By Richard Parfitt |
Sitting in my office in Oxford’s Clarendon Building during last month’s UCU strike was an experience in how sound can shape and project industrial action.
I passed the picket line each morning. As a member of the administrative staff, on a different pension, my work continued as normal. However, though shut away in an office within the solid walls of an iconic university building, the sound of the strike passed through. The speeches, the cheers, and most strikingly the songs. We had Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan and, repeated most often, ‘Solidarity Forever’. As you’ll see in the video below, this was a song picked up across the country.
This music communicated the meaning of the strike to the strikers themselves, to the workers inside the building, to the public passing by and, perhaps most deliberately, to the Vice-Chancellor’s Office on the ground floor.
For the strikers, part of the solidarity of ‘Solidarity Forever’ was in the fact that they sung it together. The gathered staff of the University of Oxford expressed the same words, the same melodies, and the same ideals because they performed in unison. With that many academics in one place, there were no doubt several different takes on the strike, on what it was about, or on what would be an acceptable outcome. However, by singing together those gathered could iron over those differences. Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong. Simple, easy, unquestioned.
Moreover, for those of us who were out of sight, it was a reminder of what was going on. Unlike the strikers themselves, their music can pass through the walls of the building, directly affecting the staff inside, including at least one person who has some say in the pensions dispute at hand. You can’t storm the building and invade the Vice-Chancellor’s office in polite society, but Bob Dylan can. What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? For the Union makes us strong.
This certainly went beyond Oxford. Any large, national strike is likely to attract the interest and sympathy of the left more broadly. Music reinforces that. At SOAS, the strikers were actively and acutely aware of how they could harness that potential. Using online networks, the ‘SOAS Guerilla Choir Song Book’ continued their ‘ethnomusicological work in progress’ by distributing songs to be used on the picket line. Their song book includes Ireland’s ‘Fields of Athenry’, a song about a man deported during the Irish famine of the 1840s for stealing from a local landlord. A famine that killed over a million is a long way from the plight of university lecturers, however seriously one takes the latter. This is the power of song. A comparison that might otherwise appear absurd not only becomes plausible but insists that the strike is one event in a string of consistent acts against oppression and deprivation.
Let us not forget either that this is an era in which Britain has had enough of experts, particularly those of elite institutions like Oxford. The metropolitan elite’s place with the workers who ‘dug the mines and built the workshops’ is highly dubious in today’s politics, whatever the realities of lecturers who can’t make ends meet. A few lines about the union, protecting the workers from serfdom, repositions the intellectual elite in an international workers movement. That is no mean feat, and whether Oxford’s lecturing staff can always be so easily incorporated into the leftist vision of the working-class remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, in music if you sing with the workers you are the workers, at least until the final chorus.