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A leftist critique of Oxford teacher strikes

Tobiah examines the striking strategy of academics at Oxford and how it can be made more effective.

In recent years, lecturer strikes have become something of a staple at Oxford, averaging about one strike per year for the duration of my studies and research so far. These strikes are typically over reasonable concerns about pay or pensions, although this is, of course, in the wider social contexts of academia being a relatively well-off occupation to begin with.

Whenever these strikes occur, there are three typical responses from the student body. Conservatives denounce the strikes as wasteful and harmful, leftists tend to uncritically support the strikes because striking is an important strategy of the labour movement, and the vast bulk of less politically engaged students tend to express a mixture of disinterested apathy, and frustration at being the ones primarily inconvenienced when they are not responsible for the issues that lecturers are striking about. This frustration is apt to discourage students from taking the strikes seriously, and even to push would-be allies away from supporting the strikes each time a new strike is called.

In this article, I intend to break ranks with my friends on the political left to offer a gentle and, hopefully, nuanced critique of the current form of these teacher strikes. I do not intend to criticise the notion of striking altogether – it is an essential tool of the worker for their own liberation. However, I do believe that a serious look at the current strategy around lecturer strikes in Oxford reveals that the present strategy is deeply flawed, exchanging long-term progress in favour of short-term and easily renounceable gains.

In order to understand why, we must recognise the contradictions that exist within a class analysis of the university organisation.

The current model of teacher strikes is based upon the recognition of class conflict between teachers, lecturers, and researchers, on the one hand, and the university as employer, including the various persons and organisations who profit from or have a stake in the university, on the other.

However, it neglects to recognise that the popular class in this university microcosm consists of more than just teachers, lecturers, and researchers, and, importantly, that this popular class in turn contains many contradictions.

On the one hand, we have the non-academic staff of the university, who, like the academic staff, must offer their bodies and time in wage-labour to the university. They have a proletarian relationship towards the university as their employer, but are separated from the academic staff by hierarchical and prestige-based relationships; as both academic staff and non-academic staff tend to see the academic staff as a class apart from their non-academic counterparts, the possibility of joint action against the university for the betterment of each is severely undermined.

On the other hand, there are the students. Students typically do not engage in relationships of wage-labour with the university, unless they act as lab assistants at some stage, and so it is not immediately apparent that they should be lumped with the popular class in contrast to the university as employer. Indeed, one could argue that students represent a kind of consumer, and therefore fall altogether outside of a dialectal class analysis of the university body. I would contest that such a view misses the material relations that hold between students and the university.

The university-as-employer holds a landlordly relationship to the students, who often depend upon university accommodation and facilities for their day-to-day living. This was a fact widely recognised by students during the previous heights of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in rent strikes in various parts of the country. In addition, the student still finds the bulk of their day constrained by the demands of the university, and, given our current fee-paying system, students often find themselves financially exploited by the university institution – a result of the basic social fact that a degree is often essential to survival in our modern late capitalist society.

In this regard, we can see that the student does have a fundamentally antagonistic class relationship to the university-as-employer – perhaps not a proletarian relationship, but certainly a precariat and renter-dependent relationship.

Thus, we see that given a thorough analysis of the class relations at play, there is a serious possibility for unity and solidarity between the academic staff, non-academic staff, and students of the university.

It should be clear that should such solidarity be achieved, the concerns of each group would be amplified by alliance with the others. Would the teacher strikes not be more effective if students withheld fee-payments and rent until a settlement was reached? Would student rent-strikes and protests against ever-increasing student fees not be more effective if teachers and non-academic staff went on strike in solidarity? And would we not be able to achieve greater workers’ rights and a living wage for the non-academic staff of the university if students and teachers together were willing to take direct action in support of their cause?

However, it should also be clear that the present strategy for lecturer strikes does not foster any solidarity between the academic staff and these two other sectors of the popular class within the university microcosm.

When teachers strike on their own, nothing is done to help the non-academic staff of the university achieve a living wage. Is this not a slap in the face to those non-academic staff? When the teachers strike in such a way that the students are the ones who suffer most, having to continue to pay university fees whilst receiving insufficient tuition, is that not an insult to those very students?

By choosing to strike whenever they might lose some degree of privilege over the non-academic university staff, and to strike in such a way that the students – with whom they should have class solidarity – suffer more than the university which is the actual target of their strike, teachers drive a wedge between themselves and the other parts of the popular class in the university setting, undermining the possibility of class solidarity and exacerbating the contradictions that already exist.

This is made even worse by appeals to false solidarity. One the one hand, striking lecturers often demand solidarity from the students, shaming students who continue to pursue their studies as strike-breakers. Yet not once have I seen a teacher strike as a response to the burdens placed on students – either fee hikes or demanding rent in the face of a pandemic. Thus, the teachers demand solidarity from the students, while simultaneously utterly refusing to show any solidarity with the students when they are exploited.

We also see another kind of false solidarity with respect to the non-academic staff. When academic staff strike, they will often use rhetorical appeals to standing in solidarity with the more precarious and less privileged non-academic staff – however, an examination of who is participating in and leading the strikes, and who benefits from the demands made, readily demonstrate that this ‘solidarity’ does not, in fact, improve the situations of non-academic staff. It therefore constitutes more of a smoke-screen, trying to use the precarious and exploited position of the non-academic staff as a cover for industrial action primarily focussed on maintaining the privileges of the academic staff. Can anyone point to even a single way in which the material conditions of cleaners, porters, and the likes, have been improved by the repeated strike action of the academics over the past half-decade?

