I joined NATFHE in 1994. When it merged with the AUT and formed UCU, I migrated across. I had never not been on strike when called. I had never not picketed. Even on my own. Even in the rain. Even with senior managers walking past and telling me what a good job I was doing.
After being put at risk through a restructure under a new Pro Vice-Chancellor in 2005, I joined the UCU committee and became a health and safety rep. I stepped down in 2009 as my emotional health worsened. However, I remained on the committee. For the next few years, alongside caring for my Mum before she passed away and continued work, I was involved with the committee, occasionally in meetings with management. At that time, I was much more involved with student social movement activity, through occupations, and in a range of alternative education projects, detailed at http://www.richard-hall.org/beyond-work/
I miss those days. Somethings felt possible.
In 2018, my own position in University came under renewed stress, as a new Pro Vice-Chancellor looked to co-opt an Institute I was directing for a different purpose than that which we had agreed institutionally and previously. This was the most incredibly messy and stressful experience I have had in my working life. The conduct of this was inexcusable. However, I remain grateful to two members of senior leadership in the institution at that time who gave me incredible support.
In my description of this, my own trade union, UCU, is missing. The limitations of union power within a branch and an institution became very clear to me at this time. Whilst caseworkers and members were sympathetic, there was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness should I be threatened with redundancy. I remember other professors who were members expressing dismay in their fear that this could be visited on them. It was clear that this was a branch with limited organisation, which had to focus resources upon being service-based, and that, in extremis, one was on one’s own.
NB the limits of labour solidarity is also the lesson that I take from my Dad’s work in precarious circumstances on factory floors. Note – this is not human or civil solidarity, or that in social movements (well, not necessarily, although it might be), but the limits erupting from within the compulsion to resell one’s alienated labour day-after-day within a prestige economy. At this time, I was supported by wonderful and beautiful people from the ground, like Sarah Amsler and Liz Morrish and Mike Neary and Keith Smyth.
In spite of these limits, or despite them, I became much more involved as an activist once the Vice-Chancellor at the time left their position. I authored DMU Renewed: a Manifesto, which drew upon work from the Branch Solidarity Network. I was involved in trying to renew and preserve the committee, as it tried to find its balance with an influx of new members. Again, this work was incredibly, emotionally trying and tiring, because it was haunted by egos and competing strategies and agendas. In hindsight, any meaningful articulation of change always felt secondary to tactical engagements with management.
And I was culpable. Up to a point.
And sometimes, when you work at the intersection of pragmatism and libertarian communism, the only answer is ¡Que se vayan todos! But that isn’t always clear at the time.
NB egos and competing strategies and agendas. These are lessons that I also project onto UCU nationally.
¡Que se vayan todos!
As the union branch became more active, I undertook casework (2018 – 22), and some negotiation, especially during Covid-19 (2019 – 22). This was a time when I was adjusting to having left long-term therapy (after a decade), and was also caring for my Nan, who passed away in April 2020, and then my Dad, who passed away suddenly in January 2022. I had intended to step down from the committee in late 2021, but was persuaded by some committee members to stay on. As a result, I was heavily involved in negotiation and casework during proposed redundancies in late Spring/Summer 2022. As with many union activists, and as was the case since I joined the committee, I had no time for this work allocated.
So, as with so many others, it took over evenings and weekends. And hearts and souls. And tended to be de-generative, and rarely re-generative. Alienation, reproduced over-and-over.
NB I must note how amazing the caseworkers and negotiators were during this dispute. I salute them. I remember discussing with the other negotiators how vulnerable we all felt. And how we had to return to negotiate, because what else was possible?
And, I should have been grieving my Dad.
I stood down from the committee in Autumn 2022. I had served on it in one form or another (often limited) since 2005, had always been active in meetings, had always been on strike and picketed, had written and negotiated and undertaken casework, had done work on health and safety. When I stood down I had one email from a current committee member thanking me for my time and energy. I had a second from a regional official. I am so grateful for their messages.
They also throw into stark relief that I had no other recognition of this work. Nothing from the committee or its officers. This local silence resonates with how I view the union nationally.
NB I understand the cry that this is thankless work, and that mine is just another representation of the weakness of (white, male, straight)(academic) egos. Yes, maybe. I have to sit with that. And yet, it was not thanks that I thought might be appropriate. Rather, an acknowledgement, a nod, a wish to go well. Something.
