Zara Dinnen and James Eastwood, Co-Chairs of the Queen Mary UCU Branch, contribute to the discussion within the union about possible next steps. Their views are expressed in a personal capacity.
You might be reading this with a range of emotions. You have recently heard that UCU’s Higher Education Committee voted for indefinite strike action from February and you are trying to work out what this means for you and your colleagues. You may be excited about indefinite action. You may be very worried. You may feel aspects of both. Which makes sense: an indefinite strike is a big step to take. It will only work if it has a good level of support among the membership, but there are different views in our union about whether it can be effective.
This is why it is important for those of us who support the idea of indefinite strike action to lay out the thinking behind this strategy and to address the concerns that many members will naturally have about taking such a step. Doing so is not to discount the potential effectiveness of other strategies, but is instead contributing to the broader discussion in our union about how best to build consensus and achieve our collective demands.
The most important thing to realise is that the aim of indefinite action is emphatically not a forever strike. Instead, an indefinite strike is best understood as an uninterrupted strike of indeterminate duration, whose length is decided by workers. The aim is to win a clearer victory, earlier, by maximising our structural power in the dispute. The strategy arises from a concrete analysis of the conditions of work in the higher education sector and of the successes and failures of the action previously taken by UCU over recent years. It is intended to use the historic mandate we have to maximum effectiveness, so that we can win as much as possible with the resources we have available.
Here we make the case for indefinite strike action based on the following three considerations: (1) the nature of university work; (2) control over the dispute; and (3) timing. Our union needs to take action which reflects the kind of work that university staff do and which coordinates the withdrawal of that labour to have the greatest impact. We need to take action whose duration is controlled by the workers taking it, rather than the university managers trying to mitigate it. And we also need to take into consideration the timing of the ballot mandate we have to identify the most significant pressure points available. Beyond these arguments, we also need to understand and address the concerns that members have about financial sustainability.
The nature of university work
Universities are structurally hierarchical and uneven workplaces. Some workers in universities experience the university as a place of autonomy and freedom – or, are able to operate within the fantasy of this affordance – but many do not have this experience. In recent years industrial action taken by our union replicates this unevenness by focussing on teaching, rather than all the work we do, or the different kinds of management we experience in our jobs. But in all its varieties our work is interdependent, and so are our working conditions. Industrial action needs to be collective and needs to operate in ways that refuse the divisive logics of the university. The university is an untenable place to work for many and if it is to have any future, our collective action needs to be with and for everyone, against the present situation.
As university workers the major, but not only, product we produce for the profit of our employers is degrees. However, with the important exception of marking, we do not produce a product which has to be delivered at a certain time. Instead, our delivery of teaching has to meet certain longer term student learning outcomes.
Like it or not, as soon as teaching resumes, we begin to undo the effects of strike action. If a lecturer on strike does not teach a particular lecture or seminar, they adapt the curriculum to ensure the most essential learning is still delivered, albeit later or instead of other material. But at an even more basic level, teaching is an inherently iterative and reparative process which cannot progress without addressing the damage of previous lost education. As teachers and student support staff we unavoidably acquiesce in this aspect of our work. This protects our students, but it also allows the university to claim that all learning objectives were still met. As a result, students are often unsuccessful in claiming refunds for lost teaching and universities do not suffer financially as a result of strike action. If anything, they frequently gain money through pay deductions.
We also know from the last few years of industrial action in our union that managers actively make contingency plans to mitigate the impact of time-limited strike action. Essential meetings are rescheduled, administrative deadlines are moved but still met. Assessment deadlines and requirements are altered to take account of lost learning. Regulations are suspended. Staff can even be further pressured into undoing the effects of their strike action through draconian threats of punitive pay deductions, as has happened most notably at our branch at Queen Mary.
As a result, universities rarely grind to a halt during time-limited strikes. The most critical functions of the university are redistributed to non-strike days. And staff then take the financial hit for striking during the time when it is more minimally disruptive. Staff widely perceive these problems when deciding whether to strike. Some choose only to strike on teaching days, or not to participate at all, as a result. We have also seen that in the time in between blocks of action, it can often be harder to organise as a union; we return to our individuating experiences of the workpace, with new pressures to catch up from action.
An indefinite strike addresses these problems. Important administrative work cannot be rescheduled for non-strike days, because there are no known non-strike days. Research outputs cannot be generated, because there is no research being done. Students cannot be reassured about when teaching will resume or what topics will or will not be covered, because there is no way to plan this without knowledge of how long the strike will last. Staff cannot, and cannot be pressured to, mitigate or reschedule lost learning and administrative work as the dispute continues because they are not working. All affected staff, in all parts of the university, on all types of contracts, doing all kinds of work, stop working. It is even difficult for managers to know with certainty what is and is not happening, because staff are not available to ask.
