Striking, social media, and building a better university

by Chris Bertram on March 31, 2018

During the past term, I was on strike for fourteen days and I’m now on “action short of a strike” and, like my colleagues up and down the UK, I’m waiting to vote in a consultative e-ballot next week that may determine whether we reach a settlement with the employers and go back to work. But this post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the dispute, it is about what it has felt like to be on strike — the highs and the lows — and about how the shared desire for a better university that has emerged from our unity and solidarity may be helped or hindered by how the strike is resolved and by the stories we tell ourselves about it.

A big part of striking (at least for those who choose not to sit at home) is picketing. I’ve been on picket lines (a long time ago) where the purpose of picketing was to stop people from going to work, but our picket lines now have been more symbolic and demonstrative. They’ve been about standing together, feeling a sense of comradeship, and sharing jokes and conversation. In this we’ve been joined by many of our students, giving rise to a renewed feeling of the university as an intellectual community bringing together teaching and research staff, other university staff and students and joining us together across disciplinary boundaries. This experience, together with associated demonstrations, teach-ins lunches, coffees and social events, has been the source of a growing sense of collective determination that a different kind of university is possible and that we mustn’t go back to the normality of submission to bullying micromanagement, the obsessive chasing of metrics and rankings and individualized anxiety and self-loathing. Social media in the forms, mainly, of Facebook, twitter, WhatsApp and blogs has been (“have been”, what’s grammatical here?) really important in this dispute, both positively and negatively. The good side has been the quick and effective communication and the sense that it is not just us in Bristol but people up and down the country, that we are part of a national movement. It has meant for quick reaction time and good access to arguments, reasons and rebuttals. The Universities UK PR machine has stuttered ineffectively when academics have been able to get out quick and forensic examinations of their self-serving and misleading claims. The philosopher Mike Otsuka, for example, has used social media to expose the flaws and dishonesties involved in the “consultation” that UUK conducted over our pension scheme valuation. When UUK and our union negotiators came back with an proposed settlement, following arbitration, twitter was very effective in mobilizing people overnight to meet in branches and reject the deal.

But that strength of twitter has also been a problem. Twitter is a powerful resource for motivated reasoning where people “like” the news that suits their existing convictions and where rapid sharing can build up the impression of a powerful consensus around “facts” that are anything but. As academics we pride ourselves on our ability to sift and evaluate the evidence dispassionately. Sadly, when caught up on a social movement and where our own vital interests are at stake, we are often as prone to discount information we don’t like as other groups of human beings are. As the dispute has moved to a crisis point, with a potential settlement in prospect which gets us less that some would have hoped for, twitter has done some damage in unpicking the fuzzy glow of unity we experienced on those picket lines. Ours has always been a divided union, and there have always been activists who have distrusted the leadership. So, inevitably, social media has quickly spread rumours of betrayal and tendentious and contested accounts of key meetings. Highly engaged people, faced with the prospect that this or that mode of consultation or decision might not secure the result they want, have warmed up old disputes in democratic theory to explain why the votes of some, collected in some way, should count for more than the votes of others collected otherwise. Ordinary members who have only voiced their opinions about the dispute have sometimes been subjected to nasty online abuse. Twitter magnifies the risk of being taken in by your own propaganda.

When the dispute ends, whenever that is, will we have a victory? I think we will, at least compared to what the employers have tried to do to us. Others will disagree, believing that we could have held out for better and would have done, but for the perfidy of our leaders and the pusillanimity of those they see as “moderates”. Which of these narratives prevails will make a big difference to how we feel after the strike and whether we can make good on that picket-line commitment to change the university, to start to take control from our managers. There’s something paradoxical here. To stay united, to make those changes, we need to feel positive and not defeated. If we feel crushed, because we failed to prevent any detrimental changes, then it will be harder to resist a return to atomization and apathy.

