and material politics of the strike.

Anger has been a justifiable emotion many of us have justifiably felt. Anger that strike action of such kind was necessitated. Anger that UUK have oscillated so visibly and blatantly, derecognising the labour we put into our work, often vastly beyond contracted hours. Anger also that we are being unable to teach our students, who we love meeting and teaching, about topics which have social-democratic principles underlying them.

Helplessness is something I personally have felt, as have others. For those of us doing our bits, but not involved in decision making at local UCU branches, or often even unable to strike for financial reasons, the sense of a kind of powerlessness has been palpable through the collective production and display of genuine strength and solidarity. What academia is it where staff must feel as though their backs are to the wall, and where their labour is being stripped of value? I make a poster, I tweet, I retweet, I picket, I support and it drags on as long as UUK will make it drag on. To what end?

Fear is perhaps more individual at times than collective. For some of us, there has been a genuine fear of how to make ends meet at the end of a month when pay is docked, but we have often worked through weekends and evenings in order to cope. The fear of the chance that things may not work out as we hoped. The fear of looking into old age with very little to sustain us at a time when increasing moves to the right are resulting in significant cut backs to public sector support for old age and social care. For many of us, household incomes may be capped owing to care responsibilities, disability, much lower-earning partners, job instabilities for others in the household, or our own financial responsibilities. These factors which impact on our striking but also our visions of the future. It is sickening, that one must feel fear, at all, in doing what one loves.

Isolation has been experienced unevenly, as a mixed bag. For the many hundreds of inspiring, energizing picket photos, a few of us have been unable to join in, in regular picketing, for reasons of living too far away. For those of us for whom teaching and ‘going in to work’ serve social and emotional purposes, the extended period away may have led to surprising feelings of isolation. That does not mix well with any of the above.

But equally the USS strikes have also been about remarkably positive things.

Energy has been written across this movement. Acute weather conditions, personal difficulties, and all sorts of hurdles have been overcome to show up at the pickets, to note down every valuable day on strike so that Universities can dock pay. Energy has been evident in the tweeting, retweeting, supporting that has gone on throughout this movement and it has created a kind of pressure that UUK are unlikely to be able to ignore.

Solidarity has manifested itself in countless ways. Early career colleagues have often struggled with decisions to strike: their personal politics placing them firmly on the picket line, but uncertain contracts, huge living costs and a range of pro-rata pay related worries dragging them away from it. How have colleagues in this position come to terms with the difficulties involved in their decisions? Solidarity across the board, from striking colleagues reassuring non-striking ones, from non-striking colleagues joining the strike for as many days they possibly can, sticking together no matter what.

In the end striking is hard work. It is not a holiday, as many right-wing tabloids love to claim. It makes a point. It takes a stand. But to do so, there is, first, a material cost: the docked wages that pay the bills and now cannot. But it also involves a less visible emotional cost, experienced differently by each of us. As we withdraw our labour in the classrooms, we are contributing emotional labour, right here right now, to fight the fight, to take the stand and in the process work hard, emotionally, on our own individual journey through it, holding a host of diverging affective experiences within us.

Ranjana Das is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Surrey. She researches the outcomes of people’s interaction with emerging technologies, with a particular recent focus on parenting, mental health and social media.

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