By Hala Haidar, BA Global Development
As strikes have been occurring across different sectors—from teachers to nurses and train drivers—there has been a lot of discourse on the public’s opinions on strikes, or to what extent people are willing to support strikes. I have heard the sentiment, ‘I support the strikes, until they become disruptive,’ quite a few times. The problem with that is that strikes are supposed to be disruptive! If a strike isn’t disruptive, then the employer is probably not going to care. And while public support is great, it’s not necessary to win a labour dispute.
With the UCU strikes for example, employers care because their students, who the modern neoliberal university considers to be customers, are affected. This, in turn, impacts the university as they have promised to deliver a certain standard to their customers in exchange for high tuition fees (even higher for international students). Therefore, our teachers’ best leverage is to withdraw their labour, which is what the institution uses to make a profit, in order for their demands to be seriously considered.
I’ve learned a lot from picket lines at SOAS. The sentiment I have gotten from speaking to striking staff is that while they appreciate how supportive the majority of students are, they also understand students’ frustration and anger because it is an unfair situation to have their studies disrupted. However, they want students to direct that frustration at the employers, who are underpaying academic staff and cutting their pensions.
The neoliberalization of higher education is a problem for everyone. Students and teachers are facing the same fight. It’s important to recognise that and stop thinking in binaries of worker/customer. Students are paying higher and higher fees, while simultaneously, our teachers are losing 25% of their real terms pay. Teachers are also fighting for us. At the end of the day, this is the workforce we will be joining when we graduate, and we are seeing the same issues across most, if not all, sectors.
“How can we expect our teachers to be able to teach us well if they can’t afford to meet their basic needs or are worrying about 35% of their pension being cut?”
You may have heard the phrase ‘their working conditions are our learning conditions’—it’s completely true. How can we expect our teachers to be able to teach us well if they can’t afford to meet their basic needs or are worrying about 35% of their pension being cut? The neoliberalization of higher education also means an increasingly casualised workforce, resulting in the precaritization of working conditions. When Aimée Lê was finishing up her PhD while working as a lecturer, she was forced to live in a tent for two years because she couldn’t afford to pay rent anymore on her research and teaching income. Lê isn’t alone; other academics reported having to sleep at their universities or in their cars to save on rent.
Unions are the reason we have eight-hour workdays, weekends, and regulated labour conditions. All of these rights had to be fought for. Furthermore, picket lines are places of learning, solidarity, and community. Visit a picket line. Talk to workers. Learn about why they’re striking.
Photo caption: Students and staff at a teach-out during SOAS UCU and UNISON strikes in December 2021 (Credit: Gabriel Rahman)