Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Why I'm not striking

You may have noticed something on the news about a 'lecturers'' strike - it's actually not just lecturers, but researchers and all sorts of academic staff, working mainly in pre-1992 universities. They've been on strike from last Thursday to today, and then will be again from next Monday to Thursday, and all of the week after that. The strike is over proposed changes to our pension scheme, shifting it from being a defined benefit scheme, under which, crudely, you know what you're going to get, to a 'defined contribution' scheme, where (even more crudely) the final amount is at the mercy of the stock market. It's also about arguments over the valuation of the scheme, and the significance of its deficit. I don't fully understand it, and I've been trying really hard. But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that this is a bad thing, I'm still not striking.

Every one of my colleagues who is on strike has an automated email reply with a link to the UCU website to say why they are on strike. They are all over Twitter saying why they are on strike. They have picket lines (9 am - 11 am) at which they will tell you why they are on strike. They have stalls in the Students' Union to say why they are on strike. But I have nowhere to say why I'm not on strike. And I want to say. I want to say it loud and proud. I'm not creeping, cowed, into work. I'm not ashamed of being a 'scab', covering for my striking colleagues. I am working proudly, wholeheartedly, and bloody hard. And I am not doing it because I am a right wing bastard. I'm not doing it because I want to destroy the trade union movement. I'm not doing it for the money or for popularity. I'm doing it because it is the right thing to do.

I am doing it because a defined benefit pension is a middle class, public sector, privilege that is not available to the majority of workers in this country, and I cannot in all conscience strike to defend my and my colleagues'  middle class privilege at the expense of my mostly working class students. My students are people from all sorts of backgrounds and histories who are trying to improve their lives and their prospects through getting a degree; because they're not from comfortable middle class backgrounds with the support for education and the cultural capital that brings, because they often didn't get the chance to do A Levels or stay on at school, we provide a Foundation Year so that they can hit the ground running and be the equal of their eighteen-year-old peers when they start their degree. It's something I'm immensely proud to be involved with, but which also carries great responsibility.

These students haven't just invested money in their education. Although older students, from working class backgrounds, are more likely to be put off by the idea of debt than conventional students, despite the fact that they may never have to repay it, for me this isn't even the biggest issue. Much more important is the fact that they have turned their lives upside down to come to university. They have given up jobs and replaced wages with maintenance loans; or they are working all hours at the same time as studying; they're seeing less of their children and putting their relationships under strain and even conflict. They are defying and overcoming the significant mental, emotional and physical health barriers that previously kept them out of education. In many cases they are putting their very sense of identity on the line.  They are doing this to grasp the opportunity of the sort of education that most of those on the picket lines took for granted.

The least I can do is to turn up to teach them. The least I can do is to do my very best to ensure that their investment of money and time and effort and self is not dismissed as being of less importance than the size of my pension.


  1. I applaud you and your stance, Sarah. There is no justification for your students to be disadvantaged because of strike action by their lecturers whose role is to provide educational opportunity and support, not to make their access to it more difficult or impossible!
    For the sake of all those students currently in higher education I hope this issue is soon resolved.

    Sue /Boatwif/nb Cleddau

  2. Good Evening Sarah.
    I was an NUM member back in the 1980s. I'm proud to say that I was on strike for 51 weeks and two days in 1984/85.
    I'm not going to stoop to name calling but I hope you will donate your wages for 'strike days' to a worthy charity.
    NB 'Red Wharf'
    Late of Hatfield NUM

    1. Thank you for your comment Sam. I can tell that you're calling me names in your heart, and I understand that, and see how from your point of view it's completely justified. Nothing I have said or done is intended to denigrate in any way the heroic stand taken and sacrifices made by other strikers, in other disputes, in other industries, for other causes. We all owe many of our employment rights, our equalities, and health and safety legislation to them. I'll try to write a longer, more considered response later but I just wanted to say that if I'd been paid extra for covering for striking colleagues then of course I would donate it to charity - probably to the strike fund (if they'd accept it) or something that supports our students. But I'm not, of course, so I wondered what the logic of that suggestion was. I'm not benefitting in any way from the strike, just trying to stop some vulnerable students being used as pawns. But I am open to being convinced...

    2. PS - I'm not a member of the union. Does that make my position better or worse?

  3. Good for you Sarah. I too hope this issue will soon be solved. Jennie, nb Tentatrice

  4. Well done Sarah, I entirely agree with you and fully support your efforts and ideals.
    Carol wb Still Rockin'

  5. As far as your decision not to take part in the strike is concerned, the fact that you are not a union member makes your position considerably better. Not having voted on the issue, you are not morally bound by the decision. Had you had the opportunity to vote and voted "no" I think there is a moral obligation to follow the majority.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that while I do not support your position, I do really admire your decision to write about it. Very courageous, good luck.


  6. Go Sarah! Very well said. Totally agree with everything you say.

  7. Hi Sarah, I respect your decision fully, its great we live and work in a democracy. My history - I worked in the print industry and had my jaw broken in three places on the picket line at Wapping. Why is that important, well I was there to defend workers rights. The area I focus on here is the point of change. If the change affects previous agreements and therefore life plans of workers it should be challenged. If the change is for new workers and the future then that is acceptable. My pension (local government ) was changed but protected for the years prior to change - this I accepted as the pension scheme was under pressure from people living longer. Your colleagues may have planned for many years as I did for a controlled retirement and retrospective changes would be unacceptable, planned future changes are a fact of life. At Wapping Rupert Murdock basically sacked all of his union workers and replaced them with non union to get his way over changing practices which was far from acceptable hence the strike. I'd be interested on the SU's position on the strikes?

  8. I went on strike several times to defend my own pension. We had a vote, the majority voted to strike and I "respected the will of the people" (remind you of anything?)

    As for your argument that good pensions are somehow a middle-class concept I must point out that at one time lots of working class people benefitted from them as well. They lost them because they didn't fight hard enough to keep them. I'm all for equality - but we need to level up, not level down.

    Perhaps your reluctance to strike is due to your own middle-class mindset? I come from a working class background (although I ended up in a middle class career job) and that alone made it impossible for me not to join my colleagues on strike, even though as Union members we were in a minority of staff. But if you are not a union member you wouldn't have had a vote so don't need to abide by the decision I suppose, although it does raise a whole host of other issues.

    I'm sorry you don't feel the same way as I do.