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Why I’ve been on strike

I, along with staff at over 60 universities in the UK have been on strike for 14 of the past 30 days. The action was called because an evaluation of the USS pension fund showed a shortfall, and the proposed solution was to change the scheme from a defined benefit pension — where you know what you’re going to get when you retire — to a defined contributions pension, where what you retire on will be subject to market performance. An independent evaluation of the proposal put the effect of the change in stark terms: a 40% reduction in pension income, or around £10,000 per year for the typical lecturer.

Before talking about why I went on strike, I want to clear up some things, along the lines of answers to ‘things you always wanted to know about pensions but were too afraid to ask’, and will seem obvious to most but not to everyone.

  • When people are on strike, they’re not paid. This is fundamental to the right to withdraw labour. Many university lecturers are not on salaries that can take a 14-day hit without affecting standard of living. Many universities will let strikers spread the deductions over a few months, but still, it’s worth repeating: going on strike is a costly decision.
  • Withdrawing labour will negatively affect a lot of people, but inevitably some more than others. This can seem unfair. When junior doctors went on strike, patients with planned operations were affected much more than people who were well. When universities go on strike, students can be badly affected.
  • The roles of ‘boss’ and ‘worker’ are blurry in academia. The archetypical strike that many people imagine is miners closing down a mine; in this image, the roles are clear: the miners work, and the bosses boss. In academia (and other knowledge sectors), lecturers apply for grant funding (raise capital), manage their personal CV and reputation (like entrepreneurs), employ research assistants (manage employees), and are in control of their own and other’s hours (like foremen). All the while, they are paid for writing papers and delivering teaching (their labour). Lecturers embody the roles of boss and worker in one person, with the inevitable contradictions and dissonance.
  • Most universities are not run for profit, but different incentives drive apart management and staff. One question that I heard a lot last week was: why does the management of the university not join the strike? do they not want better pensions for their staff? I don’t know if there is one answer, and some management have come out in support of the strike, but part of the answer must be that university leaders have other incentives: the bottom line, prestige projects (i.e. new buildings), reputation, and student experience. Some of these must feel to them like long-term visions that require short-to-medium-term sacrifice, while some may be short-termist reaction in a context of uncertainty.
  • Although salaries have been dropping (in real terms), contracts becoming less secure, working conditions more cramped (at least at LSHTM), and hours longer, there is no natural or demographic force driving economic scarcity at universities in the UK. In contrast, an the ageing population and development of expensive technologies are putting pressure on NHS funding just to remain at the quality we have come to expect. Students numbers are high, paying exorbitant fees. The middle-classes in countries such as China are growing: there’s no shortage of people wanting to learn. There is no scarcity, although it feel like there must be. It’s necessary to point this out because we have become accustomed to accepting the scarcity argument when conditions and services get worse. We live in a growing economy in an age of enormous technological expansion. London property prices alone have absorbed £620 billion in the past ten years. There’s money, just not in the right places.

So why did I go on strike? I’d not thought about my pension much before; I’d certainly never thought about how much I would retire on, and whether or not this would be enough. I went on strike because of what the pension represents.

A ‘good pension’ is the bedrock of public service, as it is in the police, nursing, and teaching professions. It’s part of the agreement to live relatively modestly doing work that has positive social and economic externalities. It’s part of what makes service possible, necessarily foregoing the chance of larger salaries, of playing the capitalist game. For many people, it’s never having the chance to buy a house, especially in London. (N.B. If you are playing the game and think modest living with a solid pension sounds better than the uncertainty that comes from chasing the buck, please resist the temptation to ask us to ‘wake up to the real world’, get a ‘proper job’, and chastise academics for their ‘cushy’ deal; instead, join the ranks of people questioning the — relatively modern — status quo.)

The good pension was also a message sent to staff: “sure, your hours are long, contracts are insecure, and pay is below market rates. That’s because science is hard, funding is competitive, and there’s only so much a university can do. We’ve got your back; we’re in this fight together. Don’t believe us? Look at your pension!”. This message mattered: it kept up morale, retained staff whose contracts are often renewed once a year, and motivated membership of (unpaid) committees, advisory groups, peer review, engagement with the REF, ‘citizenship’ roles, and the many unspecified and unrecognised tasks that keep the organisation running. There had been warning signs that the social contract was eroding: stories about extravagant salaries of senior management; heavy investment in shiny buildings; cramped offices; and increasing indifference to staff retention. The change to the pension was just a klaxon that woke up anyone still sleeping.

As well as striking because of what the changes to the pension represents within the university sector, I was also striking about what it represents in British society generally. The current UK government does not respect universities. Not the opinions of the people who work in them, or the contribution to society and the economy in general. They often ignore academic evidence. They cut funding, forcing students to pay enormous fees. They try to limit student visas. They fail to protect the sector from the effects of leaving the EU. Higher education is one of the few things that the UK leads the world in; and like many knowledge-economy sectors, being first, second or third in the world has disproportionate gains (see also: finance). Partly this is because of a ‘winner takes all’ arrangement, and partly it’s about scale: having lots of good universities begets more good universities. In squeezing university staff, this government and allied institutions are taking a huge risk.

At the broadest level, I was striking about the fundamental struggle for a better society. The weight of capitalism presses down on us, creating demand for things we don’t need, using insecurities that we needn’t have, and generating anger against others that we have to be taught. It has encroached on parts of our lives where it has no place. The pursuit of profit (the core, dispassionate, principle of capitalism) has altered our consumption expectations through advertising, but more insidiously it has put ‘work’ at the heart of our moral and spiritual matrix. We have come to desire more and better things in part because advertisers convince us to, but also because of what they say about us to ourselves and to others: that we have worked, that our work has been valued, that we are good. For me it seems that the commandments of capitalism have rushed into the vacuum left by religion. Defending education and social service is an attack on the capitalist papacy: education for its own sake; taking time to know this world, to know one another; valuing something other than money — and in effect devaluing money itself — so that we can reclaim our lives given over to capital.

This strike hasn’t been easy. From what I’ve heard, it’s been much harder than people imagined. I think that’s because it’s been about more than pensions, much more than money. It’s painful to feel like you’re putting self interest against the interests of excited students who are curious to learn. It’s tempting to feel self righteous — I certainly have — when criticised by students who are worried and feel let down. It’s important to dig deeper and see that self interest is not what this is about, there’s no need to get defensive. Some of my friends and colleagues did teach during the strike, risking criticism from others and without being paid. Rather than chastise them for undermining the strike, we should recognise that by putting students first, at personal (and financial) expense, they’re embodying the ideals that we’re defending.

I hope that we don’t have to strike again. However, I agree with others who say that this has been a catalyst for political awareness, and that we should be proactive about our demands. We may yet get a pension deal, but there will still be a long way to go.

Written on March 20, 2018