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Strike while the union's hot

Next Tuesday I will be faced with what may be quite a difficult decision. I will present the details, and some of my arguments, and would like my readers to discuss. Even past Tuesday. I know that some of you have strong feelings one way or another, and I would like to hear your views.

At the moment, I am on a career path which has several non-financial benefits. It would have to. Given that I have BSc, a BE and will soon (hopefully) have a PhD, I am significantly underpaid. The situation doesn't improve with either age or experience when compared to people with similar skills, abilities, experience or education.

The UK government has recently introduced top-up fees for students with the promise that they would use the additional fees for academics to receive a more appropriate level of pay. This hasn't happened.

At my present employment, if you believe the union, the university has absolutely refused to negotiate. Conseqently, the union has voted to strike on Tuesday and boycott assessment and the like from Wednesday onwards. I have a few options. I can chuck a sickie. I can strike. I can go to work quietly. I can loudly go strike-breaking.

To work out what I'm going to do, first I need to discuss how I feel about the issues.

The Cause

I wholeheartedly support the cause for reasonable pay for academics. Under-paying someone who has to do both research and teaching just encourages them to focus more on the research, because that is where the better career path lies. Under-paying a pure researcher encourages them to investigate things which will see a better financial outcome, rejigging the old "Publish or perish" to a new "Patent or perish to publishing". This may well be in the researcher's interests, but it is not in the benefits of either the public or the academic community. Of course if they try to remove the one possible perk - setting yourself up with a patent, they risk totally destroying university research as a means of bringing scientific advancement. Surely not even vice-chancellors would be that stupid...

The union

I've never been a big supporter of the union movement, but too often I have seen it be run for the benefit of the union leadership. Too often the union promotes petty partisan politics. Too often the union is not what I believe it should be - an effective means for representing the interests of individual members and harnessing a collective movement of the workers. Consequently, I'm not convinced that the union leadership has properly exhausted all avenues of negotiation, and too often calling for industrial action is a means for the caller to gain power rather than a means of helping the workers.

The method

I don't generally like the idea of striking except in one circumstance - where actually being at your place of work threatens your health or safety. I think striking over the presence of asbestos in a building - and not returning to the building until it is removed - is fine. Striking over pay has always seemed silly. You lose a day's pay over symbolism...

More to the point, it is very difficult to quantify the value of scientific output. If I was a tailor, you could quantify a day's lost work as a day's lost garment's as a day's lost profit. Because scientific output essentially deals with the creation of knowledge and the generation of data, these are difficult to quantify. Consequently, you could have the best scientific mind go on strike for a day, and the university doesn't see lost profit, but does see less pay that have to give.

I've heard stories of builders pouring concrete and going on strike unless there demands are met, thereby threatening the waste of the concrete if they don't go back to finish the job. Even though I don't really approve of either side trying to negotiate by holding a gun to the head of the other, at least this has more than symbolism. If I go on strike, who'll notice? I still have the same deadlines. I still have the same goals and ambitions. A day lost now is a day I'll want to make up later.

More to the point, I think a far better technique is to work slowly, or leave early, or the like. That way you still get paid, but you are in control of how much or how little you did, but it is your choice. I would probably seriously consider joining in the subsequent boycott on assessment. This is probably the best way to actually hurt the university, or at least make them take notice.

My involvement

Apart from having my name registered as another striker, what else do I accomplish? The university functioned quite well without me, and they wouldn't miss me if I wasn't there for a day. I'm employed because the work I do has potential to generate, not because I enable university services or products.

My coworkers

A lot of my friends and coworkers do not seem particularly interested in the strike. They are mostly research only, so the strike hurts them, not the university (in any manner they would notice) so they don't see the point. Also, they will have seen all the same union propaganda I have in their inbox, none of which has convinced me that the strike is useful or necessary. While I don't feel that my actions should be dictated by those of people around me, the decisions and actions of someone who is less than 2 months into a 3 years contract should at least take into account those of his fellow workers.

Lost pay

All up, I will lose less than 70 and I will get a day off for that money, so the money certainly isn't an issue. Indeed if I thought that striking was useful and likely to achieve something the money would be a good investment.

My decision?

In the end, I don't think I am going to strike. I don't think that it will achieve the desired result and I don't think that I will suffer for not. I could be wrong. Discuss.


Comment from Gillian

Your grandfather, being an old leftie, would be turning in his grave, except that besides being an old leftie, he was a very practical man. He never followed the party line; just did what he thought was best for himself and his family. So he probably wouldn't disagree with your decision.

Me, being an old leftie, find myself ambivalent about your decison. Provided your colleagues don't think you are copping out by not striking-and it does matter what they think-you have to work with them-then I suspect yur position is a sensible one. I can safely assure you the university won't care if researchers strike. As you say, that's less money they pay and the work still gets done. Teachers, on the other hand, striking does make an impact. But not necessarily a good one. Upsetting students just before exams etc tends to annoy them.So I reluctantly find myself endorsing your position!

I respond

That's the point. Being an old leftie (or not so old, as the case may be) doesn't require you to follow sheep-like into any decision. And because I don't think me striking will help the union achieve its stated aims, I don't see any use me striking.

No one striking makes a good impact. The idea is to annoy and to stop the work being done. Upsetting students is a good idea, though, if it will get through to the university.

Comment from Richard

I have to agree with your sentiments upon the futility of striking. In business strikes only result in acrimony and failing companies. If there is no company ther are no jobs so be reasonable.

Qantas maintenence are complaining again that Qantas is threating to send the work to China or somewhere cheaper. What is a business to do? Go bust a-la Ansett with exorbitant maintenece fees or rationalise. Either reduce costs by going to China or significantly improve efficiency with current employees. If the current employees don't want to keep their jobs with increased efficiency lot the jobs go to China.

I respond

You raise a good point with Qantas - there is one worker they could outsource and remain hugely competitive: The CEO. This article appeared in Crikey recently showing the actual figures. Its a truism in business that the best way to increase shareholder value is to get rid of the CEO. Realistically, QANTAS is neither a better nor a better run airline than Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific. Consequently, I fail to see how Dixon can command more than the CEOs of the 2 companies separately, let alone combined.

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