There are two notable, large strikes going on in the education sector at the moment, one in West Virginia where public K-12 teachers are on a wildcat strike that is now entering its second week, and one in Britian, where university faculty represented through the University and College Union (UCU) have been on strike for three weeks. In both cases, thousands of educators have walked off the job, taken to picket lines, and advocated for better working conditions, pay, and benefits. Another has just started this week at York Univerity in Toronto, where graduate student teaching assistants and sessionals (i.e., instructors hired by the course, commonly called ‘adjuncts’ in the US) in CUPE 3903 have just taken tot he picket line. While the specific issues underlying each strike differ (in Britain, proposed changes to pension schemes, in West Virginia, languishing salaries and cuts to health insurance), it is no surprise that teachers from public sector education are the ones taking strike action. I have been on strike twice, in 2008 and 2014, and I have been active in my own faculty union for a decade, taking turns as a member of council, executive, the negotiating team, and the contract committee. But my first real foray into union activism here was as a picket captain in our 2008 strike. For me, the picket line was both an educational and a political experience for me, though I came to realize that a successful picket was necessary but insufficient condition for the success of the strike as a whole, which in turn had to be aimed at a larger objective or it too would fail to do anything besides put us on the street for a few weeks. So the picket line (for me, at least) was an important place for advancing my own understanding of the role of the union, of my relationship with my colleagues, and of the university as an employer and as a place for (sometimes) challenging prevailing economic, political, and social norms and practices. It is similar for the teachers and faculty currently on strike in West Virginia and Britain, where they are up against ‘common sense’ notions propagated by legislators and administrators that claim there is only scarcity when it comes time to ensure a reliable pension, salary, and health benefits. There is, it seems, never enough money to adequately fund these things, and lawmakers and vice-chancellors shake their heads and tsk tsk at the ostensibly ‘unreasonable’ demands of people who are asked at all other times to be innovative, creative, to do more with less, to ensure our collective future through the training of the next generation of thinkers and leaders, to inspire young people to make the most of themselves. There is, then, almost an insistence to strike, to withdraw the collective labor of educational work with all these important social and personal ends, when the real request is not to inspire and lead and help create but to knuckle under to the reductionist logic of cutting costs. What lesson would students learn from their faculty if they simply acquiesced to demands for reduced pensions, reduced benefits, stagnant pay, and weakening academic freedom in the face of bureaucratic intrusion and penny-pinching?
I could go on and on about this, but time is short for me lately and I am rushing from one thing to the next. Solidarity to my colleagues on their picket lines in West Virginia, the UK, Toronto, and elsewhere. Here are a few links about the strikes:
- #notallgeographers – a blog post by Felicity Callard about the place of geography and geographers on opposing sides of the UCU strike, and what it means for the discipline
- “The Crisis of Legitimation in Higher Education” – blog post by Clive Barnett on the crisis of university leadership in Britain
- “The Strike Is On” – interview with a West Virginia teachers’ union activist, from Jacobin magazine online
- “The Teachers Revolt in West Virginia” – editorial in the New York Times about the role of women and the potential resurgence of labor in the state and elsewhere through teachers’ activism
- “The university pension strike will only end when we’re listened to” – editorial in The Guardian by Sally Hunt, general secretary for UCU