On strike

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.

In solidarity,


4 thoughts on “On strike

  1. Sending you solidarity from back home! I knew UNB was on strike but didn’t know QMUL was too. Please keep giving us updates on how things progress.

    Presumably you’ve seen this article that’s been going around the Internet lately: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-name-of-love/
    It makes a similar argument to yours in this post. The discourse of loving our jobs because they’re a vocation obscures the very real neoliberalism of university work and makes us complicit in our own exploitation as 24/7 workers who are always on, even when we’re not. I certainly feel like my job is 24/7 and I have to be on all the time (like you, doing mental work that I write down immediately after walking to campus or coming home from the gym) just in order to keep from falling behind and drowning. I’m also starting to think a lot more about the distinction between my job and my career, which might be a way out of the ubiquitous pull of the job, since really it’s often the research we love and could be doing as a hobby or for fun outside of jobs framed by these neoliberal constraints. Thoughts?

  2. Thanks so much, Jen; love that article! I also want to direct readers to the work of Jamie Peck, an excellent critic of Richard Florida and his creative class mantra, on exactly these lines, and my colleague Jen Harvie’s superb new book, Fair Play.

    For those who haven’t read the piece Jen directs us to in the link in her comment, it’s absolutely worth it. Here’s a taster:

    “By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

    Also, I must say, love this:

    “Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO: his food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers (abysmal wages, massive child care costs, et cetera) barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?”

    Neoliberal ideology works by making us all feel complicit, and by making the most thoughtful among us feel profoundly guilty therefore; I want to encourage us to fight that feeling by teaching others, especially our students, its pernicious and self-defeating logic. I know several colleagues who have used our strike today as a teaching point; we could do much worse in the name of strike action.

  3. Thank you for this post, Kim. I don’t tend to go in for new years resolutions but one thing I am aiming for this year is to be more conscious of the state of things like this – find out more about the union and how these kind of actions could affect me (a full-time PhD researcher and part-time TA) or other students at all levels/how my actions could affect them – which, until now, I have remained woefully (and perhaps wilfully) under informed about.

    I’ve been trying to puzzle out my feelings on these 2 hours strikes and the position that QM has chosen to adopt and the honesty and clarity of your piece helped me to realise that it’s ok to feel conflicted and compromised.

    It’s has also reinforced for me how important it is to be open and honest with my students about things like this and reminded me that, if I am feeling conflicted and confused, chances are they might be too. After reading this (and the article recommended above), I will certainly be making some time in class next week (just before the next 2 hours strike, in fact) to give them an opportunity to ask questions, voice their opinions and – hopefully – help me to continue to reconcile my own.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for this comment, Cat; I can imagine it’s particularly challenging for graduate TAs to work out how to position themselves on the faculty strike actions, and then doubly difficult to manage student reactions in turn. I’d be keen to hear how your lesson goes on Tuesday!

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