What is the purpose of a strike? This question has, until now, remained the province of the unreasonable and inconsiderate. Yet, in these past weeks, it has become the quotidian concern of disillusioned students, bound by an outdated law of inferiority to hold their tongues. But this very questioning and disillusionment – however much supressed by themselves or by others – has shown, to the contrary, that this question is both reasonable and considerate. In fact, by the very asking of it, they have shown a propensity towards the optimism of which this blog so thoroughly approves.
In a manner, we have already answered this question, at least for those who view strikes as a means by which we achieve an end. The University and College Union strike has led to widespread debate; debate about the future of pensions as much as the future of strikes. So, one purpose of a strike is to catalyse thought, and catalyse thought it has. A strike, then, carries the broader purpose of breaking with convention, with its broadest purpose being causation. It is, however, justifiable to ask in what way the UCU strike aims at instigating change when it seeks merely preservation. By this definition it is not a strike. We must seek something further.
Accordingly, we must understand what it is that the UCU are striking against: an alternative pension scheme in which “final pensions would depend on how the stock market performs not on contributions.” But it also demands “guaranteed pensions” and “retirement income for all.” This is a contradiction. Whilst condemning one aspect of capitalism, another is defended – their “right to a fair pension” – unaware that the very system to which it objects has facilitated these savings. It seems rather strange to pick the raisins out of the biscuit when you could just not eat the biscuit at all. But if one were to accept (which one does not have to) that capitalism as a system is mostly beneficial, we must learn to polish it (the system rather than the biscuit).
The difficulty is in determining how this may best be done – by changing the pension scheme now or by deterring its failure by plastering over the cracks. The UCU argue that “the decision-making that led to the hard-line plan was confused” and perhaps it was. But the reality is that pensions are, in general terms, not doing well. It is easy to see how the preservation of £10,000 per annum now could lead to the loss of £20,000 per annum at a later stage. Of course, we must think to ourselves, but we must also think to the future, and to the potential losses that our gains could cause.
Not only does this apply to future lecturers, but to future students. Both must view the UCU strike as an end itself. Students value an education. Students have paid for an education. Students are not getting an education. Students should not be paying. But a student’s valuation of education goes beyond the loss of £1,000 (although this is insignificant for lecturers, it is significant for students who often take on a second occupation to fund their own enlightenments). It is a loss of a future which lecturers take for granted in their search for a greater one. In fact, it is the loss of potential lecturers themselves, who will, perhaps, lose £1,000 now and £10,000 later if the scheme remains in place long enough to collapse entirely.
And lecturers still have the nerve to pressure students to “show support at pickets and demos”, to “donate to the fighting fund” and not to “cross the picket lines.” Not only does the UCU expect students to further their losses by self-sacrifice, but they play fast and loose with the facts, despite their condescending provision of footnotes. Their claim that “most students support the strike” may indeed by correct, but on what grounds is it based? On a survey asking whether students “think university staff are most to blame for the dispute” and on the decision of a committee at the Students’ Union of which students are oblivious. There is no mention of a student petition diplomatically requesting compensation for education lost and no approach made to the students themselves.
So, what is the purpose of a strike? A means by which we preserve and further our own ends and the ends of those like us. But what does that mean for those who are not? Does this not lead those with whom we share little to form another representative body, to deepen the feud? Yes, there is solidarity, but when one is furthering one’s own ends by impeding others, isolation of either party is both inevitable and necessary. The purpose of a strike is, then, to deal a blow to those from whom we are distanced to save those we understand. Indeed, whilst trade unions strive for the protection of a community, they verge dangerously close to exclusivity. A trade-off is made – members cede their rational autonomy for the prospect of what they think they deserve. It is a capitalistic competition like any other.
For as long as the lecturers strike, the students are justified in attending what little of the seminars and lectures remain. If the UCU strike has taught them anything, it is that their lecturers support acts which protect one’s future. The demand that students should not “cross the picket lines” must be overlooked. It is as ridiculous as commanding residents to refuse post when the postmen strike. The students’ quarrel does not lie with the lecturers, it lies with the university, and yet it is wrong for the UCU to make use of the students’ voice to further its own ends.
In a world of commodification, however much we despise it, we must get what we pay for. Whatever the reason for a lack of provision of education, the students should receive full compensation (as some are). But there is more to it. Students need an apology from lecturers and vice-chancellors alike; they have been conscripted as weapons and intermediaries by both sides, simply because they occupied the centre ground. All should be held to account; the faults of vice-chancellors have been sung loudly in recent weeks, lecturers must learn that axing a tree is often fruitful. Students must understand that to be reasonable is not always to be considerate and that to be considerate is not always to be reasonable.
What is the purpose of a strike? It is to resolve miscommunication when a situation is beyond the point of avoiding feelings of anger and betrayal. It is to gain access to a negotiating table, when the door is locked, with a willingness to compromise. It is to understand that we are not as dissimilar as we choose to believe. It is to be considerate and reasonable.