On New Year’s Eve I was in a local pub that was closing that evening. With friends, I was celebrating what the pub had meant to me/us. The evening was recalibrated when an angry former colleague confronted me about some casework that happened whilst I was caring for my Nan. In the crucial moment for that part of the story I was bedridden with a migraine. And in that moment in the pub I was reminded that, during that case, a senior, national UCU activist had slandered me on email. I remember that nothing came of this following conversations with region. And I remember how overworked that office is as well.
What a mess the alienation and estrangement and egos of this labour makes of us, and of our relationships. What a mess it makes of our histories, presents and futures.
And this in the midst of the current dispute. I remember feeling uneasy that our branch, like others, had no discussion about the dispute in late summer 2022, and that I felt that we were bounced into a ballot for industrial action. Moreover, our branch was tired from a struggle over redundancies, which for some staff was still ongoing. There was an issue of organisation. And energy, both emotional and physical.
However, there was also an issue of our not having built an organisation around the 4 Fights nationally, in particular since the collapse of the (in hindsight) pointless action of 2020. Here, it is interesting to see the comments of national negotiators when analysing the recent UCEA/UCU negotiations, in which they did not take part as a group. Did we now understand what our disputes meant, or what winning meant inside the institution/nationally? Was this simply a campaign around pay, for which we would have no public support? Were post-92s being bounced into a struggle where the power/core dispute was over USS Pensions?
NB of course, that pensions dispute is fundamental and needs to be won. It deserves the support of all University workers, working (directly) democratically to liberate these deferred wages/benefits. To liberate future time. Future free time. For these workers.
I felt that aggregating the vote was risky for some institutions that remain less well-organised, and appearing to connect 4 Fights and Pensions, whether the disputes were separate on the ballot paper or not, was a problematic strategy. Moreover, when the ballot result came out and there were triumphalist statements made about an 80-odd per cent vote for strike action, based upon a low 50 per cent turnout, my heart sank. This meant that less than half of members had said they would take strike action, and this in a sector with relatively low union density, and next to no history of militancy.
Strike action and next-to-nothing else. Except our usual ASOS. Whatever that is, in such an ill-defined role that is never a trade. Where the labour of love trumps all else. And union legal notes said that National would support branches if management docked 100% pay, but which also reiterated that they could do so. And in places they have. All the pressure back on exhausted branches and individuals. And in-fighting and factions and vanguardism increasingly apparent when what we needed was leadership.
And anyway, we stop nothing with those numbers taking action. Or saying that they will take action. It is impossible to reimagine the university with those numbers.
Of course, it is difficult to know what we actually do stop, given that we are not a trade. Given that we are deeply stratified and fragmented, set against each other in a positional war of prestige operating at the institutional, disciplinary and individual-level. Given that we tend to overwork, and make-up lost time and activities in our own precious time. Given that we are brutalised (self-harm) inside our labour of love. These aren’t train services or postal deliveries. And it’s almost time for the NSS.
I also felt dispirited that our only apparent connection with sister unions, like Unison, was to ask them to contribute to our strike funds. The labour of academics is predicated upon of a range of professional services staff. The lack of cross-union solidarity, reinforcing privilege and hierarchy, goes on and on and on.
And all I could see was, at a National level, the Union maintaining a financial analysis that neglected the restricted and limiting financial health of individual institutions in any pay claim, and instead making claims about the reserves of the sector as a whole. As if they could be deployed equally. Moreover, there was a disengagement from the political economy of higher education, and the funding, governance and regulatory terrain upon which academic labour is forced to compete. Unless I had missed something, without any renewed funding settlement, and without any commitment for cross-sector bailouts, individual institutions were at risk from unfunded pay claims.
I ask myself, is that Russell Group institution down the road really going to bail us out when the shit hits the fan?
So what was the strategy to be? For academic labour across competing institutions?
This remains compounded for me by a lack of national organising and strategy that can resist the demands of transnational capital, and it is reinforced by a disconnect between national organising and horizontal, branch-based organising. A disconnect with sister unions. A disconnect with wider struggles in communities and society for other social goods. With factionalised, national decision-making exacerbating problems in the aggregation of separate demands (like pay equality, workload, and pensions), employers appear increasingly able to set class fractions of University labour in opposition. Operating in this context feels increasingly hopeless, with branches tending to build transactional rather than relational organisation locally.
Yet, I tried to remember that, for instance during the pandemic, University labour was increasingly placed at-risk, through proposed moves to fully-online degrees, or proposed salary cuts and promotion freezes for staff. There were also reports of significant lay-offs for fixed-term contract staff across the sector. I know that local branches did amazing work at this time.
