The academic ethics of strikebreaking

This week saw another one day strike of university staff across the UK. For those not aware of the context, the dispute is over pay (a 13% decline in real terms salaries since 2009, whilst senior managerial pay has outpaced inflation, and universities ran a collective surplus of over £1 billion last year). The two strikes so far have involved three national unions, representing not only academics, but the whole range of university workers.

I joined colleagues on the picket line at my own institution on Tuesday morning. The last time we struck, the university cancelled classes. This time it didn’t, so many staff, especially academics, were faced with a starker choice about whether they would support the action or not.

It was fascinating hearing what some of those who crossed the picket line had to say when challenged. My favourite responses were these:

1. One professor said he disagreed with strike action because it was ineffective. It would be better, he said, to withhold grades on student assignments. On one level, this is a valid point. The tactic of sporadic one day strikes is especially weak. It easily loses momentum, and gives the employers the chance to offer meaningless talks as a PR exercise (as happened after our first one day strike). However, his argument was somewhat weakened by the fact that he was not in the union, nor in any other way seeking to influence the shape of collective resistance to pay cuts. It seemed to be enough to ‘have an opinion’ which sounded more radical than what the union was doing.

2. Another lecturer actually stated that he ‘fully supported’ the strike, but was going to teach anyway as he was not a member of the union. I put it to him that he could join the union on the picket line, and he would immediately be protected against dismissal for joining the strike, but this did not seem to be what he had in mind.

3. A third lecturer said that he agreed the pay cuts were wrong, but disagreed with striking because of the impact it had on students. He said he belonged to a ‘non-striking’ union, but could not remember the name of it.

I’m aware that others who broke the strike had a whole variety of very different reasons, ranging from fear of management reprisals to a simple hatred of unions. However, the three responses above stood out for me because they all came from people claiming to be sympathetic to the cause of the strike.

The disavowal at work here is stunning in its mundanity, the fact that it went unremarked as it was stated. ‘The union should adopt different tactics – but I will not join the union’; ‘I support the strike – but I am not going to strike myself’; ‘the cause of the strike is just – but I renounce the basic means of resisting injustice’.

There is no reason why academics should be any more logical about these matters than anyone else. But I wonder if the gaping holes in these responses are, at least in part, a result of the shaping of academic subjectivity by the capitalist university. We are engaged in a profession which claims to promote something above instrumentalism – and it is precisely this which is our instrumental role. We have to play the games of preparing students for employment, and raising money for research, but we keep an internal distance from these things. We cynically despise them (and often despise the students who do not measure up to our ideals), whilst committing ourselves to a system which believes in these things on our behalf (cf. the Zizekian analysis of contemporary belief).

However, it is this internal displacement which produces the figure of the contemporary academic. This person is invested in an ethic of scholarship, which actually leaves them without a language or imagination for addressing the material conditions of higher education, beyond that of an ultimately ineffective idealism. The melancholy of the modern scholar over the marketization of education is therefore neither a form of resistance nor mere nostalgia, but a fabricated affect essential to the mediating role we play.

Of course, I generalise hugely, and we can all think of many exceptions. I am not suggesting that our bureaucratised unions or existing left groups offer any panacea. Nevertheless, higher education has been, and will continue to be, marketised and instrumentalised, and the vast majority of academics will (grudgingly, cynically) put up with it. And our ethic of scholarship is of no use. It is the same ethic which is able to abide such logical inconsistencies and lack of solidarity when it comes to strikebreaking.

Perhaps, if we seek an effective resistance, we need to talk less about the mystique and otherness of education and instead acknowledge that it is a political economy. Perhaps the students who occupied part of Liverpool University in support of the strikes this week had the right slogan: ‘University is a Factory’.

8 thoughts on “The academic ethics of strikebreaking

  1. Steven,
    Very similar experience from the picket line as your own. Some very odd staff rationalizations for breaking the strike and crossing the picket line, only offset by the recognition amongst some of the students who joined us on the line that strike action had a (potentially) positive bearing on their own futures; rather than simply being measurable in very precise quantifiable cash terms with regard to the “education” that they were losing on that day.

  2. I don’t think the term ‘academic’ is particularly useful because it provides a categorization for a group that doesn’t have a core category or common experience – it is easier to understand when we talk about what we actually are – employees. You as type of employee with a certain type of training think about things in a certain way, I am from a different tradition in the academy (information sciences PhD) and I’m just a dude doing a job who wants to get his mortgage paid and go home no different from the binmen.

    I don’t think I’m doing anything with a higher purpose and talking to my colleagues I never get that sense from them either but I never see that come out in the discourse around the academy because people like me learn the true believers dominate the conversation but I think we actually outnumber the true believers (plus when I knock off I don’t want to talk work stuff anyway).

    So when you talk about an ethic of scholarship, I’m not sure it exists in the first place because there isn’t really a central concept of the ‘academic’ sitting behind it.

  3. Excellent post. I live in Bloomsbury, and I have seen the Unions on the day of the strike. These statements that you mention above are all too common, way too common. When I was in the US doing union organising for UNITE HERE as a boycott co-ordinator, organisations would say, “oh, yes, I support the workers, but we just can’t pull out of our contractual obligations” or “it would be a difficult technical problem for us to boycott.” Well, I just said, OK: let’s make it difficult as hell for them to not boycott. The US Green Building Council had an agreement with the food catering company ARAMARK, which was in a dispute with our union in Boston. We co-ordinated such an attack on their corporation, finding out that Desmond Tutu was the main speaker and sending him an overnight package to South Africa with the details of the dispute – he called the mayor and a Boston newspaper wrote “Did the Union Go Tutu Far?” – that eventually they caved – killing a $2million contract.

    It’s different when people are so damn atomised – when you can’t leverage a group – “individuals” “voice” their “opinions” and then “move on, nothing to see here.” Neo-liberal consciousness, or as Jodi Dean aptly calls it Capitalist drive. I like her ideas about creating a “collective desire for collectivity.” Ultimately, an insurrection must be waged (pun) on this psychic level. Re-education for the educators.

  4. Perhaps the much publicized presence of Comrade Delta at Liverpool Hope University will light the spark of revolution!

  5. Apologies for not responding earlier to those who commented.

    Alan: I’m not really convinced. I can well believe that the day to day experience of people teaching in universities differs here, and that disciplinary boundaries and traditions play a part in this. But those very disciplinary boundaries are a product of a modern tradition of thinking on the university and its various faculties, which goes back at least to Kant. My experience – only anecdotal, of course – is that the ethic of scholarship is not confined to the humanities, but arises in different forms across the sciences too.

    In one sense, I agree with you – academics are just people doing a job. But we still have to reckon with this conflicted history behind what academia is and represents, because otherwise the acceptance of our mundane experience as simply fitting a common template of employment, paying a mortgage, etc, does not lead to any potential transformation of that system. The point about the students’ ‘university is a factory’ slogan is that it is completed by the words ‘Organise. Occupy. Strike’ – it is a recognition of the contingency of the capitalist market, and the possibility of resistance.

    Eilif – thank you, you’re right about the core problem of neo-liberal consciousness. And the first step is exposing it as such, rather than as an inevitable feature of the world.

    Gerry Healy – sorry, I find it hard to joke about that.

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