In this statement of solidarity for the current UCU strikes taking place across the country, we include a new updated version of Daniel Bristow’s 2013 ‘What is a Strike?’ along with a reflection on the 2020 action by James Smith.
In 2013, we reflected on a major strike across universities in the UK, responding to what seemed to be a shift in attitudes toward striking itself. While striking had been seen – in many contexts at least – as a staple part of employment structures understood by all as a fundamental right and an essential part of the checks and balances needed to keep the work of work running, there seemed a growing question not only of whether strikes should be happening but of what they mean in the first place.
What was a strike in 2013?
In that year the BBC reported a story on the confusion of children over where their food comes from: ‘cheese is from plants’, ‘pasta’s made of meat’, ‘fish fingers come from chicken’, etc. Despite the ambiguity that would have arisen over a kid hesitating an answer of ‘horse beef’, we should perhaps look to certain of the tropes by which not only teachers, but the media too, explain things (both of whom being educationalists. Indeed, as is John Reith’s motto that the BBC was built on: ‘educate, inform, and entertain’). So, whereas it might seem preposterous to a certain generation to have to explain where cheese comes from, so it might to have to explain what a strike is. The rhetorical buzzwords of ‘mass disruption’ and ‘financial cost to the country’ that media institutions such as the BBC report such events with, however, display the tendency of presenting a strike as a bizarre aberration of some kind of ‘natural order’ – which is, to be blunt, the capitalist order – recklessly implemented by irresponsible whingers, to purposefully impair real people’s important lives and business in the city. One would perhaps feel just as ridiculous and pedantic in elucidating the concept of a strike as one would that of the origin of fish fingers, but it might just be necessary in reaction to the ways in which strikes (such as the recent ones on the Tube) are being presented, and going by some of the reactions to them seen of late.
A strike is meant to disrupt things and incur unnecessary costs to those to whom the strike is opposed (i.e., employers in a position of power, who exploit that power, or have been in some way oppressive, or unfair); it is not simply the unhappy by-product of events that have taken a wrong-turn through irresponsibility, or just the selfish action of the (imaginary) ‘few’ (the workers) which affects the (imaginary) ‘many’ (the ‘country as a whole’)… In this respect – to restrike a balance in its reportage – a strike should have returned to its presentation the aspect which can demonstrate its utilisation as a plea of workers to be recognised as integral to a country as a whole, and to be treated accordingly; for them to unite as a whole, as workers; and not simply to be shown as an act of sabotage, as it often comes across.
We must be wary – in a time in which workers are becoming Turkers – of too quickly surrendering our rights as workers, pandering to the policy-makers who want to ban the right to strike, in the wake of rhetoric that tries to subtly co-opt its audience through presenting no alternative to the view that privileges the capitalist (or, rather, capitalism itself) over the worker; the bourgeoisie – to brutally reuse the language of Marx for full effect – over the proletariat. Indeed, we must be on guard against the fundamental misrecognition – the symbolic poverty – that can lead to such an occurrence as the 2013 Warwick University students organising their own student-led classes as their lecturers striked (an event championed by none other than Katie Hopkins). And now, as a great movement unites behind Greta Thunberg in the Skolstrejk för klimatet, the media attempts at obfuscation of just what a strike is are reaching to a fevered pitch of mania and rabidity (the absurdity of which increasingly revealingly shows itself up, as it has, in a slow and not necessarily linear process that has been taking place since the time of the original article)…
This issue of turking – working online in precarious and underpaid positions – is again at issue in the current round of UCU strikes which we are in the midst of right now in March 2020. Turking is a topic we have covered at Everyday Analysis since 2013 when this older round of strikes just discussed were on the horizon. At that point, it seemed a method of employment pioneered by major tech companies like Amazon (who run the largest turking platform) and at worst a feature of many newer start-ups who offered precarious work though their digital platforms (Uber had just been set up). Today, these forms of precarious outsourcing not only dominate the digital freelancing and digital employment markets (from recently booming networks like Fiverr to established outsourcers like Deliveroo, which was founded that year of 2013), but are becoming a central feature of the increasingly marketized university, which depends more than ever on such casualized labour. This UCU action holds that if this feature of neoliberal capitalism is allowed to seep even into the Higher Education system, solidarity against these forms of capitalism will become near-impossible.
