By Sol Gamsu
Last Friday was our only day back at work in two weeks – an island of “normality” – but like many I found the return to work strange. Crossing the pedestrian picket line at Bath felt odd. I missed the camaraderie and the new found collective strength and energy of the spaces of the strike. Brought out of the isolation and the exhausting, lonely and destructive competitiveness of everyday university life, we have discovered ourselves. Re-discovered both what it means to be a community of learners, teachers and workers and re-discovered the power of collective action, that we are strong and that an alternative is possible.
Against the grain of the return to the normal, we held an open branch meeting which over 80 members attended. Before the strike we would have been lucky to have half that number. But it wasn’t the numbers that mattered so much as the attitude and feeling in the room. The pensions strike feels like a caesura – a break with the old. Something has fundamentally changed about how we see ourselves as workers in higher education. The atmosphere in the room was one of energy, of optimism and hope – not just for victory in the pensions dispute but something deeper: a shift in the tectonic plates of higher education, a feeling that we can build something different, places of learning that belong to us. A shift in the power balance away from neoliberal senior managers who now find themselves dangerously out of step with the mood of students and staff.
For me personally, and I know for others in the room, the whole spirit of this is deeply moving. Almost in tears we spoke about the strength we had in the room – the power of all of us acting together and the possibilities which lie ahead of us if we take our collective action and organisation beyond the strike and into the everyday functioning and processes of higher education. For some of us who have been active in campus unions and in the politics of HE as staff and students, we know now that when we felt like lonely voices fighting campaigns we could not win, we were never alone. There were always more of us than we knew. But it takes struggle and these moments of collective action to build a broader community of politically active people.
I have only experienced this moment of realisation once before in 2010 during the student protests against the £9,000 fee hike. I was in my final year as an undergraduate and had been active in students’ union politics and campus campaigns from my first year. Before we went into occupation we held an open meeting for students to talk about what action we wanted to take. Suddenly, instead of the usual five or ten faces, the hacks of campus politics, we were 50 people voting to go into occupation. Over the course of the UCL occupation the numbers grew with hundreds of students involved over the weeks of our occupation. The learning we did there, in the space of the occupation and over the course of the autumn’s many protests, shaped our politics in ways that were and are still indelible. It created a generation of politically active young people who dominated campus politics at UCL and have gone on to play a central part in some of the key political movements of the last six or seven years.
Though this is not about personalities, it is about biographies. On Thursday, I talked to an Italian colleague who described growing up in a working-class family in the South of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. It was international women’s day and she spoke about her struggle as a young woman wanting to travel and learn languages, her determination to do these things and her satisfaction in having achieved many of them. In the open branch meeting the next day, I was reminded of a quote from an Italian worker at the Fiat plants in 1969 describing what it felt like as the strike spread through the factories:
‘When you felt the corteo come closer “boom, boom, boom,” even the walls were shaking. […] This must be an earthquake, for heaven’s sake. What’s happening? Then the corteo arrived. And already about 1km ahead of the corteo some people began to scatter. The bosses ran away [as the well-known activists came in:]… perhaps our time has come. Perhaps we can redeem ourselves, right now. We have done well to come north. I swear to you, you know how it is when you want to speak and you can’t. It reminded me of those festive encounters organised by the partisans after the liberation of a town… We embraced each other, and this meant everything. It could signify, “we have won,” or “we have finally been pulled out of the muck,” “we have redeemed our honour, our pride.” You thought about your father, the life he had led, you thought about those old people who had been here.
Each of us has these stories – not all of us come from southern Italy or working-class families and our place of labour is very different from the FIAT factories on the 1960s, but each of us who takes part in these strikes is caught up and changed by it. Something in us changes. Our personal stories of work, family and past get pulled into something larger. All of a sudden, we are not alone. Struggles within our biographies are transformed by a politics which is bigger than any one of us individually. The moment of the strike, of collectively removing ourselves from our life’s work, weaves together our personal stories and the broader politics which surround us in our working lives. All of this is brought sharply into focus.
Something about this moment and this strike feels like a turning of the tide. As Liz Morrish has noted, the clever VC will be alive to a new political consciousness amongst staff. There are numerous challenges facing us; the Office for Students and the Conservative government mean the changes that are needed will not come easily. Just as important, however, are the battles about how we work and how we treat each other and what academia actually means and is for. The endless routine of disciplined self-exploitation and grotesque competition is deeply depressing. What is clear is that this battle is not just about pensions, it is about the unravelling of a whole system and structure of governance and value in higher education. The challenge is to sustain the spirit and feeling of the strike beyond any resolution of the dispute.
When talking to students on the picket, we often say we do not want to strike and would prefer to be teaching. Clearly, we do not want this pension reform and didn’t ask for it. But we must ask ourselves whether we want to return to work in the same conditions that we left off. This strike has, as Plashing Vole has pointed out, highlighted the joy of being part of a community, something which has been totally at odds with the current mode of managing and working in universities in the UK over the last decade or more. After the end of the dispute, we need to continue the spirit of the strike, taking collective control of our lives at work, weaving together the politics of our work and our own biographies as we seek to construct and transform our places of learning. Perhaps our time has come.
Sol Gamsu is a Researcher in the Department of Education at the University of Bath. He tweets at @SolGamsu.
Originally posted 15th March 2018.