On Thursday 31st October I am going on strike for the first time in my life. I’m not a lecturer or a researcher but for the past seven years I’ve worked in a university, and I’m one of the thousands of support staff who will be out on the picket lines this week. Despite what you might have inferred from the discussion around the strike, it’s not just academic (i.e. teaching and research) staff who are striking for a better pay offer this week; the offer of a 1% pay increment, and the years of below-inflation increases that have preceded it, affect everyone working in higher education.

The relationship between different types of staff in a university is complicated, so the fact that UCU, Unison and Unite have organised their first combined strike is itself a big deal. We can be quite divided as a workforce, split between different departments and job types and pulling in different directions because of it. As we get ready to stand together on the picket line, we need to consider why this kind of solidarity is so uncommon.

A modern university is a huge organisation employing thousands of people from a wide range of backgrounds, but our roles within it are typically divided up along lines of gender, race and class. Although academia is gradually becoming more diverse, it is still dominated by white people from affluent backgrounds, and the number of women dwindles at the most senior levels. Maintenance, IT, security and portering jobs are mostly done by men, while cleaners and clerical staff are usually women. It’s no different from the rest of the economy, but this dynamic further entrenches the divides between staff doing different kinds of work; not only do we have different jobs, but we view the world from different angles.  Society values us differently depending on who we are and what we do for a living, and this kind of hierarchy can make working together as equals in an industrial dispute kind of socially awkward.

It also doesn’t help that we all seem to think that everyone else has got it better than us. Junior teaching and research on short-term contracts (or even zero hours contracts) want the kind of job security that many support staff have, but support staff don’t always have a lot of sympathy for the “hardship” of people earning more money than them. Living with a lack of job security can be horrible, but full-time postdocs (PhD graduates employed on research projects) generally earn twice as much as the lowest paid university staff, and being able to plan for your future isn’t a great comfort if it’s a future where you’re always going to struggle financially.

We butt against each other in our job roles as well. To support staff, academics are the often people who create extra work for us – sometimes they make a mess, or their equipment gets damaged, or they have to be chased up repeatedly for paperwork – and although the vast majority of interactions are civil, there can be times when it feels like someone is being unreasonable. To academics, support staff (particularly admin staff) are the ones creating extra work for them.

Because our problems aren’t exactly the same we sometimes start to see them as conflicting demands. Teaching jobs versus admin jobs, or better pay versus better conditions. We get so caught up in resenting one other that we forget how much common ground we have: we’re all worried about our pay and conditions, and we’re all under pressure to do more work. Our concerns don’t have to be mutually exclusive – it’s possible to want a living wage for cleaners and a better deal for tutors; we shouldn’t have to choose one over the other.

Working together on this strike won’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good start. If you’re out on a picket line talk to people from the other unions, try to understand them as people rather than job titles, and remember that sense of solidarity when you go back to work.


Further Reading

Plashing Vole, Why I will be on strike tomorrow

Unison  Higher Education Industrial Action

Unite  31 October – strike for fair pay

UCU  HE Pay Dispute