Why I’m Striking: A Member of University Staff Explains Why They Think the Strike is Necessary

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The following is a piece by a teaching assistant at the university, explaining their reasoning behind supporting the staff strike this Thursday. Their views are their own, and are not intended to represent those of the staff body at the University of Southampton.

Many of you will have heard that staff are striking this Thursday. Though I will be one of them, I won’t be doing it with any great enthusiasm. Striking will cost me money. It will put one of my seminar groups – who matter a lot to me – at a disadvantage. And it will probably have little effect on those who run the Universities – who seem to do so with little regard for staff or students at the best of times.

Why am I doing it then? That short answer is that something has to give. Lecturers and academic staff have seen their pay fall in real terms for the last 5 years. This can’t go on forever. And the situation is often worse still for administrative and support staff – for those who still have their jobs at least – and worse still for the cleaners, caterers and security staff who keep the campus running from morning to night 6 days a week. University pay has become totally distorted, with Vice-Chancellors, including our own Don Nutbeam typically earning around £300,000 pa, whilst thousands of staff are paid below the living wage and on zero hours contracts.

Students may well find it hard to sympathise with striking staff, and this is very much understandable. After all, it is students who will lose out on the day of the strike – and in any future action that takes place. And it’s typically assumed that lecturers have it pretty good in terms of pay and conditions. In some sense this is true. Academic life can be wonderful, and doing research is a privilege that none of us should take for granted. But the days of the ivory tower have been gone for some time. Even senior staff are lucky to find a few hours a day to do their own research – facing more administration, targets and funding pressure than ever before. Teaching assistants, like me, typically work on zero hours contracts – accepting work when we can get it – and typically earning much less than half of the hourly wage of lecturers. Many of us have families, and most of us don’t even come close to supporting them with what we earn from teaching.

Will the strike fix all this? Of course not. But its about the only option we have. And as of now, higher education is heading nowhere good. Aside from pay – students should also be concerned about rumours that Universities want to raise fees further, and the Government’s plans to sell their student debt to private firms who can raise the repayment rates in the future. The Government and University management are currently using one of the worlds best University systems as a guinea pig in a radical market-driven experiment. This prospect should fill no-one with a sense of confidence.

So to students who miss seminars, lectures and tutorials on Thursday – by all means get angry. Hell knows you’re paying enough for them. But when you get angry, remember that staff are angry too. If you want to know why your education is being harmed – and be in no doubt that it is –  you need to look past us, and up to University management, and even to Parliament. There is not one staff member on campus who would rather be striking than teaching. But doing nothing just isn’t an option.

 

Do you agree with the rationale above? If you wish to write a response, please email the editor at editor@soton.ac.uk.

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Discussion7 Comments

  1. avatar

    Fantastic article. I’m glad the Wessex Scene got a perspective like this up from staff from Southampton University itself.

    Partisan?
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    I like a range of perspectives too.

    Shaun Harvey
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    You’re welcome to contribute an article if you feel the discussion is lacking in different opinions.

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    I don’t have a problem with people giving opinions, but I always laugh when people say something similar to, “There is not one staff member on campus who would rather be striking than teaching,” yet choose the precise option they claim they don’t prefer. The fact is that you do prefer to strike – you wish that you didn’t feel the need or urge to – but you do. There’s just no need to say you don’t want to strike if you’ve just spent time trying to justify wanting it. Don’t deny or play down something you’re defending by saying you prefer the opposite course of action.

    REGARDLESS, I understand the article and I get the stress and emotions you are going through. But – and I’m just checking because it could be that you do already know this – do you understand that the issue extends further than just lecturers? The issue of pay cuts since the recession has affected the UK work force as a whole, with the average fall since 2009 between 8.5-9%. In some years the private sector took a bigger cut than the public sector, so it isn’t really isn’t just you. Loads of people are on zero-hours contracts. And while 48 hours a week is not common, it IS shared by others in other industries with half your holiday entitlement. I’m not saying that your 13% or working conditions aren’t something to worry about… But this is the climate we are in.

    I want to know why we should support of a group of people with important jobs going on strike just because they have decided that “enough is enough” after 5 years of recession, when there are millions of others in the same situation who aren’t. When you take a pay cut but thousands have been made redundant.

    SOMEONE has to have the biggest cut by definition – explain why we should essentially support putting someone else in that position instead for your sake, bearing in mind the (economic) costs of your desires?

    And don’t get my tone wrong – this isn’t an attack on you or anything – I will, sincerely, actually be happy if you can provide a good argument following my questions. Or is it really just that other people aren’t seeing pay cuts as large as yours and you just want more
    (Inb4 wrong interpretations of this + flames).

