I’m on strike. I don’t like it. I like going to work, I like my job as a lecturer and I miss it. I feel that to do my job is a privilege. I get to think (sometimes), be creative and critical, I work with amazing students from all over the world and I learn something new from them every day – I know it’s a cliché but it’s true. My team is great – our direction of travel is pretty much aligned, we are working towards the same goals and we are supportive and fun. Sometimes the job is challenging and stressful, but what job isn’t? So why am I on strike?
UCU called a strike and action short of a strike for 14 days over February and March this year over pay, workload, equality and casualisation. My institution’s union voted in favour of action. However, many who voted in favour of the strike are not on strike, and many colleagues are not in the union. I understand, it’s been an extraordinarily difficult decision for me to strike, despite voting for it. There is the disruption to the students, who pay through the nose for their education. I worry about damaging personal relationships built over the years with students who need support and reassurance, not just an unanswered email or an oblique out of office response. I worry about my colleagues who are holding the fort and doing extra so as to minimise disruption. I worry about my reputation, will I be seen as a trouble-maker, lazy? Will I damage my relationships with my colleagues not on strike? Will I miss out on opportunities or sabotage my own projects that I’m working on? I feel my pay and conditions are quite good compared to most other workers in the country. Will a pay rise come out of student fees? Finally, I’ve been worrying that it’s the wrong fight. Aren’t divisions in our sector a gift to Dominic Cummings and co. who no doubt think an Arts University like ours is a waste of billions of pounds (see Wintour, 2013). I probably worried about all these things more than the issues over which I voted to strike. I have never felt so uncertain about a decision. But I did strike.
I talked to colleagues before the strike a lot. I joined the picket line to continue to talk to colleagues to try to understand the strike better. On day 5 I nearly caved and went to work. I got up, got dressed, dropped my daughter at school and then went to the picket line instead to talk about my doubts and worries, to try to feel I was doing the right thing. I read and listened to what colleagues at other institutions were saying and doing. I spent a lot of time thinking.
Clearly, the point of a union is to do things together, it is only collective power that brings about meaningful change. If I don’t actively support the strike I may as well stop paying my subs and leave the union. But the hypocrisy would be too much. How could I face young people in the classroom and encourage them to take part in collective action, make change, make lives better, become critical practitioners, be involved in politics, be anti-racist, feminist, fight for all kinds of equality, critique neo-liberalism when I won’t strike because I’m worried about my reputation?
I’m on a 0.8 contract and I have worked out that (depending on how the university will dock our pay) I will lose either £142.84 or £101.75 gross pay per day that I strike. It is not lightly that any of us strike when we will certainly lose into the thousands of pounds. I do not have savings to fall back on, but I am married to a salaried person – so we can carry it. But this is not true for many colleagues who are fractional, single, carers and of course precariously employed hourly-paid lecturers (or any combination of those). I know a lot about precarious employment – I was employed as an hourly-paid lecturer for seven years (that’s the longest I’ve been in any job) and as the years wore on they had a profound effect on my well-being and mental health.
I likened my job at one institution to an abusive relationship, where they had all the power and I had to keep smiling just to get another day’s pay. One year I had my work cut back knocking thousands of pounds off my annual salary, literally hours before I was due to start the work. In 2012 I got pregnant and I worked right up to my due date – I didn’t have the luxury of planning for my maternity leave, as I didn’t get any. I wasn’t eligible, something to do with a particular day falling in the summer break when I wasn’t working. I went back to work at my earliest opportunity after nine months, mainly for fear that someone else would get my hours and I’d never get another opportunity to develop my academic career. I had only two or three days to find a childminder – the first one had to do. All the other new mothers that I met spent months selecting theirs and planning their return to work. The first few years of my child’s life were spent worrying about work, worrying about money and feeling like my career was just a hobby. At one institution I worked for a whole term with no pay, no id card, no access to the computer system or library. I often had to wait five minutes for a security guard to let me in and out of the building so I could go to the toilet.
During all this there were good and great colleagues telling me I was good and great and I know they did their best to find opportunities for me. They did what they could, but the machinery of the institution was too powerful. Every day I felt like an imposter and a second-class citizen. I had no right to professional development, no invitations to meetings, no training, I was excluded from important communications. I had no say – my contribution was deemed lesser than my permanently employed colleagues, and I felt lesser. Meanwhile, I worked hard with students, developing and writing new material, supporting them, thinking about them, giving them the best experience I could on behalf of those institutions.
It was a massive struggle to reconcile my feelings of inadequacy that developed as a consequence of these years of employment with my sense of self as a good, worthwhile and conscientious employee. That only happened when I got a permanent position two years ago at the University of the Arts London. Out of all the places I worked as an HPL UAL have been the best communicators, provided the best conditions and always paid on time. They also were the only institution who actually employed me on a permanent contract. After I got my job I was so happy, I got fit, lost weight, my mental health improved massively. Suddenly I had the bandwidth to deal with other aspects of my life instead of worrying about work all the time. All that time I thought it was my fault, it was actually theirs! I got invited to meetings! Who gets excited about meetings? Me! I still feel happy to be involved and included, part of something. However, I know others have not been so lucky at UAL and across the sector.
But I did feel so lucky to finally be employed that I forgot how terribly dysfunctional everything was as an HPL. And because of that everything seems fine now. I’ll happily work on the day I’m not contracted or at the weekend, because I’m finally employed. I’ll happily spend my annual leave planning that big unit – because at least I get to plan that big unit! Whoops! I seem to have dug myself into a massive neoliberal gutter. All that time taking punches made me immune to the everyday, less instantly painful issues in our sector. So perhaps I can blame my years as an HPL for my compliance and unwillingness to rock the boat?
This is why I am striking. In the hope that the strike helps end this unfair employment practice. I am striking for colleagues across the sector who want a place at the table but are employed as second-class citizens. I am striking for all you hourly-paid lecturers who have this struggle, who have to keep smiling and keep trying to be good and useful when you feel awful. To all those women, mothers and people of colour who statistically are more likely to be precariously employed, I am striking for you.