Zero Hour

Larne Abse Gogarty on strikes across UK universities

Picket line at the Royal College of Art in London.

IN LONDON ART SCHOOLS, there has been an intense flurry of activity and an extraordinary show of solidarity among staff which runs counter to the typically competitive atmosphere between the so-called “elite” institutions of the Royal College of Art, Goldsmiths College, University of the Arts London (including Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion, the Chelsea, Camberwell, and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts, and London College of Communications), and the Slade School of Fine Art (University College London), where I work. Before the strike commenced, staff across these schools began sharing information, organizing strike pay fundraisers and teach-outs, as well as planning for a big cross-school meeting on March 5. This has created connections both within and between institutions, powerfully counteracting the often-atomized experience of working within higher education, especially as part of an increasingly casualized workforce.

What are the origins of the current strike wave in UK universities? Its actual start was in February 2020, but the agitation can be traced back two years earlier, when sixty-one universities who share a pension scheme struck for fourteen days in opposition to proposals by Universities UK (UUK)—the national representative organization for institutions of higher education—to end the defined benefit component of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension plan, changes which mean that the average university worker is likely to lose £240,000 in retirement. The rank-and-file of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) was galvanized by that action, which led to the election of our current General Secretary, Jo Grady. Two more strike ballots were put forward in October 2019, including one that continued to oppose the changes to the USS scheme following the increase of our pension contributions from 8 percent in April 2019, to 10.4 percent by that October. The other ballot, which broadened the strike base and went to all UK universities included in the national pay agreement, is centered on “four fights”: pay, workload, equality, and casualization. In order for a strike ballot result to be recognized in the UK, there has to be a 50 percent turnout of members. While many universities didn’t reach that threshold for the eight-day strike taken by sixty universities in November 2018, they were re-balloted, leading to what is at present the largest work stoppage in UK higher education history, with staff across seventy-four universities participating.

“Cycles of Exhaustion” banner made by undergrad students Leonie Rousham and Ishwari Bhalerao. Slade School of Fine Art.

This strike has sometimes felt like the culmination of a decade of struggles against the marketization of higher education in the UK: from student occupations and large demonstrations against the 2010 fee hike to campaigns and protests in solidarity with cleaners at London universities, who have long been engaged in their own militant campaigns against the myriad forms of managerial cruelty that mark our higher education institutions. At a teach-out I organized with Goldsmiths lecturer Marina Vishmidt and artist Hannah Black that was hosted by MayDay Rooms, an archive and organizing space, we ended by calling a group of striking graduate student workers and undergraduates who have supported their action, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We listened to stories of “dining hall liberations” where students, inspired by the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program and in opposition to the police presence at UCSC, occupied the school cafeterias. Refusing to swipe their hybrid ID/payment cards and helping themselves and others to food, the action mounted a protest against the university’s monopoly on the basic means of social reproduction. In that moment, the timeline and geography of our strike in London seemed to expand. A romantic, surge-like feeling connected us not only with labor movements and those against the marketization of education internationally, but also with the last decade of fights around housing, against state violence, and in solidarity with indigenous populations.

Thanks to a decade of cuts and austerity measures, many institutions in the UK have faced specific battles within the strike. Frances Corner’s appointment as Warden of Goldsmiths College, and the disastrous plans she has unveiled under the banner of “Evolving Goldsmiths”—cynically couched within a language of social justice—amounts to nothing more than a visionless corporate restructure in line with the tactics she unleashed as Pro-Vice Chancellor at University of the Arts. In response, students and staff quickly mobilized, organizing the campaign “Revolting Goldsmiths,” which has coincided with this strike. At University of the Arts London, more than 2,500 teaching staff are now on insecure “Associate Lecturer” contracts, with this becoming a focus for the strikes there, creating lines of solidarity with the campaign to end the outsourcing of jobs held by the lowest paid workers within the institution—cleaners, security, and maintenance staff. At the RCA, the strike has clarified that an unbelievable 90 percent of academic staff are employed on “zero-hours” and other insecure contracts without guaranteed work or income, the highest percentage in the country according to the 2016 “Precarious Work in Higher Education” report from the UCU. At UCL, on the final day of the strikes this past November, members from both UCU and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), representing cleaners, security personnel, and porters, all went on strike. This nearly shut down the school and practically opposed the way university management consistently reinforce divisions of labor that always map onto race, class, immigration status, and gender, despite ever-present platitudes about increasing equality, diversity, and inclusion.

Student Bo Choy, MA Fine Art Media, leading a “Picket Crit” teach-out on visual materials in recent protests in Hong Kong outside Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.

Outside of London, for staff within the art department at the University of Reading, the strike coincides with inadequate resources, staffing, and funding—a familiar story across the country following the devaluation of the art and humanities throughout UK higher education over the last decade. At Glasgow School of Art, staff described how students have been extremely supportive of the strike, organizing teach-outs and joining picket lines and forming a bloc against senior management, who remain out of touch with the day-to-day reality of working life in the studios.

The strike poses a challenge to the art and labor debates of the last decade, a conversation that has perhaps too frequently focused on artistic labor rather than the other forms of work we are engaged in as teachers, and has thus failed to emphasize the connection between the artist as precarious worker and the modes of employment that have become generalized within the academy. Here, through comprehending our dual position as artists (or writers, in my case) and as employees for large, unwieldy, often toxic institutions that can seem beyond our influence, arts educators can come to a richer understanding of our position as workers.  Many of us perhaps wish to think of ourselves as having eluded this position through our choice of “creative” career paths, and may even feel personally defeated when these jobs take the form of heavy workloads, low pay, poor contracts, admin, and bureaucracy. But as the strikes have shown, these disappointments can result not only in solipsistic, individualized complaints, but in a recognition of our status as a part of a labor force essential to the running of our workplaces, despite how we are often treated as afterthoughts. Art and intellectual labor may of course still tenuously, occasionally, be able to hover in the zone of un-instrumentalized labor, but when we are employed, this is clearly not the case. If we fail to grasp this and do not take strike action, we allow ourselves to be laughed at and exploited by our employers. As I write, the negotiations between UCU and USS and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association seem to be progressing, though we may have to take further strike action in the summer or autumn terms. Either way, any optimistic situation that emerges will have only arisen as a result of the increase in pressure, numbers, and commitment to the strike.

With thanks to everyone on various strike WhatsApp threads and IRL who contributed the stories, statistics, and energy that helped in the writing of this column. Solidarity forever!

Teach-out at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

Twister on the picket line at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Solidarity breakfast” flier from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.