Organising academics as workers

Submitted by AWL on 26 November, 2013 - 12:25

Academics love nothing more than having a moan about the terrible state of the neo-liberal university. We tend to be slightly less enthusiastic when it comes to getting up from our desks and doing something about it. This has begun to change, however, as pockets of resistance have begun to emerge at several different British universities in the last few years.

An excellent discussion among Marxist academics at the 2013 conference of the "Historical Materialism" journal pointed to various different forums in which ‘knowledge workers’ might and should resist privatisation. From building alternative forums in which to generate radical and non-commodified forms of knowledge; to refusing to participate in management surveillance programmes to measure and evaluate our research; to linking up with students taking back public space on campuses where it has been appropriated for commercial ends. All of these strategies are important and crucial to building any kind of movement against the neo-liberalisation of Higher Education.

I nevertheless found it interesting that there remained a squeamishness among some of the older and more established academic lefties to organising as ‘workers’. Academics were more akin to nineteenth-century artisans, suggested one, because unlike the factory workers we had relative autonomy over the process of production and we took a pride in our work. Attention to the particularities of our workplace is certainly important and these discussions of whether academics are an exceptional kind of worker will continue to be live issues in our struggle. However, I still think it’s important to make a forceful case for the centrality of organising on the ground, in the workplace itself, as workers.

This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, as a feminist and as a historian who researches the history of domestic workers’ unions, I think it is crucial for us to find ways for ‘reproductive’ workers to organise. Lecturers, like fire fighters, nurses, school teachers, cleaners and other public service workers, all risk hurting the people who use our services when we undertake industrial action. We do need to think creatively about how to ensure our action impacts managers more than students. But I also think that we should not feel guilty about deploying a tactic which is at the centre of labour organising – the idea that sometimes we have to withdraw our labour in order to make visible the hard work we do all day, every day. Otherwise, we argue ourselves into a position which says that only (usually white, male) factory workers can ever strike because they are the only workers whose action directly impacts their bosses profits and nothing else.

Secondly, academia is becoming ever more proletarianised. Academics are expected to ‘produce’ a certain amount of publications for the Research Excellence Framework to ensure continued funding. Our research and our teaching is now measurable according to management-defined units of value such as ‘tiered’ journals and CATS; which in turn allows them to become commodified and exchanged within a global Higher Education market. Real autonomy at work, whereby academics can decide what kind of research to undertake and how best to develop their own teaching programmes, is being rapidly eroded as university management develops ever more efficient systems of surveillance and ever narrower definitions of what counts as ‘high quality’ research and teaching. Increasingly, all that remains of academics’ autonomy is a sense of personal responsibility for our workload, and indeed for our incomes as pressure grows to secure external funding in order to carry out research. Yet such conditions are far from exceptional, but rather the paradigmatic experience of work under neo-liberalism, whereby workloads are privatised and even the lowest-paid workers are expected to be independently responsible for the completion of their own tasks rather than see themselves as part of a collective process of production.

Thirdly, workplace organising is difficult. But because of this, I think the bonds of solidarity transformative potential generated by it are all the stronger. Within a Left which has a tendency to do this anyway, academics are perhaps especially guilty of projecting their desires for social change onto some ‘other’ political agency somewhere far away. I, for example, find it much easier (and even sometimes more inspiring) to write about a domestic workers’ union a hundred years ago, than to engage in the more mundane day to day politics of my own union. This kind of ‘hands-off’ or intellectualising approach to politics is not only easier, it is also more respectable.

The neo-liberal university (in Britain at least) has sought to control subversive, radical thinking not so much by repressing it, but by commodifying it. Thus, academics can acquire considerable professional capital through the right kind of association with social movements (eg writing books about them). While being active in your own union not only potentially damages your chances of promotion, but also marks you out among your colleagues as at best eccentric, at worst, a head banger. While talking about social change in the abstract is still intellectually acceptable, attempting to position oneself as an agent of such change is often regarded as rather embarrassing.

As a result, however, when we do end up putting our intellectual reputations and our bodies more directly in the line of fire, the effects are far more disruptive of the neo-liberal culture within the university, than any form of radical positioning of ourselves outside our workplace. Trying to persuade the Professor of European History in the office next door to mine to join the union required me to think through the intellectual and political case for this (and thus my wider understanding of the role of revolutionary workplace organising within a crappy capitalist union) much more thoroughly than I ever had before.

Such conversations also shifted the culture within my department more generally, whereby we began to relate to each other not simply as professional colleagues but as political actors and fellow workers. Taking the time to listen to the experiences of other workers also led me to reflect in ways I never had before on how my own actions sometimes contributed to the exploitation of colleagues in lower status positions, and to think about how to carry out my day-to-day work in a way that maximises my ability to disrupt rather than support the neo-liberalisation of Higher Education.

Being called-upon to act and take personal responsibility for the privatisation of Higher Education in the context of the strike, prompted many formerly passive union members to start voicing their concerns about other aspects of our jobs, suggesting things we might do to address them. I think, therefore, it is worth while directing some of our political energy into what at first may seem (to those of us on the radical Left) to be rather prosaic and reformist forms of union work. I’ll thus spend the rest of this paper looking at some of the nitty gritty of the last 6 months of organising.

One third of my department is made up of workers on casual contracts who are not told whether or not they will have work for the following year until two weeks before term starts. This is not unusual, even at a wealthy Russell Group University, for Higher Education has one of the highest levels of casualization within the British employment sector.

