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I arrived in United Kingdom about three weeks ago for a visiting position at Oxford University. Rumors of a strike have shortly settled in.

The two-days long academic protest began on Wednesday, May 25 and lasted until the end of the working day on May 26. Organized by the University and College Union (UCU), which comprise university lecturers from all over the U.K., the two-day national walkouts aimed to disrupt the academic activity across all university campuses.

UCU was formed in 2006 through the amalgamation of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and The University & College Lecturers’ Union (NATFHE). AUT has its roots in the beginning of the century and NATFHE in the welfare state era. The newly merged UCU encompassed about 120,000 members.

The current dispute is about levels of pay. In a time where U.K. universities just registered up to £1 billion ($1.9 billion CAD) in budgetary operating surpluses, the one per cent increase rejected by UCU does not seem much of an increase, assumed it does not even consider current inflation rates. The strike action was voted down by 65 per cent percent of the membership.  

Securing a tenure-track position in North American academia is definitely hard. Anecdotal evidence suggests it might be even harder in the British context. Only about half of the opened positions are permanent, and many others seem to fall under the all-encompassing Lecturer term.

The North American tenure track trajectory goes from assistant, to associate, to full professorships. The non-tenure track positions usually consist of adjunct faculty and sessional course instructors. Tenure was legislatively eliminated in the U.K. in 1988, and was replaced by permanent-indefinite contracts ranging from lecturer-reader to full professorships.

Part-time workers are represented by sessional/part-time lecturers, as well as visiting or post-graduate teaching staff, holding work contracts with as little as a couple of hours per week. Hybrid teaching agreements are signed under “non-lecturer” titles. These are usually zero-hours contracts, meaning there is no obligation on the part of the employer to provide any hours of work.

Hours can be additionally cancelled (if dependent on enrollment numbers) and employers are not bound to any legal rights of holiday and sick pay provisions. More so, paid hours count only if spent in the actual classrooms and not on related class preparations. For those securing a permanent lecturing position, salaries range from £33,000 to £43,000 a year.

The pay, however, is not the sole issue highlighted by the UCU strike. Attention is also drawn to some of the larger precarious working conditions that characterize academic labour: the casualization of employment, whereas 75,000 university staff hold “casualised” contracts and 21,000 have zero hours contracts, the yearly pay increases received by university administrators (the latest pay raise, on May 19, increased by 6.1 percent for vice chancellors), the overall job insecurity, and the gendered pay inequality. Similar issues with those addressed last year by the doctoral and post-doctoral strikes at University of Toronto and York University.

Within a context where universities are much more concerned with securing predominant roles within the global economy, there is no wonder that education, and access to education, have been nonetheless commodified. Educational institutions resemble more and more the private enterprises structure: Students are turned consumers and merely seen as revenue producers, the pay inequality between high rank administrators and general staff is wider and wider, the corporate inference within the university’ governance structure is constantly increasing, and there is an overall erosion of collective organizing efforts.

Hearing about the city-wide rallies scheduled across the U.K. (13 such protests as The Guardian reported) I eagerly checked the UCU website for something happening in Oxford. After all, Oxford University joined the AUT in 1930s and its numbers gave a boost to the Union.

My hope was to attend a rally and talk with people on the picket lines, understand what are some of the similarities and differences between the U.K. and Canadian labour organizing contexts, while also surveying some of the common labour demands. Nevertheless, the two-day walkout seemed far less organized that what I have initially envisioned.

Events were indeed scheduled across the country, but seemed scattered across a few big cities and lasting only for about half day. Nothing taking place in Oxford (although a two-hour picket, with about a dozen people, seemed to have happened). The 13 strike-event cities included Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Southampton and York.

Walkouts and labour withdrawal are for sure powerful tactics. Yet rallying out for half days and chanting in walking circles, does little in terms of disrupting and actually shutting down the university establishment. Acting within a constricted box, afraid to radically disrupt and disturb, playing the game within the confinements and parameters imposed by those creating the rules of the game, makes it difficult to change the very same rules of the game. It comes at no surprise that employers took the strike as having minimal impact.

The UCU labour dispute seems to fit under the auspices of reformist unionism, a business type sort of approach, which does little in terms of fundamentally changing the exploitative structural conditions that maintain precarious working conditions. It is in contrast with the militant, revolutionary type of unionism, which usually aims to directly tackle the institutional ways of capitalist modus operandi.

The social movement unionism specifically builds wider solidarity networks, engages different workers’groups and restrains from merely shaking the boat for modest wage increases. In fact, doing so, would depoliticize the labour dispute, transforming it into nickel and dime game for the privileged (employed) few. Getting a pay increase of two per cent over one per cent will not make things much better in a structural way, since the unequal conditions keeping the administrators making more and more and the ones at the bottom making less and less, remain unchanged.

Militant tactics could additionally lead to more of a structural reform. Bringing university operations to a full stop, from picketing library access, to shutting down food and catering operations, building solidarity efforts with different unions and asking their members to join picket lines, could politicize the fight and systemically change the nature of the game. Yet on the days of May 25 and May 26, things in Oxford were continuing unchanged. Yes, most staff probably did not show up to work, but no picketers were visible on sites.

We can look, in contrast, to the oil strike happening in France. The Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), in protesting over a labour reform which shifts the working force further into precariat, has blocked several refineries and fuel supplies whereas concomitantly, members of the Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD), a more radically orientated Union, have offered support by calling a public transport strike.

But honestly speaking, the Anglo-Saxon protest tradition has always been more reformist than the continental one. This could also be seen in Canada. Quebec’s student protests have been by far more militant if compared with those from the English parts of the country.

Defending a university labour strike is generally a hard sell. Academics are not part of what we have come to know as the typical working class. Indeed, some years ago, when every PhD studentship materialized into a tenure track position, with a more than modest salary, a sabbatical, and a long-term secure job, academics were representing the so-called Ivory Tower.

Yet things look much different nowadays, when most of the teaching bulk is actually sustained by people working a full time load through the cumulative way of several part time jobs. And nevertheless, they are amongst the lucky enough to even have a job. Part of a privileged class who still has some work. Yet this is not reason enough to deny the two-tier unequal system created, one where the pay levels of academic administrators and permanent professors continually go up, while the ones of those at the bottom of the scale remain stagnant.




Raluca Bejan

Raluca Bejan is an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She has a PhD and a MSW from the University of Toronto, and a BA in political sciences from Lucian Blaga...