Here, again, the method of the teachers’ strikes undermines whatever solidarity could exist amongst the popular class; by using the non-academic staff as a smoke-screen and then discarding their interests when the academic staff’s self-serving demands are met, this rhetoric undermines any trust the non-academic staff may have in the teachers’ solidarity with them. It simultaneously appears to show such non-academic staff that industrial action that claims to support them does not materially improve their own condition, which in turn may lead such non-academic staff to move away from unionisation and industrial action altogether, further aiding and abetting the exploitation of the non-academic staff by the university.

This is a recipe for long-term failure. It encourages both students and non-academic staff to view teachers as entitled, placing their own self-serving interests ahead of the needs of others, rather than recognising that it is the university who is exploiting each group in its own way. As whatever solidarity may exist here is continuously eroded, the effectiveness of future strikes decreases, and the risk of serious strike-breaking backlash – particularly from the student body – increases proportionally.

What then is to be done?

The same as is always required when there exist contradictions within the popular class. Such contradictions must be negated – that is to say, we must find and build solidarity between these three parts of the popular class within the university microcosm.

As it is the teachers who are at present effectively unionised, and also the teachers who have done most to insult the solidarity of students or non-academic staff, it is the teachers who must take the lead. Those teachers who are unionised must encourage the non-academic staff to unionise themselves, with the promise that if the university or colleges attempt to fire any member of staff for unionising, as much of the academic staff as are unionised will strike until that individual who was fired is re-instated. Only with this threat of industrial action can the fears of those in more precipitous working conditions be alleviated, and thus, the opportunity to engage in worker organisation can move from a distant fantasy to a present reality.

Simultaneously, there must be a move to unionise the students. Once, the student union would have served this purpose, but it no longer has the militancy or reach to call rent strikes or similar actions from the student body. Thus, either the student union must be radicalised again, or else a new union must be founded with an explicit focus on student-led direct action. This is likely to be the most difficult part of building solidarity, as many students suffer from the false consciousness that a capitalist understanding of the university creates, seeing themselves only as consumers and failing to recognise the ways in which they, too, are exploited by the university, or the power that student action has – both historically and in the present day.

Once both non-academic staff and students are unionised as far as possible, it will be necessary for the academic staff to take the lead on building trust necessary for true solidarity. The academic staff must be willing to give up some part of their more privileged position in the class structure of the university microcosm by being willing to strike or take other industrial action in solidarity with the concerns raised by non-academic staff and/or unionised students, whether this be fair wages for non-academic staff, opposition to disproportionate rents, protest against fee increases, or any other such concern.

If the academic staff demonstrate this willingness to suffer in their own finances in order to stand in solidarity with students and non-academic staff, this will help cover over the distrust that the previous method of striking has sown between students and non-academic staff, on the one side, and teachers, on the other. It will necessarily foster a reciprocity in solidarity, and then teachers would be able to propose future industrial action in the reasonable confidence that, rather than presenting antagonistic opposition to their strike, students and non-academic staff would be willing to take action alongside the teachers to pressure the university for more immediate and substantive improvement.

This, then, is the substance of my criticism – the present mode of striking ignores the contradictions that presently exist within the popular classes in the microcosm of the university. Teachers expect solidarity from their students, and claim to stand in solidarity with non-academic staff. But they have offered no solidarity to students in return when the students have attempted to raise protest against the exploitative practices of the university, nor have they demanded serious material improvement for the non-academic staff. They continue to exacerbate and increase these contradictions.

So long as these contradictions exist, any industrial action taken by the academic staff constitutes a grasping for short-term gains at the cost of long-term class solidarity and, by extension, at the cost of more permanent advances.

The only thing that has ever secured long-term improvement for working people is a militant solidarity between the many parts of the popular class. Where solidarity is fostered, property-owners and employers must recognise the demands of the workers; where solidarity is undermined, power is returned to the propertied class.

As things are going, teachers can only look forward to a gradual erosion of support for their striking. While this erosion may be somewhat abated by the quick turn-over of students and the general uptick in public interest in leftist politics in recent years, it cannot be halted, so long as the present strategy persists.

However, if academic staff chose instead to put aside privilege and elitism, to recognise their class position and seek solidarity with students and non-academic staff, we could see genuine progress for all involved. A coalition of solidarity between students, teachers, and non-academic staff – especially one which challenges the inherent elitism of the university hierarchy and is based upon a horizontal organisation – could see the needs and demands of all three groups brought forcefully to the attention of the university, in such a way as the university cannot ignore.

I hope that the teachers and other academic staff of this university will see this article as an olive branch. We can work together. We can share solidarity for the betterment of all. We can unite the disparate popular classes of the university for the common good.

But if we are to do this, the academic staff must first be willing to demonstrate materially that they will give to us the solidarity that they demand from us, and they must be willing to use their own advanced position to engage their non-academic colleagues and students with unionisation efforts. Solidarity is not about the words you say, it is about the deeds you do.

If they will not, then all they are asking is that we should suffer more so that they, the most privileged of us all, may preserve their privilege still. Such is the unequivocal message of the current striking strategy.

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