As I write this post, we are on strike. Today, my UK union, the UCU, is holding one of a series of two-hour work stoppages, part of our current battle for a living wage increase for academic staff across the country. I won’t go into the details of what we are fighting for – read about the issues here if you wish – except to say that I voted to strike back in the autumn, and I’m doing my best to observe each strike in spirit if not always by the book (more on that below). At its core, this fight is about the continued, pernicious pressure levelled upon us by an intensively neoliberal civic culture, in which ordinary working citizens are required to bear the brunt of the government’s ongoing austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, while the economy’s most elite workers (those who hold the greatest fiscal, social, cultural, and estates capital) are not only spared but rewarded with tax breaks and other income-protection measures in the name of a new kind of trickle-down economics. As a feminist, as a teacher, as a scholar and as a “lay” activist, I oppose the practice of neoliberalism in contemporary anglophone culture in all its forms, and my position on the issues over which we are striking is part of that opposition.
So I’m on strike, but I’m writing this blog post. More specifically, I’m writing it from the Costa coffee shop (a chain shop, similar to Starbucks or Second Cup, that operates all over the UK) across the road from my campus office. During today’s work stoppage I was not scheduled to teach, but I was scheduled to hold an office hour; instead of cancelling that office hour unequivocally and leaving my desk to attend our local rally near the QMUL library, I decided to put a note on my office door that simply said “I am at Costa if you need me.” I did not specify a date or time; I simply hoped that students who really felt they needed to see me would understand the message and come by the coffee shop if it was urgent.
I made this decision after chatting with several colleagues about the conundrum I was facing: I had missed last week’s office hour due to a meeting off campus, I wanted to ensure any students who had been inconvenienced by that cancellation would not be inconvenienced two weeks in a row, and I did not want to have to reschedule my office hour for another day, as I am making an effort this semester to protect my research time ahead of some upcoming deadlines. In other words, I did not want the act of striking to make my life that much harder by pushing my teaching work into the evening, or into another day scheduled for other, equally important tasks. At the same time, I did not want simply not to take some action; I wanted to make a gesture that could be understood as standing in solidarity with my colleagues actively striking, while also recognized by students as an effort to meet their most significant needs despite the difficult choices presented by the situation in which union members currently find themselves.
Some will call this fence-sitting, or perhaps even a kind of cowardice; I’ve tried to inconvenience nobody, when in fact a strike is all about inconvenience, at its core. I prefer to think of my choice as a compromise that makes the best, for me, of a situation in which I stand to lose on all fronts: my students stand to be frustrated and potentially blame me and my colleagues for that frustration; I stand to have to work later in order to make up for “stopping” mid-day; I also stand to lose a day’s pay (which I am willing to do when I am asked, by the administrators at QM for the official record book, if I observed the strike). As a group, union members may win our battle of course, may gain in the long run. But the likelihood of that feels, to be honest, quite small. My compromise is imperfect, and so am I: tired and emotionally drained just weeks into the spring semester, I want to stand by my political position but also not be worn down further in the process.
The compromise I’ve chosen is also, of course, in every way a function of the job I do, in both its privileges and its pressures. Academics work when we want to work, aside from set teaching and meeting hours; we also, as a result, tend to work most of the time. In fact, we tend to live our jobs, thinking about or acting on our research and teaching practices in conjunction with other “leisure” or “extracurricular” activities throughout the week and on weekends. For example, I lesson plan partly in my head while walking the dog, putting pen to paper and firming up the day’s tasks once we’re home. I also work a lot of Sundays and evenings, on research or marking. I combine holidays and conferences, so I’m usually working at least half of any given “holiday” trip. I’ve learned to preserve Saturdays, for the sake of my mental health, but that’s the best I can consistently do when it comes to guaranteeing myself genuine free time. (If you’re interested in reading more about this particular battle for free time – from a sunnier and more optimistic perspective! – please check out my holiday blog post on “getting a life” here.)
In any job that is also a kind of calling, boundaries are few and far between (as well as a profound challenge to maintain, when we do erect them). This life-work weave speaks to my privilege as a well-paid, mobile professional in an information economy. At the same time, though, that information economy, with the high premium it places on “knowledge” workers belonging to a “creative” class, demands my excess time, encourages me surreptitiously to work all the time, to take less and less money per hour for that time, and to call it all a job perk to boot. This is one of the ways that neoliberal ideology works strenuously against me, and against us all. I am aware of it, but feel in many ways helpless in front of it. And this helpless awareness is one of the things, whether stated in this round of bargaining or not, that information workers are always striking about these days, when we are lucky enough to have the right to strike (and fewer and fewer of us do).
There’s one more way in which my compromise in today’s strike action feels uncomfortable but essential to me. I mentioned above that I am emotionally drained already, only three weeks into the new semester; this may seem like an extreme experience, but it’s not at all a new feeling. Any college-level teacher (any teacher full stop, I suspect) will tell you that working with others, especially young people, in a mentor-student relationship is emotional labour of the highest order. The students we teach need us like never before: caught in the hamster’s wheel of high tuition fees, part time jobs with zero hours contracts, not enough support staff at uni to help them in their stresses and struggles, not enough time in the day to complete their paid work as well as their scholarly labour, and few great job prospects on completion, these students look to us to help them get through the affective pain of being here with us, in this socioeconomic moment in time, feeling betrayed by the institutions that promised to guide and aid us and yet having to carry on anyway. And it’s my job – indeed, it’s my calling – to help when asked. But taking on their affect hurts; it’s physically and mentally taxing for me, too. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it; it does mean, however, that it makes me so, so tired when I do. So I refuse to blame myself for wanting to sort-of-but-not-quite hold my office hour over the road at Costa; I did it to help alleviate the building anxiety I was feeling about when I might do that crucial affective labour, that emotional support work that is so much a part of my job, if not as scheduled now – because it simply has to get done.
The cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has a term for what I’ve been engaged in this past two hours, and in this blog post. She calls the act of doing what I know will ultimately be bad for me, but which I hope against hope will be OK after all, cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is the condition of possibility of neoliberalism today; it is a bad compromise, one you feel you can’t but take, just to make it to tomorrow. By partly but not quite striking today, the UCU itself took a compromise position against British universities that amounts to a gesture of cruel optimism; by almost but not quite striking with my union, I did, too. Looks like we’re still all in this together.