Like other aspects of academic life the Cost of Living blog has been disrupted by recent industrial action by the University and College Union. This was in some ways an odd call as it scarcely fits into contracted work for any of the writers as far as I know. Blogs get written in the corners of days and weeks, much like a multitude of other ‘privileges’ of the academic world such as reviewing other people’s work or serving as journal editors, writing references for former and current students or colleagues, and our own writing. But it felt important to allow the disruption of regular academic routines also to be a visible disruption for the readers of the blog.
Ewen McGaughy has set out some of the issues that led to the action by university staff – now ended after a majority of UCU members voted to accept offer for a new progress of valuation of the fund. But I and other colleagues have also been reflecting since the strike days on the experience itself and its potential impact on our work relationships. In this blog I want to start with the feeling of ‘solidarity’ that was part of that experience, and think about how we might move forward with that.
Though the mood on Twitter was probably not representative of the voting members, much of the strike action did seem to take place on social media. A perhaps unexpected Twitter presence was the Dinosaur of Solidarity (@0f_dinosaur), which clocked up an impressive 3613 tweets and counting in under two months of life in the Southampton area. Where Twitter for me has been more about ‘work’ than ‘play’ – perhaps I am unusual in never knowingly clicking on a kitten – the dinosaur was a welcome source of light relief in the often sobering experience of picketing through bad weather or even sitting at home and missing teaching while learning it seemed again and again how little our organisations valued our work and our perspectives.
The Dinosaur playfully invoked the ways in which the repertoires of contention that coalesce around withholding labour might be imagined to be dead and gone. They also offered a way to generate new conversations between disciplines as social scientists discussed dinosaur attributes with natural scientists. We made our own de-extinction project for values of collegiality and care.
The history of solidarity is not solely the history of industrial disputes or Marxist political movements, as explained in recent work by Barbara Prainsack and Alexa Buyt. They define it there as ‘an enacted commitment to carry the ‘costs’ (financial, social, emotional, and other contributions) of assisting others with whom a person or persons recognise similarity in a relevant respect.’ When practised such commitments can solidify into social norms, and contractual, legal and administrative forms that I guess are well-represented in the foundation of 20thcentury pension schemes.
In health care they suggest ‘crises of solidarity’ can occur if formal arrangements continue to exist when the more informal versions have been lost. However in very recent work, in Science and Technology and Human Values [with apologies for paywall] Barbara Prainsack argues the concept of solidarity can still provide the basis for responses to relatively new problems such as the regulation of organ donation and governance of health data. She argues that current calls for patient empowerment all too often ‘serve as a discursive tool to sweep the onerous, painful, or costly sides of patient work under a shiny carpet’ (p22) and asks us to give ‘old practices and values more room’, arguing that thinking with solidarity creates an ethical underpinning for practices such as involving a wider set of family and friends in end of life care, or considering the different stakes of a range of people in health data derived from an individual.
Coming back to the university, this definition of solidarity gave me some better grasp on the feelings generated on the picket line or on Twitter. Not only was there a campaign to resist the individualisation of risk on retirement against the promise of ‘more choice’, but also to generate shared responses to the costs of academic and indeed professional life across different ages and situations, whether they be associated with precarity, intensive performance monitoring, intrusive management or simple (over) work-load. This led us to extend the agenda for discussions during the strike, and desires as well as demands for its end. Solidarity in this context meant recognising the similarities as well as the differences between academics and professional staff in universities, and between staff of different generations who might have different stakes in the future of pensions. For me then the ‘similarity in a relevant respect’ that is recognised through and beyond the strike need not be a similarity based in material working conditions, but could be a similarity in the sense of vocation(another dinosaur word?), and a desire for universities to be communities that celebrate critical thinking, curiosity and care. Perhaps we need to work harder to develop this as a shared sense, to avoid the risks of individually thinking of an academic job as a ‘gift’ – which all too often seems to lead us into feeling that we should be endlessly working and giving in return.
I noticed that during the strike some of our older students would sign off emails ‘in solidarity’ – a phrase which pleased me partly for its apparent quaintness. But this sentiment was not so clear for many undergraduates despite the extraordinary efforts of activists who occupied campus buildings and marched in support of staff. Now we are in a new stage of the dispute about the pensions issue, my own plans are to work harder to generate that sense of solidarity with my students, and (hopefully perhaps) theirs with staff. The energetic authors of the USS briefs have called for us to diversify in our use of social and other media, to share information about the issues behind the strike with a broader range of people: Andy Balmer suggests Facebook, YouTube, Instagram as well as print. Perhaps readers of this blog will have suggestions not only about the mix of new and old in seeking platforms or publications but also about the terms we might choose to resurrect in such communication – with or without solidarity?