Conditions for casual workers in my university are no better or worse than at other institutions. Tutors are paid a wage according to how many hours of seminars they teach: £24 for those yet to complete their PhDs, £32 for fully qualified academics. This ‘hourly’ wage in fact includes all work related to this single unit of teaching, including preparation (large quantities of academic reading as well as lesson planning), marking, meeting students and answering their emails, and staff meetings.

A report into working conditions completed at the end of last academic year showed that once preparation, marking, meeting students and answering emails has been taken into account, pay worked out as £4-5 per hour, less than the minimum wage.

The union rep took this report to an academic staff meeting (rather than a union branch meeting), thus taking advantage of notional structures of self-governance which still exist in many universities. This ensured that all members of permanent staff, whether they were union members or not, were required to acknowledge the conditions faced by Hourly Paid Lecturers (HPLs).

A number of permanent staff expressed shock at these conditions, of which they claimed to have been previously unaware despite these HPLs teaching on modules convened by such staff. On the whole, however, the response was supportive. It’s hard for anyone who, rightly or wrongly, believes in the value of a PhD to argue that seven years in Higher Education does not even earn the right to the minimum wage.

The Head of Department was therefore mandated to ‘look into’ this situation, and produced a document clarifying the amount of time tutors were expected to spend on preparation etc. Her eventual response was completely unrealistic (the bosses are not able to stipulate in writing that they expect you to be earning £4 per hour) and many HPLs remarked that it would be impossible to teach if only the designated amount of time were spent on preparation. However, it provided us with a basis around which to organise – we now had a ‘legitimate’ document to refer to when pushing for better conditions.

Seeing that it was possible to see some movement regarding their situation, HPLs began to join the union. Another issue which helped to generate involvement with the union was a campaign organised by the university-wide branch’s ‘hourly-paid working group’. They had discovered that HPLs were eligible to claim back holiday pay for the last two academic years, which HR had failed to inform them they were entitled to. Spreading the word about this both demonstrated that the union could do something concrete to improve the lives of HPLs and also drew them into online networks where they began to discuss their situation more generally. Three weeks into the start of term, 19 out of the 20 HPLs in my department had joined the UCU.

Strike action on 31st Oct provided a further focus for organising. HPLs proved the most militant out of all the union members in the department. Despite the fact that the pay claim over which we were striking did not directly affect them. Left wing academics have, in the past, lamented the difficulties of organising HPLs due to the high degree of patronage that dominates the Higher Education job market. HPLs tend to be early-on in their careers and expect to secure a permanent job after a couple of years. They often teach on modules convened by either their PhD supervisor, their referee or at least someone with significant clout in their field. They understandably don’t want to jeopardise their chances of securing a half-decent job by being marked as a trouble-maker.

However, I found that HPLs were far more willing to stick their necks out and demand an end to their hyper-exploitation than I had expected. Perhaps this is because unionisation among HPLs is so solid and they have been very effective in speaking with a collective voice. But it is also surely due to the fact that people are beginning to see through the fantasy we are sold: if we work hard and keep our heads down for a few years of misery we will eventually be rewarded with a cushy permanent post. Increasingly hourly-paid employment is becoming a permanent state of affairs. I know one academic who received her PhD in the late 1990s and who has been stuck in short-term, hourly paid posts for 15 years. At the age of 40 her income is still so low that she is eligible to claim housing benefit. If the situation of such academics is to improve, it can only be through collective action – an individual escape route is no longer proving possible for the majority of university workers.

Organising around such issues in my department has so far generated more opposition from the union branch than it has from university management. The ‘old white dudes’ (as we like to call them) who have run the union for years are threatened by the prospect of young radical members asking the branch to respond to their interests as well as those of more established permanent staff members.

Like it or not conditions in the university are not what they were 20 years ago. For many HPLs (and thus for a significant proportion of academic staff overall) the strike day fell on the one day a week when they did all their teaching, meaning that they effectively lost a week’s instead of a day’s wages by taking part in industrial action. When my department started up a solidarity fund, asking permanent staff (some of whom earn well above £60,000) to donate £20 each towards the lost wages of striking HPLs, the union branch executive tried to block us, claiming that this would alienate our members. In fact, the fund was extremely well supported and helped to generate conversations between different levels of staff as well as a feeling of solidarity within the department.

The branch exec also opposed us having a picket line outside our department building rather than joining the central picket line on a sparsely populated roundabout on the edge of campus. Again we went ahead anyway, after someone from the law school confirmed that the spurious legal reasons they had given us for opposing such action were unfounded. Having a picket line outside our actual place of work was much more fruitful, allowing us to have conversations with colleagues with whom we already had relationships, in which we explained the reasons for the strike and asked them not to cross the picket line. One HPL from another department joined the union on the picket line as a result, and many students also came out in support. Again, an unusual sense of solidarity and relationships outside of the confines of the workplace began to be forged in this exceptional and politicised space.

UCU have called us out once again on 3rd December. This time we will be better prepared, but already the enthusiasm for one-day, largely symbolic strikes has begun to wane. UCU will need a clear strategy of escalation, as well as forms of action more directly targeted against management. Forcing the local union branches to take on board the degree to which the university labour market has been fundamentally restructured around greater dependence on precarious, low paid teachers, is going to be a long hard job. But small groups of HPLs at universities including Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, Leeds, Leicester, LSE, and Warwick, have, over the last few years, begun to make a start. It is their experiences which point in the direction that Higher Education is going, but it is also upon their militancy and willingness to act collectively that any challenge to the neo-liberal university will be founded.