By Sam Grinsell and Krysten Blackstone |
With strikes looming in many UK universities, PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) find themselves trying to work out where they fit in to this sector wide debate. At least, those who are members of the UCU (University and College Union), which called for action after negotiations over pensions broke down. Social media, especially immediately after the announcement of strike action, seemed full of people with fully formed, but widely divergent, responses. Some said union members had a duty to stick to the line of the UCU, and that this strike might be the last opportunity to secure some power for university workers in employment negotiations. Others argued that the length of the strikes (four weeks of action from 22 February to 16 March, culminating in a five day walkout) meant that loss of earnings would fall particularly hard on hourly paid staff, most of whom may never secure permanent employment. Some replied that UCU also campaigns against casualisation but finds it hard to take direct action on the issue because of the legislation on strikes. And so it goes on.
We at Pubs and Pubs are not generally given to taking a party line on things, our pieces are always the personal views of the author and nothing more. On this occasion, we thought it might be beneficial to explore our doubts, rather than out certainties. There are plenty of people out there who seem to know exactly what they think. We are less sure, and thought it might be worth sharing some of our doubts, not in order to contradict anyone, but to be a little more open about the insecurities many of us must surely be feeling at this time.
Sam Grinsell, Chair
I write this almost exactly two years after writing a post on employment practices and solidarity, arguing for more understanding of the ways changes to employment in universities and hospitals have been modeled on developments in other sectors. It is strange to read back, being now a university tutor myself, and contemplating my role in this strike, how to present it to my students, and how much it might cost me financially (a lot less for me than for many others, I admit). (Anyone concerned about the details should, of course, speak to their union rep and consult the UCU website, more information has been released this week.)
I have concerns about how easy it is to misrepresent a university strike: lefty lecturers playing at being the proletariat while enjoying salaries well above what many ordinary workers ever see. We inside the sector know the pain of short-term, casual academics labour, but this is something utterly outside the knowledge of many non-academics. Pensions have the same danger as an issue: there is a general perception that their reduction is just an inevitability of modern life, and that therefore only people about to receive them have any stake in the issue. The fact that these ideas are false and that we can marshall counter-arguments does not reduce their power in the public imagination. I hope that we can take the chance to push some of our problems into the public sphere, but in doing so we should seek to understand how our work relates to other sectors. What must be avoided is the perception that this debate takes place purely in an ivory tower.
And what about me? I will certainly be involved in action, though I have yet to work out the exact form this will take. I hope that the employers will come back to the negotiating table so that the strikes will be called off. I hope that we can all get back to teaching our students and conducting our research.
Krysten Blackstone, Deputy Chair
I’ve only just made my full decision on the strike this week. I will be participating, I won’t be rescheduling my classes, and while the financial loss should be absorbed through various channels of support available to union members, it is a probability I have decided to accept. That’s my decision, and not one I’ve made lightly.
Since the strike was called there has not been a day that it hasn’t come up in at least one conversation. This is unsurprising given that I eat my lunch daily with a group of PhD students, I teach undergraduates and I work at the Students’ Association with all that spare time I like to think I have. Confusion and uncertainty seem rampant right now, amongst all these groups and it is something I have been struggling with myself. The probabilities and possibilities seem endless, and there are too many ‘what if scenarios’ to consider. From all of this, one thing that has stood out to me is that the dual-life of a PhD student has never been more obvious. This pension issue is one that directly affects many of our futures, and the importance of that is not something anyone is undermining. We are the future full time lecturers. However, at the same time, many of us are on hourly paid contracts with the University, so while we are staff, the financial repercussions are potentially severe. As most PhD students are hardly living a life of excess, the weight that this loss of salary could have is enormous. On top of this, we are also still students. I have a thesis to work on, conference papers to write and deadlines to meet. While the strike doesn’t affect directly affect that, I work exclusively in the department. Working from home is not something I am good at, to the point where I chalk it up as an impossibility most of the time. Going into the office during the strike may be productive, but would mean crossing a picket line, and weighing that up is (like everything else about this) not an easy decision. If those personal decisions weren’t confusing enough, I teach. I have 3 classes of undergrads that will directly be affected if I choose to strike. For them, the strike means 4 weeks of cancelled classes. During essay season. With an exam that counts for 40% of their grade.
I like to think I am a fairly decisive person, but I’ve been umming and ahhhing over this since it was announced. My support of the strike and what it stands for was never in question, but the extent to which I would be able to support it was. That is the common issue I think most people are facing right now. And that’s alright. Support of the strike should be made on an individual basis and a daily basis. There are gradations and levels of support just like there are unlimited consequences the strike could have.
Sam Grinsell and Krysten Blackstone are both second year PhD students at the University of Edinburgh.