First & foremost, I just want to make it known that this is my first time taking part in strike action, even though, since I entered the workforce as a full-time employee, I have always been a trade union member! As a PhD student & a postdoc fellow, I always had my head down, focused on completing my objectives (which would help me secure the next role), within the timeframe & before my funding ran out. Now after working really hard to get into the ivory tower, as an Early Career Fellow continuing to progress along the Broken Pipeline , I am unable to ignore the importance or need for struggle, solidarity & strike action. I thank my colleagues, my mum & social media for showing me the ropes so that I could really understand & get involved!
While there are many other unions across the public sector that have been striking covering professions like teachers, nurses, barristers, doctors, postal workers, paramedics, rail workers alongside academics, much of this blog post will focus on the strikes called by the University & College Union (UCU) which “represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians, technicians, professional staff & postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education & training organisations across the UK”.
Background & context
Remarkably, the role of trade unions is one that is not well-known or understood by the average person. This is quite alarming due to the long history of trade unions in the UK & the effective & powerful examples of strike action in the past like the Great Penrhyn slate quarry strike from 1900 to 1903, the General Strike of 1926 & the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
Truth is, & as my mum reminded me in one of our conversations about unions, without their efforts, we would not have all the things that we take for granted in the workplace like two-day weekends, limits on work hours & a minimum wage etc. (I know this varies but for the most part this has been legalised & is now part of society’s norms & values). These rights that the union won have benefitted millions of us for generations, across the UK & workers in both the private & public sectors. The power & might of the union is so much so that it paved the way for the creation of the Labour political party who were established to “give a political voice to the values & aspirations of trade union members”. Let us also not forget the huge costs that it was & still is to be a member of a trade union, such as being blacklisted & having pay docked for strike action, but also the huge benefits that include collective bargaining power, solidarity, a sense of community & ultimately better working conditions.
Interestingly, it was reported in 2021 that there had been a rise in public sector workers joining trade unions but noted a decline in private sector workers that do. It seems that 2022 was a pivotal year when trade unions really came back due to the immense pressures many workers were under after soldiering through the pandemic, working long hours but being unable to afford basic necessities such as rent or food because of the cost of living & other crises!
How the UCU works
As a member of a trade union, it is expected that you will contribute a monthly fee or subscription, according to your role which is often based on your wage or salary. This varies across trade unions, but there is always detailed information on their website & by speaking to trade union representatives. Check out how UCU calculates its membership fees here.
The UCU is member-led but has an executive committee as well as equality standing committees & special employment interest groups working together but each leading different strands of work, areas & activities. Find out more about the structure here.
The UCU has different local & regional branches, each with their own representatives to support their members. UCU members are also encouraged to take part in the UCU community & activities through access to resources, attendance at meetings, conferences as well as voting in elections & on key decisions. Updates about the campaigns & work are provided throughout the year via many platforms like twitter.
UCU members are also able to access support when things at work are not so good such as advice, legal support & a fighting fund - which provides vital financial assistance to members involved in strike action or any other dispute- anyone can donate to this!
So as you can see & contrary to current representations, UCU & other trade unions do more than just strike action- which is the last resort & voted for by members.
Higher education & the lower-ing of work conditions #ucuRISING
As many people are aware, for years, the UK’s higher education sector has experienced an increase in financial challenges & the COVID-19 pandemic as well as rising inflation & the cost of living crisis did not help, only crippling it further. Of course, this would inevitably have a negative impact on staff & students who have been expected to continue business as usual, despite the ongoing situation- & remarkably they all did!
So what are the main reasons why UCU members are striking now?
As stated on their website:
“UCU members in higher education have worked throughout the pandemic & generated record income for the sector only to be rewarded with attacks on their pay, working conditions, & pensions.
The truth is that we are not all in this together. While our members have seen their pay cut by 25% since 2009, university vice-chancellors & senior management have been collecting six-figure salaries.
Workers everywhere are rising up & saying enough is enough. It is time for us to join them.” (emphasis added).
So in other words, there is money available to pay higher education staff in line with inflation & to maintain pensions, BUT instead of doing so, senior management’s salaries are prioritised.
In a nutshell, the UCU infographic below explains in more detail what the current working conditions actually look like on a day-to-day basis for UCU members & higher education staff in general:
You can learn more about the fight stimulated by these reasons here & here.
When I first looked at the infographic above I was appalled at the state of the sector which I had worked so hard to be part of. While many higher education staff are experiencing tough times, as a Black woman academic, I am more likely to suffer from both a gender & race pay gap, be on a fixed term contract & less likely to become a full professor (most senior academic position). This grim reality has previously been highlighted here, here & here.
Being conscious but cautious as a Black woman academic in a union
I, like many other Black women work in the public sector, in fact, as a group, we are “more likely to work in the public sector than any men or women from any other ethnic group”, therefore, austerity has impacted us the most & being aware of this led me to want to be involved in understanding & being a part of the solution which I do in my work, particularly in terms of highlighting how the English education system fails Black girls & women as students & graduates. It is my aim to ensure that they can overstand & better navigate while also using my research to centre them, as a group, within educational & academic debates to influence & shape policy etc.
