I am on strike today. Well, actually I don’t teach on Wednesdays anyway, and so usually work from home. I am not at university to join our picket and I didn’t want to be an interloper in someone else’s strike marches in London. I guess I could just take the day off in solidarity, but I have a major project deadline tomorrow, so I will actually be working from home. But technically I’m on strike.
This may give the impression that I’m not wholeheartedly behind the strike. And maybe I’m not. But not because I don’t think we have every right to have one.
I am supporting the strike for a couple of reasons: unionizing academic workers is important. It is such a cut-throat field that it is clear that universities (and departments) can and will try to take advantage of academics. Casualization of workers is a major problem. Again, not because I think everyone needs to get tenure. But because the creation of departmental hierarchies as a result mirrors the problems pointed out by OWS: the ‘rich’ (in this case, the time-rich professors with minimal teaching loads) get richer (they produce research which then helps them get funding for more research), while the ‘poor’ and ‘middle classes’ (casualized workers) spend all their time teaching and can’t get any research out and are thus stuck in the hierarchy. Obviously it’s not as bad as that yet here in Britain, and in part because the University and College Union pays attention to problems of causalization.
I also support the strikes because it is clear that there is sneaky accounting going on that is part of a broader conservative policy trend. Since so much of this pension stuff is based on decade long projections, there is clever accounting on both sides, obviously. But I’d be more willing to trust the Universities Superannuation Scheme if there weren’t the clear incentives they point out as being championed by the coalition government to privatize. And the government seems to do the same thing here that conservatives in America are always doing: assuming that ‘public sector’ somehow means ‘cushy make-work scheme’. These are doctors, nurses, teachers, police, firemen, border agents, and, in this country, university lecturers. These are a broad swathe of the employed, and they are necessary services. Again, I would refer readers to my earlier post on libertarian paradises to point out that these are the things ‘developed’ countries have.
But I am not wholeheartedly behind the strike for other reasons.
Since the crash in 2008, I have always thought that I would like never to rely on a pension. Or social security. Or retiring ever. I don’t think that should apply to everyone by any means. Although I don’t think I’d be able to put up with my current 12 hour a week commute when I’m in my 70s, I do happen to have a job that I would love to be doing forever. I know that doesn’t apply to everyone, and that lots of people have physical jobs that they just couldn’t possibly do into their 60s.
But beyond the working age, personally, I can’t imagine being comfortable over the next 30-50 years (depending on when we’re expected to retire now, and not giving away my age!) watching things rise and fall and not knowing whether I will retire when it’s rising or falling. Better, I think, to assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised if I’m offered retirement on my 75th birthday with a pension. Better to be pessimistic.
And although I find some aspects of the USS’s reassessment of the pension scheme to be sneaky accounting, other things about it I support. For instance, they seem to be selling off risky, high interest equities in favour of gilts. This seems eminently sensible and makes me wonder why this wasn’t the case, oh, I don’t know, in 2003-7!? Why are pension schemes being encouraged to invest in high yield investments in the first place? They should be investing in safe bets as far as I am concerned – essentially savings accounts that bring in interest maybe just above inflation. Savings accounts. Not casinos. So I’m not entirely clear about why the UCU is angry about that change.
So I support the strike because I think it’s important to stand together in tough times: it’s all too easy when the size of the pie shrinks to defend your original sized slice. It would be all too easy to react to cuts by protecting the ‘tenured’ and freezing out the new entrants to the field, but I think that the UCU actually does help to protect young academics as well. And I reject cynical attempts to use the weakened economy to push through longstanding conservative agendas. But, maybe as a result of coming into the workforce in the midst of a recession, I am fatalistic/realistic/pessimistic about the boom and bust economy, and will not count on anything.