The other thing we need, if we are successfully to resist the managerialists and avoid a drift back to “normality” is organization. The impressive growth of the union during the strike can be the foundation for that and may be, so long as people don’t drift off, dispirited, afterwards. But we also need to continue to meet at the level of our departments, schools and faculties in order to contest the metric-chasing, the performance targets, the rage-producing diktats and the consequent quotidian degradation of academic life. We need to stick up for one another when managers turn nasty and threaten us, or others, with disciplinary action or carefully crafted redundancy criteria. We need to discuss how we can teach well and what education is for rather than how to boost those “student satisfaction” scores. We need to think, together, and together with our students about the essentials of the university so that they remain communities of education rather than turning into Potemkin villages behind whose shiny facades hourly-paid drones struggle to “deliver learning objectives”.



MFH 03.31.18 at 11:52 am

I was at the most recent Bristol UCU EGM where you spoke in support of the latest proposal going to a formal ballot. I didn’t agree with you about that, but I did appreciate your comments and the spirit in which it seemed they were being made. Your comments stood in contrast with the behaviour of some of the other people taking roughly the same position you did; I was rather upset by how a couple of dissenting people were treated at that and the previous EGM.

If we’re going to “resist the managerialists”, we need to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt, and start assuming bad faith on their part (and responding to them accordingly) until that assumption stops being warranted.

In particular, in this dispute, it would seem really naive to think UUK have suddenly had a change of heart and are now willing to participate in an objective, transparent, reproducible assessment of the pension valuation, informed by reasonable definitions of “affordability”, etc. If that’s the correct route — and I think it is; I’m not a “#NoDetriment” person — then any such agreement has to be phrased in such a way that fairness, transparency, etc. will be enforced. That’s totally absent from this proposal. It’s too vague to vote on, and leaves far too much room for UUK sleaze. Anyone interested in seriously resisting the managerialists should acknowledge that.

We should “feel positive” exactly to the extent it’s warranted, and feel “not defeated” exactly to the extent that we’re not actually defeated. The current proposal (unless I’ve missed something major) leaves ample room for defeat in the near future.

I joined our university very recently, and UK academia in general only slightly less recently. My impression so far is that I’m going to have to spend a great deal of the next 35 years “resisting the managerialists” if I want to have an environment where I’m able to do my job properly. If UCU, currently in what I gather is an unanticipatedly strong position, fails to make good on its advantages now (or at least explain why those advantages are not actually sufficient), it will be very hard to have confidence that union participation is the right way to engage in that resistance in the future.


anonymousse 03.31.18 at 12:02 pm

Serious question (though I’m not sure how this applies in England-how paying for University works, and so on).

Should students be able to sue striking professors for breach of contract? (again, perhaps this is more particular to the United States educational system)

I, as a student, pay a hefty fee (typically charged ‘per credit hour’-which could translate to an hourly rate) for services-specifically, services from the professor (instruction-whether lectures, lab time, grading, mentoring, etc).

If the professor fails to provide me what I have paid for-doesn’t he owe me? Just as if I paid a plumber 200$ an hour to install pipes and he didn’t do it: I pay the professor that much, and he decides he doesn’t want to do it-he wants to stand on the street corner and yell at his employer instead.

Don’t I deserve compensation?



ardj 03.31.18 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for this: glad the strike has not been wholly unrewarding, and hope that the outcome is positive for you all in both monetary and collegial senses.

Incidentally, you seem clearly to be using “social media” as a plural, referring to Twatto, Filthybook &c., so “have been” would be a better usage.
Though of course my inner pedant would argue that “media” is plural anyway. But what do I know, as I never go anywhere near social media ?


Chris Bertram 03.31.18 at 2:14 pm

@MFH thanks!

@anonymousse The student’s contract is with the university, not with the individual academic. Some of the nastier universities in the UK have occasionally threatened that if they are sued for breach of contract they “reserve the right” to join individual strikers to the action. As far as I’m aware, no employer has actually done this since some railway dispute in the early part of last century and legal opinions differ as to whether they could get away with it and its compatibility with human rights law. But I’m not a lawyer.

@ardj Yes, I wondered about the plural/singular thing with social media.


Lupita 03.31.18 at 2:22 pm

It sounds very exciting; I’ve never been on strike and I envy you.

Another benefit of striking in the age of social media, is that teachers around the world become aware of your struggle and that these idiotic micro-managers who have taken over are a global phenomenon that require a global solution. Transnational unions by industry is the next step.

Finally, I think “have been” sounds more working class and revolutionary.


