What does an academic do when (s)he is on strike?

hedispute_unitedforeducation_155x255What does an academic do when (s)he is on strike? That’s not so simple a question. After years of not having to deal with it because I was in a state where strikes by public employees (which I was) were prohibited, I now am confronted with my first strike as a member of the University and College Union.

Of course there are questions about the efficacy of strikes, fairness to students, whether this is the best way to reach intended audiences, etc. but the strike is also forcing me (and many others) to think about the disconnect between, on the one hand, how we are paid (by time) and what we actually do (engaging in a mix of self-directed and mandated projects which, while sometimes timetabled, are not primarily defined by ‘the clock’). As I’ve previously quipped, the great thing about being an academic is that you get to choose which 80 hours of the week to work. The reduction of labour to time, which is so crucial for the abstraction and commodification of labour in capitalism in general, becomes a bit more complex when the labourer in question can’t turn her or his contribution ‘off’.

Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this having moved from the US, where 9- or 10-month contracts are the norm, to the UK, where academic staff tend to have 12-month contracts. In the US, there’s a tacit understanding that if you truly take off 2 or 3 months during the summer you’ll never get your next year’s classes prepped or your publications out, so in effect the summer is more like unpaid research leave than actual holiday. In the UK, on the one hand, since you’re ‘working’ during the summer you can reasonably be expected to attend meetings and attend to administrative tasks if asked. On the other hand, during the specific weeks when one does take holiday one often truly does disappear. So I think a lot about what it means to be on ‘downtime’, whether this is voluntary holiday, collectively organised strike, or simply sleep time. That (sadly) is how I spend some of my ‘downtime’.

Some of these questions are also in the background in the ongoing debate over whether participants in this strike should be docked 1/365 of their annual pay (which had been the case historically during other strikes) or 1/260 (which is based on the assumption that academics work only five-day weeks). Are there any academics out there who really just work 5-day weeks? I have my doubts. Actually, just yesterday I met someone from the Law School who claimed that she didn’t work on weekends but, when pressed, added, ‘well, except when marking is due’. But I wonder if, even when she isn’t marking, she doesn’t spend some of that time on weekends thinking scholarly thoughts that ultimately are expressed in the articles she writes and lectures she delivers when ‘on the clock’.

This all reminds me of Roland Barthes’ essay in Mythologies about the writer on holiday. Barthes’ point is that the writer never really is on holiday, and perhaps a similar point could be made about the academic never really being on strike. In both cases, I would argue, labour exceeds the binary measurement of time (‘on the clock’ vs ‘off the clock’), and thus time-based renunciations of work (whether for a strike or for holiday, or simply for a weekend) lose some of their efficacy. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Talking with the Taxman about Poetry makes a similar point about the labour of poets.

Is writing this blog ‘work’? Is your reading it (if you are a UCU member) ‘work’? Are we thereby both strikebreakers? This morning, a colleague of mine sent out a work-related e-mail and then sent out another one apologising for having accidentally been a strikebreaker. I can’t help wondering if the second e-mail was in response to an e-mail from another colleague chastising her for sending out the first one. But in that case, what was the second colleague doing reading his or her e-mail during a strike? And for people like me who have their work e-mails forwarded to their non-work e-mail accounts is it even possible to separate work- from non-work engagement. Or in fact, during a strike day do we do what we always do – prioritise some forms of work over others based on a combination of interest and deadlines – but with slightly different forces influencing our calculations?

Stuart Elden has raised some similar issues with regard to the UCU’s various ‘work to contract’ campaigns. There are several strands to Stuart’s argument, but a key point is that our labour has not been fully alienated. What if not all of our labour is being done for our employer? What if, in fact, a portion of our labour (especially that portion beyond the duties specified in the contract) are being done for ourselves? We should not forget that even in Marx’ poetic description in The German Ideology of a world without alienated labour there is work. Marx’ point was not that we should all check out, but rather that we should seek a life in which we could ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic’. So, I’m off to Grey’s Monument in downtown Newcastle to join the UCU rally, and then I’m heading back home to milk my (literary) cows and herd my (academic) bull(s).

3 comments on “What does an academic do when (s)he is on strike?

  1. […] interesting pieces on yesterday’s UK university strike – from Phil Steinberg and Kyle Grayson. I was on strike too, hence the lack of posts on this blog yesterday. You can read […]

  2. […] deciding what it means to be an academic on strike is difficult. As I considered in a blogpost during the 2013 strike, it is not at all clear where ‘work’ ends and the reflective […]

  3. […] work (as well as the question of what it means, as an academic, to temporarily not work) – see this reflection from 2013 and this one from 2018. Drawing these lines is a never-ending process, and their locations will […]

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