    UCU Member
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    I get your point, but it is true that no-one wants to strike. We don’t get paid when we strike – you do realise that? It’s like saying that civil rights campaigners “want” to be arrested or beaten by the police when they protest injustice. Sure, they might choose to put themselves in harms way, but it wouldn’t be fair to say they wanted to have to do that*. What they want is fairness, so they don’t have to protest.

    * Let me be clear that I’m not saying the staff cause is like the civil rights cause – it’s just a way of thinking about why people protest.

    Also, why should you support just us? You shouldn’t – no-one is asking you to. You should support *all* workers – and that’s why we’re on strike *with* the cleaners, with the caterers and with the admin staff. We won’t agree an increase in wages until they get one too.

    And more widely – you’re right that lots of people are seeing wages fall – but what are we supposed to do? Do you really think that if *no-one* goes on strike (for fear of doing better than others) pay will just sort itself out across society?

    Basically, the issue is this. There isn’t just a fixed economic pie, so that if academic staff get more, someone else has to lose out. That’s not how the economy works (or should work). Up until the 80s *all* middle income workers saw their wages rise together. But since Thatcher/Regan and globalisation, the new wealth has gone almost exclusively to the top 1% of earners**. That’s what we need to reverse.

    **Play with this a bit – it’s from the US but makes the point really well: http://stateofworkingamerica.org/who-gains/#/?start=1946&end=1979

    Question?
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    Yes my first nuance was more on a literal as well as philosophical level on what it really means to “want”.

    My questions still aren’t answered very well though – yes we should support all workers. But the majority workers (and I mean those apart from lecturers, admin, cleaners, and the like) have collectively decided (however subconsciously this may have been or however unhappy they are with it) to bite the bullet. And my point is not against a strike to figure out a pay balance between lecturers and others in society – it is about not going on strike when everyone is already having a hard time and has been having one, just like you, for the last 5 years. The overall climate will settle without strikes – and it has been very slowly – and once that happens then it is a more suitable situation to go on strike for everyone (strikers included). It is just more likely to be successful simply because people (those with power) will find it easier to accept that you are worth finding the extra pay for.

    Wages will catch up with inflation and they always have eventually in Britain.

    While you may not think there isn’t just a “fixed economic pie” it is probably closer to that than the other side of the spectruim. Someone else in the public sector is extremely likely to lose out if you get paid more (keeping government objectives constant…), and even if they don’t, my point was that, in terms of emotional sentiment, someone else will feel like they are in your place, at the bottom of the pile of ****.

    On your last point, the US economy is extremely different to ours and should not be used to compare against us in many respects, least to say because the tax system is specifically different – our system does a much greater job than theirs in terms of income equality and while a lot of wealth does go to the top few per cent of our earners, our top 1% of earners contribute 30% of all income tax (the largest contributor to total government receipts) and the top 2% extends this figure to 50%.

    UCU Member
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    So to try again:
    “Why should academic staff strike when other workers choose not to?”

    Firstly, don’t confuse the face that other workers aren’t striking with their preferring not to strike. Many workers (temp workers, those on zero hours contracts, seasonal workers, those in the first year of their employment, migrant workers) face the prospect of losing their job if they join a union, let alone strike. And if you look at the industries where union membership is higher, you’ll see a lot of them are preparing for strike action.

    But more generally, it still doesn’t make sense to say academic staff are making life harder for other workers when they strike. If anything, when wages in one sector start rising this drags up wages elsewhere (employers have to raise more to risk bleeding skilled staff to another sector).

    And to re-iterate, wages are not a zero-sum game. I gave the US example because it illustrates so clearly how gains in productivity used to go to workers (so everyone’s wages rose) but now go almost exclusively to the top 1%. It’s not a mad leftist claim to say that all wages can rise together – it’s what happened for most of the 20th century!

    You’re right that the US is different – but it’s only a more extreme example of the same processes that have taken place in Britain elsewhere. Wealth inequality has soared since the 80s, whilst median wages have stagnated. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOJ93tAbPP0&feature=share for an illustration of the UK)

    The point is this. We urgently need to re-direct the benefits of economic growth away from the top 1% and towards low and middle income earners (I’m going to assume you agree with this so some degree). If that’s true then the question becomes whether workers organising and demanding more of a share of this growth will help or hinder. I accept that it might not help – but I don’t see how it can hinder this process.

    You say that “wages will catch up with inflation” by themselves. There is no historical precedent for this. Every rise in wages in the 20th century took place against a backdrop of union pressure. And moreover, when unions were stronger, wages rose faster. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2013/03/union-membership-and-inequality/

    None of this is to say that Unions are perfect, or that there weren’t problems in the 70s etc etc. But we’ve gone way to far in the other direction. If we were to reduce income inequality to levels of 1997, that would be way beyond what UCU and other Unions are currently asking for. Britain in 1997 was not a mad socialist utopia!

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