As Félix Guattari put it: ‘it is not only species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases, and gestures of human solidarity.’ Indeed, it appears we might now have to defend against the risk of losing with the word the very concept of solidarity itself.
What is a strike now?
Our 2015 book, Twerking to Turking, was ramshackle and overloaded compared to its svelte predecessor, Why Are Animals Funny? (the self-important or perhaps just residually monomaniacal comparison I can’t quite suppress is that between Time for Real Change  and For the Many Not the Few ). Published just before the 2015 General Election – the result of which yielded both the EU referendum and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn – Twerking to Turking now reads like a record of a lost world, one whose cultural productions (our objects of analysis) were still encased in the unshakeability of capitalist realism. As we enter into a new phase of Conservative hegemony – though one in which capitalist realism is at least somewhat shaken – and since several of us are currently participating in the universities industrial action, it is worth returning to these arguments
‘Whereas it might seem preposterous to a certain generation to have to explain where cheese comes from’, Dan explains above (invoking a recently aired wacky t.v. show), defining a strike ‘might just be necessary in reaction to ways in which strikes (such as those on the London Underground) are being presented, and going by some of the reactions to them seen of late’. Underground workers held strikes against ticket office closures and automation of maintenance work on their trains in 2014, with some industrial action (far less ambitious than the current UCU strike) occurring in universities in the same year. This was a couple of years after Ed Miliband’s notorious The Thick of It-era attempt to avoid any accidental hint of bias on school teachers’ strikes, by mechanically repeating the same rehearsed script in reply to every interview question. And as noted ion 2013, news coverage was dominated by ‘rhetorical buzzwords of “mass disruption” and “financial cost” […] presenting a strike as a bizarre aberration of some kind of “natural order”’.
I’ve no idea how widespread it really was, but I certainly remember us having the impression at the time that many students were quite self-righteous about losing teaching time to striking lecturers. Greater ubiquity of social media (or perhaps better grassroots political use of it) has revealed during this strike that journalists have routinely badgered students to get them to criticise the strikes, and haven’t had much luck: so maybe that was going on at the time, but more invisibly and with greater appearance of success. Still, it seemed necessary back then to reinforce the simple point that ‘a strike is meant to disrupt things’ and that when it does so, ‘it is not simply the unhappy by-product of events that have taken a wrong-turn through irresponsibility’.
The students we imagined we were speaking to with ‘What is a Strike?’ were among the first to pay the higher level of fees. This was expressly designed to turn them into a new kind of consumer-subject, creating a new ‘speak to the manager’ sense of entitlement which would reform the residually pre-neoliberal aspects of Britain’s universities (such as – er – the common pursuit of true judgement and other such anachronisms) from within. As Stefan Collini put it, ‘from being depicted as some kind of anarchist militia bent upon disrupting society while sponging off it, students have come to be regarded as the front-line troops of market forces, storming the walls of those obstructive bastions of pre-commercial values: the universities’. The 2016 Trade Union Act that followed the Tories’ election victory, meanwhile, aimed at making the requirements for legal strike action prohibitively difficult to achieve, killing off that other pre-commercial residue, the trade union movement.
Yet the succeeding years have witnessed the most ambitious industrial action – with the most worker consent – in universities in decades; and as I described during the 2018 strike, students have remained curious, supportive, and sometimes militantly involved with the action. Dan closed ‘What is a Strike?’ with a poignant remark of Felix Guattari quoted above, that ‘it is not only species that are becoming extinct, but also the words, phrases, and gestures of human solidarity’. When we put together Twerking to Turking it certainly felt like this; but we weren’t to know that such ‘words, phrases, and gestures’ had life in them still. The 2010-15 coalition government’s experiment in turning students into neoliberal shock troops failed, and even as their parents and grandparents drift further to right-wing reaction, the young are more radical than they have been for decades. As for a strike, we know what one is now.
James Smith, Daniel Bristow and Alfie Bown and members of the editorial team at Everyday Analysis.