You’d have hoped things would have changed but no. FE is still being squeezed, pay is being frozen, and generally things are looking bleak. It’s no surprise, then, that my colleagues in UCU went on strike today. I chose not to, and as I was informed, somewhat spikily, by a committed Union member that the decision about going into work yesterday was a “moral” one, I thought I might explain why.
For one, I’m not a union member, and as such I am a free individual without commitment to any politically motivated organisation. Therefore the decision, for me, is entirely personal. I owe no moral obligation to the union: I made use of their services on two occasions and did so as a result of my then fully paid up membership. I’ve never been a great one for arbitrary loyalty. I paid my dues, I received a service: simple.
Back then as well, I was also younger and more idealistic and felt that going on strike would achieve something. So I walked out on several occasions, and all I had to show for it was a reduced pay packet when my day’s pay got docked. The trouble is, even if I were a member, I still would be walking into work today with my head held high. Not because I support the government on its approach to FE and FE funding: quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that on the subject of FE, and indeed many areas, the government is wrong, and that they have nothing to offer me or my family whatsoever. My household is entirely dependent on the public sector: my children attend publicly funded education, my wife works for the NHS, I am not in any respect a supporter of this government. To quote the mighty Radiohead, “bring down the government/they don’t speak for us.”
However, I don’t think striking works. Downing tools and walking out works, for example, when you are involved in producing something quickly quantifiable. If I am a coal miner, then one day of me not digging coal will lead to a reduction in the overall quantity of coal, leading to reduced profit for the people in charge. Firefighters walk out and the government have to pay the army to come in. For someone in school education the impact is disruption: if all the teachers walk out of a school, that’s several hundred families who have to rearrange work, childcare, and goodness knows what else. This is also a direct, measurable impact. In post-16 education, however, we lose on both counts. To achieve the kind of direct impact that our friends in industry and school age education achieve is only really possible if we take action during a crucial assessment period, where students final results may be immediately and directly affected, and I, for one, would never do that to my students. It’s not, after all, their fault. So we have term time strikes which mildly disrupt lessons by, let’s face it, usually just pushing the scheme of work along a little and covering what you would have covered on the strike day later on in the year. Never mind the moral fact that whatever was planned to be covered that day should not be covered: that simply isn’t what happens. The students have the day off to hang around McDonalds or whatever, and enjoy the break.
Is there, perhaps, a sense of a message being sent to the powers that be? I think that’s possible on a local scale where the negative publicity of a visible picket line might well work. Colleges, after all, are dependent on the good will of the communities they work in, so need to maintain a good local standing. But a national scale on a fairly technical issue of pay rises, then you are hardly going to engage the general public. Indeed, public sector pay has been spun pretty nastily against us by the government and is hardly something to appeal to someone employed in the private sector who hasn’t had any kind of pay rise for the last ten years either. So in the end, the strike becomes lots of noise and bluster, and, like a tantrum, is quickly forgotten.
But if striking isn’t the answer, then what is? Mass has a power, and amassed voices have power, but I’m not sure that these voices no longer need subscription based unions to make those voices heard. I’m not saying Twitter is the answer, or that we form up a mass of blogs raging against the dying of the funding light but it’s a start. Politicians are frightened of social media, after all, with its immediate ability to pick up and shame even the smallest photoshopped poppy. What if every college lecturer in the country emailed key members of the government at the same time? Thousands of emails plopping into ministerial inboxes at the same time might get noticed. Even thinking more traditionally, online petitioning is gathering following, if not necessarily impact. The industrial action of the future is not physical picket lines, or withdrawn labour, or a united collective voice. Rather rather it is individual and diverse voices of every social and political stripe, coming together on an issue, repeating the same tune until it is heard.
And if you are a union member, and you are outraged or upset by what I’ve said, then think about this: what exactly is the union doing to persuade me to rejoin and get on board? If the union is keen on getting members it needs to do more than present its usual tedious polarised anti-management stance: the world is not that simple any more. It needs to learn to rely on more than simple faith and loyalty (my own reserves of which are cynically small, and reserved for those closest to me). It needs to develop recruiting techniques more effective than disapproving frowns and snide comments. For many of us whose politics developed under Thatcher and Blair, there is a nagging sense of “what’s in it for me?
But my respect to those who did strike yesterday. I admire your commitment to a cause. Just remember that my withheld strike is not a criticism of you, but of the methods you have supported. The world is changing and unions, and crucially union action must change with it, or run the risk of obscurity and irrelevance. Unions and their actions have been responsible for many many great things, but they need to do more than rely on past victories.