At the same time, I see that nationally we appear to have learned nothing from past struggles. We appear to have learned nothing from 2018 or 2020, and that latter capitulation in the face of epidemiological crisis. As we headed into this new struggle, it appeared clear that we did not have the base, the networks of solidarity, nor the strategy, to define what winning might look like, in particular for those made most marginal.
This point feels hugely relevant to me. In my lifetime inside institutions, I have never been involved in a project struggling for equality, in relation to gender, disability, race and ethnicity, or decolonising, that has been catalysed by trade unions. These have tended to come from individuals inside institutions defining or leading projects, or from pressure from without (for instance, in relation to sexual violence on campus). As a result, it is increasingly clear to me that trade unions cannot add meaningful momentum or energy into these struggles in a generative way, precisely because they are locked into and limited by a particular understanding of, and focus upon, labour relations.
NB I come back to this issue of what is generative, below. However, my engagement in the 2010s in alternative education projects offered possibility. My engagement with trade unions throughout my working life should have been relational, and instead it was transactional, based upon an idealised, universal and reductionist conception of workload, casualisation and pay.
At a national level, the reproduction of the struggle appeared to pivot over the form in which decisions might be made, and upon which strategy might be set, based upon the desires of competing factions. I found this overwhelmingly demoralising. I know that this is set into a personal, post-pandemic context in which I am carrying a lot of grief. However, it feels like union members have no agency, or are kettled by constitutional/communicative designs that (deliberately?) limit agency. Of course, the work of, for instance, comrades from Notes from Below, helps us to see the possibilities and horizons for more democratic, horizontal working. I just don’t see how it is enacted. Co-opted, yes. Enacted, no.
This feels stymied by the claims made by Higher Education Committee and counter-claims made by those around the General Secretary about who has a democratic mandate, and what form that mandate might take. It is exacerbated in manoeuvring around who has a mandate to negotiate, and what is the role of branches, and the relentless use of social media to make up for a lack of an organised base. I increasingly felt the abject pointlessness of that manoeuvring in my soul. How was this actually going to provide material solutions or even possibilities for marginalised workers?
NB I was also, at this time, in solidarity with members of Unite at UCU who were in dispute over pay.
I wouldn’t mind if those asserted democratic mandates were based on significant turnouts, and gave an appropriate platform/foundation for the decisions that have been made. But I just can’t see that they do. Whether it is claims for 18 days of strike action, or for such action to be indefinite. Constant, direct democracy is needed. And is apparently impossible. Instead, I have seen posts about procedures by members of Committees, about why they voted as they did. All this simply highlights the broken politics of the union. And It is utterly dispiriting to watch.
Moreover, I know that strategy and organisation in the post-pandemic University, has enabled management to place more and more workers at-risk or potentially surplus to requirements. This has become an explicit management weapon in the class conflict now normalised across academia. During 2022-23, we have seen a range of redundancies proposed, alongside the ongoing use of casualised and precarious contracts for staff. Of course, this gave energy to long-standing campaigns against casualisation (#coronacontract), and significant local organising, which led to anti-casualisation agreements at the University of Bath, the Open University, and Sheffield Hallam University amongst others.
I salute these.
However, against the pandemic shock doctrine and struggles in the post-pandemic institution, it appears almost impossible for University labour to develop a counter-hegemonic project that pushes back against the transnational, capitalist and activist networks that oppose them. University labour, fragmented, with weak strategy, disorganised, and lacking wider solidarity, lacks the power to push back against finance capital as it associates with Vice-Chancellors, consultancies, venture capitalists working in educational technology, credit rating agencies, bond markets, and so on.
Increasingly, University labour appears unable to address: first, the divisions between fractions of that labour working in a prestige economy and looking to accrue intellectual capital; and second, the lack of class solidarity between academics, and both professional services’ staff and students. As Marx (1873) noted, ‘while the class struggle remains latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena’, capital will maintain its power. This is particularly the case where capital acts as a joint-stock company or association of capitals, able to mobilise significant resources in any class conflict.
And I am aware of autonomous struggles that erupt from within these divisions, demonstrating the deep antagonism between University labourers and their institutions and sectors. These include trade unions. However, and crucially, mirroring the teacher strikes in Chicago and Wisconsin in the last decade, we have witnessed unionised labour taking action from below and democratically, in spite of tentative agreements with management by union leadership. Having to take action autonomously, and horizontally, and democratically.