Collin Street 04.01.18 at 12:06 am

Just as if I paid a plumber 200$ an hour to install pipes and he didn’t do it

How could he? The pipe factory wanted fifty dollars a metre and the plumber had only budgeted three dollars and a bent farthing.

You should sue the pipe factory.


anonymousse 04.01.18 at 12:23 pm

“How could he? The pipe factory wanted fifty dollars a metre and the plumber had only budgeted three dollars and a bent farthing.
You should sue the pipe factory.”

Really? A budgeting failure by the plumber means I should sue the pipe factory? Why not the Iron Mine owner, who provided the iron for the steel for the pipes? Why not the sandwich contractor, who provided the lunches for the miners who mined the iron which created the steel which was used to build the pipes? Why not the tar mixer, who mixed the tar that repaired the roads, that were used by the trucks, that transported the iron, that was used for the steel, that went into the pipes, that the plumber failed to properly budget for?

Nah, it makes more sense to sue the plumber.

Next year, the plumber should properly budget, should properly negotiate with his boss and subcontractors, and should fulfill his voluntarily-accepted obligations to his customers.



Alan White 04.01.18 at 5:53 pm

Just to say I lend you all moral support from Wisconsin where our many rallies and protests were not effective a few years ago in staving off Act 10. That Act required all state employees, including UW faculty and staff, to contribute about half of the monthly contributions to our pensions–effectively a 12% take-home pay cut. And we had a fully funded pension system–practically the only one in the country! Beware the politics of resentment, which portray faculty as “the haves” who need to be taken down a notch. That was the only motivation for Act 10–nothing more. Don’t let that happen.


Adam 04.02.18 at 2:38 pm

Just as if I paid a plumber 200$ an hour to install pipes and he didn’t do it…

You didn’t pay a plumber. You paid a contracting services company that employs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, landscapers, etc.. Then the plumbers went on strike before your job was finished. Why would you sue a plumber? You paid money to the company, and have a contract with them, not one or some of their employees. If your brand new car breaks down right after you drive it off the lot, you expect the company to fix it; you don’t send your lawyers after the worker who assembled the defective part.

Taking this from the other side, is threatening to sue the company a helpful tactic if I want to support the plumbers’ union?

Aside: I think social media is a “group noun” and you can treat it as singular or plural.


anonymousse 04.03.18 at 12:02 am

“You didn’t pay a plumber. You paid a contracting services company that employs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, landscapers, etc.. Then the plumbers went on strike before your job was finished. Why would you sue a plumber? You paid money to the company, and have a contract with them, not one or some of their employees. If your brand new car breaks down right after you drive it off the lot, you expect the company to fix it; you don’t send your lawyers after the worker who assembled the defective part.”

Perfectly legitimate point. However, in the plumber’s case, I did in fact call, contract with, and pay the plumber-exactly as you say, that I don’t do with a professor (similarly with an electrician, and drywall contractor). I suppose some people hire ‘contracting services companies,’ (I’ve never heard of that). Most of us call individuals known as plumbers, who drive up in their personal truck and do work.

Isn’t it interesting that our relationships with plumbers is more human and less bureaucratic than it is with professors?



sanbikinoraion 04.03.18 at 12:44 pm

Let’s not forget that the university never actually checked that any of the civil engineers they were hiring were actually any good at plumbing. Any plumbing skills they happen to have, without any training or professional development, come about purely through luck and practice.

I find it amazing that so many students – who have their own union, let’s not forget – are not boycotting or striking or something against universities who do such a poor job of preparing their staff for actually teaching undergrads.


Pete 04.04.18 at 8:55 am

There *used* to be an individual contracting relationship between teachers and students, long ago. It was generally replaced with a relationship between a university or college and the student starting from the 12th century, as this provided better continuity and breadth of education as well as a formal system of accreditation.

I note that in the individual contracting setup, the whole dispute would never have arisen: the independent professors would have their own pension arrangements, and there would be no vice-chancellors on 10x-50x their pay to have the dispute with.

The present dispute is the beginning of the Uberisation of the university: dividing it into a precariat who do the actual work and a profit-taking class.

Comments on this entry are closed.