As a Black woman in this world, to exist is to resist & it is exhausting but part of my survival. Recently, I have been pondering upon & asking the Black women in my life “Who would Black women get to be if we did not have to create from a place of resistance?” Perhaps I wouldn’t be so passionately invested in the work that I do. Perhaps I wouldn’t do the work I do at all. Maybe I would because it is part of my purpose on this Earth- who knows?
As a Black woman academic (nope it can’t be separated), I find it difficult to think & call myself an academic- maybe because I aspire to be a public intellectual instead. Truth is, after diligently following the academic route (I genuinely wanted to become a lecturer- I didn’t just ‘fall’ into it), I see the sector crumbling before my eyes. To get to where I have required a great deal of hard work, energy, sacrifice, instability & long years of studying & journeying into ‘the heart of whiteness’ to gain my qualifications & to perfect my craft. Depending on how you define ‘success’, one of the rewards that comes with it is good working conditions like job security, progression, pay & other benefits. Perhaps this is a consequence of the current economic circumstances, but I do not feel that my position has really changed from being a student to becoming an academic staff member. I am still plagued by precarity & low pay (compared to how it would be if it increased with inflation as it should & unequal gender and race pay gaps). Don’t get me wrong, I do also appreciate being in academia where I can focus on my passions- because as my favourite bell hook quote always reminds me:
“The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to dem& of ourselves & our comrades, an openness of mind & heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom".
Also, I like to practice & live what I preach & teach, so as my work is rooted in intersectional social justice, how could I not be a member of a trade union fighting for the greater good? How can I interrogate systems of power, privilege & inequality on a daily basis & not be committed to upholding it both professionally & personally?
However, my consciousness means that I can’t forget how people like me were once excluded from working in certain professions by the very trade unions that were supposed to be protecting the rights of all workers, as exemplified by the Bristol Bus boycotts of 1963. Nor can I forget that while many trade unions have designated race & gender subgroups, as reported, the UK labour market is still rigged & plagued by racism & sexism. This is the same in the higher education sector where gender equality seems to be more of a pressing concern than race.
In my personal opinion, all organisations, including trade unions have missed a trick by not focusing & fighting the unequal working conditions of Black women because, as the Combahee River Collective shared with us in their statement years ago, along with many others since then:
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression”.
On the other hand, as Lorde also reminds us,
“The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
So why should I expect anything else or rely on other entities when there is an established history of Black British communities self-organising in order to fight against systems of oppression which ultimately contributed to improving society for all?
For this reason, I am cautious about my role in trade unions because their approach has so far failed people like me within the workforce based on statistical & other evidence. Perhaps I & other Black women should follow the example of my Black American sisters, some of whom created & observe National Black Women's Equal Pay Day which highlights that “Black women typically make just 62% for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men”. As we know, the situation for Black women in the UK isn’t any better as we are least likely to be among the top earners & experience barriers progressing in our careers.
Yet, if I, as a Black woman academic am not a member of the union- who will speak up on my behalf & who will include our plight in negotiations?
Trade unions as the be-all & end-all?
We are all living in dystopian times in a society where our basic rights are increasingly being eroded by the government, including our right to strike. These basic rights were not just given to us- people literally fought & died for them so, we should all be deeply concerned.
While unions are far from perfect, they remain one of the few ways to collectively resist, speak truth to power & disrupt the nonsense- especially when all many of us have is our labour which they need.
For me, I strive to become a good ancestor & that means helping to create a better world while I am here- starting with myself. It means paving the way for the generations to come & centring overlooked, important & alternative histories, experiences, narratives & contributions in my work, with the aim of transforming hearts, minds, spaces & places, rooted in education & an ethics of care.
So when I strike, I gladly sacrifice my pay, to engage in solidarity & struggle in the hopes of improving the working conditions for all, especially Black women & other marginalised communities who tend to be overlooked & have the worst conditions due to historical & structural inequalities that the trade unions cannot solve alone. By improving conditions for all, it should inevitably make it better for everyone- but that would only work if we were all starting from the same place & if there were no (racist, sexist, classist etc.) barriers from cradle to grave.
When I strike, I reclaim my time & my intellectual power which has been monetised & weaponised. I rest.
When I strike, I do so with the Black academics who were pushed out of the academy in my heart.
When I strike, I do so, remembering & building upon all the previous generations that fought for the rights that I now enjoy, the ones in unions & the ones that were not allowed to join, including my ancestors.
When I strike, I am reminded that I may not see the benefits of my sacrifice now or even in my lifetime- but at least I am doing my bit, staying true to myself & I will be on the right side of history.
When I strike, I am letting it be known that ENOUGH is ENOUGH !
Find out about your union & if there isn’t one, create your own
If you can, donate to UCU’s fighting fund or those of other unions
Sign this petition to protect our right to strike & fiercely oppose it in any other way
Show your solidarity & support via social media, on the picket lines & other ways you can think of
Keep up to date with what’s happening & educate your friends & family
As Marx & Engels said, which I paraphrase, “we have nothing to lose but our chains!”
Don’t be afraid!! You are more powerful than you can imagine & you are not alone!
💖 In solidarity, strength, love & light! ✊🏿
hooks, bell. (1994) Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.
Lorde, A. (1984) 'The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house' (Comments at the “The personal and the political panel,” Second Sex Conference, New York, September 29, 1979) In: Sister Outsider (pp. 110–113). Sister Visions Press. (Original work published 1979).