We have seen solidarity actions at the University of East Anglia. We also continue to see brilliant work against outsourcing, for instance in IWGB struggles at the University of London. Elsewhere, graduate students at the University of Michigan and Temple University in the USA are demanding living wages, in spite of tentative agreements with management by unions. We have also seen a range of student occupations protesting rent increases, and demanding cost-of-living support for students and staff. We have also seen movements against sexual violence on campuses, including the work of the 1752 Group based in the UK, which catalysed regulatory changes.
NB here, I remember and show solidarity with the Survivors Justice UCU network, who campaigned for an independent investigation and justice for the victims of sexual harassment at UCU, including in the handling of their Rule 13 complaint on sexual harassment within the union.
Rather than a reliance upon historic and formal, labour organisations, increasingly I see generative actions that point towards the validity of organising as a social movement. For generating networks that reinforce relations of mutuality and dignity between plural individuals and groups, engaged in struggles within the same terrain. I simply cannot see how the bureaucratic hegemony and privilege of the University itself can be challenged by the bureaucratic hegemony and privilege of the trade unions that claim to oppose it.
This thread by Working Class History, demonstrates the limitations of unions that “are not pure organisations which represent the will and economic interests of their members. They are large, bureaucratic organisations, which exist within capitalist economies and within legal frameworks built by capitalist states.” That is their condition. I can work with it if we are working beyond it. But we aren’t.
In this, and in spite of claims that student learning conditions are staff teaching conditions and labouring conditions, there has been much less evidence of activist forms of mutuality between academic labourers and students. I remember going on demonstrations in 2010 and 2011, and being kettled, alongside a minority of academic teaching staff. I remember going on demonstrations against austerity, alongside a minority of academic teaching staff. I remember being in alternative education projects, alongside a minority of academic teaching staff.
And in spite of the global education struggles of the early 2010s, the strikes occurring in UK higher education since 2018 have produced limited anti-capitalist content, and almost no discussion of what might lie beyond labour relations in the toxic University. In this, the abolition of the University, and of (academic) labour inside capitalism is nowhere on the agenda.
Increasingly, I cannot see how the structures, cultures and practices of the labour organisations open to me, which are so entangled with the alienating realities of the capitalist University, make it possible for University workers to imagine another type of institution, let alone another world. The transactional nature of unions militates against a deeply relational, alternative way of producing knowledge. It appears increasingly to me that trade unions, like universities themselves, merely reproduce hopelessness.
And this is my current position. It is not a permanent position. All positions are conditional and open. As Subcamandante Marcos argued, ‘[a]ll final options are a trap.’ When I reflect back now, in all my years of trade union activity, it never felt generative or possible, or opening out of a new horizon of possibility. The spaces and places that have felt possible have been outside the University and outside of labour unions, in the struggle within social movements that seek to imagine the world otherwise. These spaces and places have felt relational, rather than transactional.
I come back to that, because it is how I feel about how I have been treated in relation to the free labour that I have given to my union over the years, which went unrecognised as it passed. If we are going to treat each other transactionally, rather than relationally, as we claim that the university is ours, and if we refuse to honour the care and dignity that individuals bring to their work, then we are lost. A university that is not grounded in the mutuality of dignity as an act of love is not enough. Never enough.
And I write this in response to a committee member having a student whom I was teaching deliver me two UCU stickers, on a strike day. Not handing them to me directly. But sending a student as a messenger. Carrying the equivalent of a white feather, perhaps. Of course, this person didn’t know that I had left the union a month before. This person didn’t know that I could not cross the picket line whilst I was a member of the union, and that I was so utterly dispirited by how this campaign and this dispute were being run, and the claims made about it. That I was so dispirited by how I saw previous failings being replicated over and over and over again.
Of course, I recognise and still process that I was part of one UCU branch and its committee for years. Make of that what you will. Clearly, some of those failings are my failings, in particular, in our inability to build something predicated upon mutuality, solidarity and relationality.
And in this, I am reminded that Notes from Below remarked:
We hope this scrutiny is accepted as a good faith attempt to build a better, more equitable union that is run from its roots.
I am also reminded of the words of a very dear friend who said to me back in 2018:
I bloody love trade unions. I just don’t like them very much.
I will try to hold these entangled positions as I find my way. For now, that cannot be within UCU.
Peace be with you.