This is an anonymous piece from someone working in a United Kingdom Higher Education institution. At the moment, November-December 2019, the UCU (University and College Union) in the UK are taking action over pensions, pay and working conditions. This is the first article in a series of pieces about the UCUstrike – if you would like to contribute, please get in touch.
There is a nausea that comes with a principled decision. Your stomach is pulled in two directions, by the desire to do the right thing and the knowledge of the consequences. And there’s the guilty relief of stumbling upon some reason, some blameless release beyond your control that allows you to step back from the edge and say “it wasn’t me, my hands were tied.”
I can’t strike; I’m not a member of the union. Never mind that I signed up, briefly, as private penance for non-participation in 2018. Never mind that the break-glass button of the UCU website is there, on every computer. I’m not a member, and that’s that. Sometimes we don’t just hope to stumble upon an external force that gives us an easy out – sometimes we go hunting for it.
Plus, I can’t take the salary hit right now. Am I borrowing from everyone else’s future? It feels like skipping a blood donation the week before a marathon. Never mind the personal cost, the collective good is disappointed in you. Must try harder.
Modern life demands strong stances; to not take one is to sin by omission. There’s no space for grey. Albert Camus writes of the stranger. A boy who fails to display grief for his dead mother, an indictment of character that leads to his conviction for an unrelated crime. Hanged, for being honest about how grey his heart was. As tannoys and whistles seep through the windows, I feel as if I’ve thrown my lot in with Maleficent, Scar, or Thatcher – just by reluctantly failing to stand up. The guilty verdict of Camus’s jury, delivered to me, by me.
So yes, I feel guilty for not striking on behalf of others, but I also feel unjustified doing it for myself. As a junior member of staff, my contract is permanent and I rarely go over hours. I’ve never felt pressured to do so, and those that do aren’t lauded for it here. Plus, I’ve not had time to get used to the pension, or the pay – which is better than most of my family or friends. I’ve marched for the climate, for women’s rights, against the rise of fascism. Marching for my own deal just seems gauche.
It’s easy to fight for someone else. It’s easy to run your mouth in a meeting when a student is being mistreated. It’s easy to kneel with someone who has nothing and say, simply, “I see you, and you matter”. It’s easy to give away the equivalent of 8 days of strike pay to charity every year. It’s easy to cook a meal, to make a sandwich, to give socks to someone with no fucking socks.
It’s harder when it’s for you. It’s harder when it’s making your lot a little bit better. But it’s not just you, it’s your colleagues. And so the indecision and paralysis continue, right up to the end of the strike. “It wasn’t me, my hands were tied.”