In a time-limited strike, then, managers use their ability to issue instructions on non-strike days, as well as exploiting our inherent motivation to teach and do our work well, to reshuffle important activities away from strike days. By contrast, during an indefinite strike, the university will stop and our organising will continue. There can be no choice about what functions of the university stop, and no easy planning to restore them until the strike is over. Indefinite strike action refuses the unevenness of our working conditions: everyone out, all our labour withdrawn, no one goes back until we democratically secure a return to work that works for all.
Control over the dispute
It goes without saying that the longer that a strike continues, the more disruption will accumulate. But in an indefinite strike the relationship between length of the action and the level of disruption is not the only consideration. Instead, it is the inability to plan and mitigate which is the more decisive factor. The same thing that worries many members about indefinite strike action – its uncertain duration – is also what terrifies employers about it.
The crucial thing to be grasped here is that it is university workers, not managers, who will control this uncertain duration. Indefinite strike action is the strategy that makes the most of our structural power. If the action is to be called off, workers must first decide democratically whether what is on the table is sufficient. Likewise, if the action needs to continue, workers can decide to keep going. If the action is not working, workers can also decide to regroup and try something different.
The aim is to increase the fear among management that the situation will rapidly get out of their control. It is this uncertainty which multiplies the impact of indefinite action. The shadow of future action adds to the impact of the current action, bringing forward and maximising the pressure. An indefinite strike of equivalent duration to a more protracted series of blocks can have a much greater effect. This makes indefinite action more than the sum of its parts.
One alternative to indefinite strike action is to have escalating blocks of action as we did in 2018. This means taking 2 days one week, then 3 days the next, then 4 days, and finally blocks of 5 days, possibly with short breaks in between them. Let’s say that a strike in that scenario lasts up to 14 days (2+3+4+5). The main pressure you exert in this window probably comes in weeks 2-3. This is when the level of contact managers have with workers starts to decline precipitously, and when the major threat (5 days in a row) is on the immediate horizon. It was at this point in 2018 that the employers made their gambit to moderate benefit cuts at ACAS talks, which were then rejected by members.
But a determined manager, especially one who has played this game before, will know that, if they can withstand the pressure at this point, it will actually begin to dissipate. In the final week, when members are actually making the greatest sacrifice financially, most of the damage has already been done. While the 5 days can still be averted, it would be easier to wait until staff are back at work to make any improved offer. By that point, work can again begin to mitigate the impact of the action and the onus is now on the union to escalate again in response (with a legally required two-week notice period for any new action). This is exactly what the employers did in 2018 once the action was over. In other years, employers simply rode out the action without making improved offers. This is not to say this strategy cannot work at all. It clearly won us significant gains in 2018, even if they were subsequently eroded. In the context of an aggregated national mandate, even more may be possible. But the limitations are also evident from experience.
Then consider the indefinite strike. The pressure on the university does not fluctuate and dissipate. There is, first of all, a very strong incentive not to let such an action begin because of how difficult it might be to get staff back to work. The managers are not dealing with the thin end of a wedge, but are bearing the brunt of the pressure from the beginning. Second, the option to wait out the strike is much more painful. They can of course try this latter course of action, but the cost of doing so remains high from the very start and does not diminish. Third, there is no relief from the pressure of strike action, no break when workers can be brought back to work and made to begin to undo the effect of what they have done. There is also no way to gather information on what exactly has happened, and no way to begin to plan to mitigate it. Everything will be on hold until the strike is over.
With blocks of strike action, workers are at their weakest in terms of structural power on the last day of the action. In the indefinite action scenario, they remain at their strongest potential right up until the end. Of course, whether in practice they will be stronger will depend on how well the strike is observed. But that is where worker control is again key. The judgement about whether to continue happens immediately in response to real-time developments in the dispute when workers hold the cards, rather than after a pause in action when a re-escalation is needed.
We also need to think about the timing of our current ballot mandate. The mandate is effective from November until April. This precludes a marking boycott in the all-important summer term unless we successfully reballot. While a marking boycott in the interim may have some role, it is clear it would need to be sustained for a long time and/or combined with strike action to have the maximum effect. Extending the marking boycott into the summer term would need to be part of the plan. Waiting that long for expected victory could be costly, especially if punitive pay deductions are made. At our branch at Queen Mary, we know the potential dangers of 100% deductions all too well. But even partial deductions would quickly add up over this period. This approach also wouldn’t make the most of the opportunity we currently have from our existing mandate, and risks the potential loss of the mandate in a reballot.
