Dear UCU, a two-hour lunchbreak is not a strike

Many disputes between workers and bosses contend for a place in trade-union history. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 would have to be in there, and I’d make the case for the 1968 Ford Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay. University lecturers taking a long lunchbreak today? Not so much.

UCU, the national union for university and college lecturers, is asking members to go on strike for two hours as part of action to secure an increase in wages. This follows two one-day strikes and a period of ‘working to rule’ and is the first in a series of proposed two-hour strikes designed to maximise disruption to universities while at the same time reducing the impact on the pay packets of staff. So profits at Waitrose won’t be plummeting, Guardian sales figures will hold steady, and no one will be asked to ‘dig deep for the lecturers’.

But aside from the UCU’s bluster about this new course of ‘action’, a two-hour strike is a sign of defeat; it’s an admission that UCU has not been able to convince its members of the need to go on strike and make the inevitable financial sacrifice that comes from withdrawing your labour. Taking an unpaid lunchbreak demonstrates commitment to nothing.

What’s more, the call for a two-hour strike shows UCU has no understanding of the nature of academic work. Lecturers are not firemen or miners; they don’t make a product or carry out a service. Even if the clacking of keyboards falls silent at campuses around the country, academics can’t stop themselves from thinking and it’s this invisible work that differentiates lecturers from other workers.

Nowadays, few academics understand that their role involves making an intellectual contribution to advancing knowledge and passing on existing knowledge to a new generation. Instead, UCU leads the way in repackaging the academic role as one of either job training or social work, through the teaching of employability skills or the promotion of social inclusion. Little specialist subject knowledge is needed to carry out these roles, so why lecturers should be paid more than anyone else who does a similar job is hard to justify. In order to successfully campaign for higher wages, lecturers first need to be clear about what the role of an academic involves - and the union seems to be the most clueless of all in this regard.

Whatever happens today, this two-hour strike has already been heralded as a success in advance because of the press coverage it has generated and the message it sends out. But the message has altered since the original strike-action ballot. As work to rule replaced day-long strikes, focus shifted to the long hours worked by lecturers and the demand for a better work-life balance. Now attention seems to be on the far higher pay awarded to university vice-chancellors and the argument is ‘it’s not fair’ rather than a straightforward demand for more money. The more lecturers are happy to portray themselves as victims, the more they’ll receive pity, rather than higher wages, in response.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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