Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘labour’

Counting to 20

I’m sitting in the Sheldon Theatre for a meeting of Congregation, Oxford University’s governing body, to discuss a suspension of rules to allow a discussion of the proposed resolution to change the university’s negotiating posture on the pension issue. (The motion was proposed with only 18 days notice, rather than the required 22.) The rules allow 20 members to rise (ageism!) to object, which blocks consideration.

It surprised me how determined the university administration was to block this vote.

But it also surprised me how difficult it was to count to 20. It took around ten minutes. They seemed to keep getting confused, and needing to recount various sections.

Whether there really were 20 I’m not sure, but they finally said there were, and adjourned the meeting, to shots of “Shame!”

At which point the meeting was spontaneously moved outside, and a wildcat vote was held.

Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

Solidarity for academia

You may not have noticed, but the UK academics’ union (UCU) is on strike today, together with the higher-education employees of Unite and Unison, representing clerical, technical, and support staff. Having come to Oxford from Queen’s University (Ontario), which is a closed shop, where the union flexes its muscles on behalf of academic employees, I was surprised by the weakness of the academic unions here. UCU seems to make no effort to inform new academic employees that it even exists. The only news I ever heard about UCU during my early years in the UK were the efforts of a vocal minority to hijack the union for anti-Israel boycotts.

But I decided I should make an effort and actually sign up for the union. It’s pretty clear that the panjandrums of higher education in the UK are fundamentally managerialist in their outlook, and are happy to take advantage of academics’ hauteur to break our solidarity. We think we’re important professionals, not like those maintenance employees and secretaries and such for whom unionisation may be appropriate, but from the perspective of the VCs we’re all just a bunch of proles.

Many seem to think that the special values of academia are incompatible with unionisation. I’d say exactly the opposite: To the extent that we hold to peculiarly academic values, we are not going to preserve them in any form against the corporatisation drive of UK university administration and government through persuasion. It is going to be a power struggle, and only a strong union will give us any chance of asserting our vision. They’ll be happy for us to bring a well-honed argument to an education-policy gunfight.

A spokesman for the UCEA (University and College Employers’ Association) dissed the union last week, saying

It is for trade unions to predict their support but given that less than 5 per cent of staff chose to vote in favour of strike action, our higher education institutions anticipate low-level impact on students.

In other words, you won’t be missed.

When I ask colleagues how they feel about the union and going on strike (and following the strike, the union’s decision to “work to contract”), they tend to respond with some variant of “It would only hurt the students.” Of course, that’s the kind of scruple that the employers never have. I’ve never heard of a vice chancellor saying, “We could worsen conditions/ cut pay/ replace permanent by temporary lecturers, but it would only hurt the students.”

For academics, our salaries are not just our salaries. Many of the advantages that reconcile us to the low salaries in academia, relative to other sectors where people with our skills and education might work, depend on maintaining our departments’ research environment, which requires that the salaries be at least comparable to international standards.

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