Starting from the position that we want to use the historic mandate we have to best advantage, the next question is how best to apply pressure before April. This requires an analysis of the distribution of work across the academic year. Anyone involved with teaching knows that the most important, essential content is always delivered early in a semester. Independent study also becomes more feasible once essential content has been delivered. If a course is affected by strike action, it is likely that later more advanced or detailed topics would be sacrificed to deliver the essential content missed earlier in the programme. Any university worker knows that student attendance and engagement is also highest at the beginning of a semester, and that key administrative, funding and planning deadlines come early in the semester. Later weeks will still be important, but they will likely build on teaching, and administrative processes, that have already taken place. Aside from the summer marking period, which is beyond our current mandate, the beginning of a semester is by far the most significant pressure point available to us.
This means that spreading strike action over the course of an entire semester will inevitably dilute its potential disruptive impact. By contrast, if teaching, student support, and planning cannot even properly begin because of indefinite action, the pressure this will generate is significantly greater. Put in crude terms, the value of the lost work will be higher.
Putting all this together, the most powerful threat which can emerge from our current mandate is the threat that the new semester will not start unless our demands are reasonably met. We would be giving our employers a problem they simply cannot solve without us. The potential leverage this generates far outstrips anything we could apply through a different pattern of action.
The most obvious worry which members will have about taking indefinite strike action is money. A strike which will continue for an uncertain period is hard to budget for. The possibility that it might go on for weeks – something which recent examples of indefinite strikes show can happen – could impose significant costs on members. In the long-run this financial sacrifice may be worth it for the possible gains to be won, but that does not solve a short-term cash flow problem.
No one should dismiss worries like this. If we are worried about the effects of low pay on our sector, we must also be worried about the effect of strike deductions. But it is not completely clear that the overall cost to members would indeed be higher for indefinite strike action. There are reasons to think the opposite.
The first thing to re-emphasise is that the aim of indefinite action is not for the strike to go on forever. The aim is to apply pressure earlier to win a more comprehensive victory. For all the reasons discussed above, indefinite action delivers more strike bang for your deducted pay buck. The resulting action will be tough, but if pursued effectively it could end up being shorter and less costly overall than a protracted dispute which relies on continuing on and off strikes throughout the semester until a summer marking boycott.
The second point relates to the point made above about control over the dispute. By announcing time-limited blocks of action, you are advertising in advance to your employer how much action you are prepared to take. This allows them to make a simple calculation about your appetite to continue and the likely impact on the university. In response, they will make an offer which is calibrated to be just enough, and no more, to offset this. In an indefinite strike, you take this information away from the employer. You tap deeper into their risk aversion and force them to offer more to offset the threat of future action. You allow you and your colleagues to make informed and real-time decisions about whether it is worth continuing based on the offers and signals received to date from the other side, and on the capacity of strikers to continue. You also make it clear that the current pay and working conditions in this sector are untenable, and that there can be no sector without things changing.
None of the above negates the financial costs of strike action. Significant planning and fundraising, combined with honest and continuous assessments about how much action could be sustained, will be needed. But there is nothing inherent to indefinite strike action, as opposed to the alternatives of a protracted marking boycott and/or blocks of strike action, which mean these costs are necessarily higher.
Moreover, recent experience shows that the necessary fundraising and financial planning is possible. Liverpool UCU sustained themselves through a lengthy marking boycott with 100% deductions using an innovative wage sharing scheme within the branch which relied on donations from more financially secure colleagues to support the most precarious. At Queen Mary, we raised £70,000 from the general public to support our local strike and marking boycott.
Indefinite strike action is not new, although it may be new for many of us. In just the last few months, criminal barristers in the UK have been on a month long all out strike, only stopping when many of their demands were met; bus drivers at Arriva were due to begin all out strike action in October, but the threat of it won them an 11% pay rise; in the last three weeks at the New School, indefinite strikes by adjunct academic workers and faculty secured an offer acceptable to workers.
Indefinite strike action makes the most of our structural power as workers. The conditions of university work today are expropriative in complex and operationally flexible ways. To withdraw our labour in its entirety and refuse to return until we know there is a meaningful change to our working conditions, is to engage in action that cannot be mitigated, action where the burden does not fall on one group of workers over another. Taking indefinite action from the beginning of the semester is to identify the university’s pinch points and exploit them back. Indefinite strike action means we have control of the dispute: we are out until we decide to go in. After years of frustration, and with the strength of our current mandate, there has never been a better time to take it.
This piece was originally posted on Notes from Below on 18th December as a contribution to debate within UCU on next steps on strike action. As UK University workers know, the UCU has since called 18 days of action beginning with the TUC day of action on 1 February.’