… and three days to recover: an open email to faculty colleagues about the UCU strike action

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The text of an ‘open’ email I sent to the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, University and College Union members, but also addressing all members of the Faculty Community

Thursday 9th March 2018

Dear Faculty of Education UCU members and non-members,

It is hard work withdrawing your labour.

I would like to begin by pointing you to this evocative Twitter thread by Tyler Denmead – words, ideas, feelings and images from the Faculty of Education picket line, it is a wonderful documentary of that experience.

This action has been tough: tough on those striking but also tough on those who have chosen not too. As we approach a day of truce, indulge me in giving this some thought.

I grew up around the North Nottinghamshire coal fields. Although my family did not work in coal mining, the three nationwide miners’ strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85 had a lasting effect on the community in which I grew up. The 1974 strike was a bitter dispute which led to the fall of the Conservative government. The 1984-85 strike was brutal, bitter, divisive and tinged with revenge. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was Education Secretary during the Heath government, that was deposed by the miners in 1974, was out to settle the score and to destroy the most powerful trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers. She did this in part, it was revealed later, by funding the Union of Democratic Mineworkers which supported miners in going back to work in order to break the strike. While the Yorkshire miners remained loyal to the NUM, the Nottinghamshire miners split and the UDM attracted increasing numbers. I witnessed the bitterness and brutality as the rift cut through families and communities. I am sure those scars remain in the former mining communities of Nottinghamshire to this day.

In those working-class communities, the divisions were clear, there was no grey-in-the-middle, there were no complexities of Ofsted, complex student needs or management responsibilities. As a miner you were either on strike or – forgive me for using the pejorative term – you were a scab. In our situation, it is far from binary, and from speaking with Faculty colleagues involved in the strike action, I believe everyone is well aware of this. The Faculty community – UCU members and non-members – are divided in that some have chosen to strike and some not. The reasons on each side are undoubtedly both complex and profound; so far I have witnessed nothing but respectful behaviour for each other’s position. They are, however, deeply conflicting positions.

I believe that as this action continues, and if those with the power to permit a speedy resolution fail to engender such, we will all become increasingly tired and there is danger that tempers become frayed and frustrations surface. Respectful disagreement in a divided community can degenerate into misunderstanding and mistrust. This could do lasting damage to our professional community. I don’t want that and neither do, I believe, my colleagues on the picket line.

I just want to say, on the eve of the one day’s break in strike action, that I have nothing but respect for colleagues who have chosen not to strike and that will remain whatever happens. Notwithstanding, it is my strongly-held view that if we all collectively make a stand against the decision to cut defined benefits from our pensions – a decision that is merely the visible part of fundamental and damaging transformation of the UK HE sector – we can stop it. These changes are not inevitable, but they will be if we do not draw the line and make a stand at some point.

While the strike action will have a lasting effect on the culture of the Faculty, the questions that are put in this dispute – that have divided us – are necessary to ask. The democratic governance of this institution at all levels has been increasingly marginalised and fundamental strategic questions have not been deliberated upon by all the members of the University. I will take the liberty of assuming that for those for and against strike action, these observations are not contested. What is contested is, how and when we do something about it.

In what is a deeply difficult time for our professional community, I believe that we can and will come back from this stronger and we will restore the warm and neighbourly professional community that existed before this dispute. In the meantime though, I will, as I expect others who are taking part in the strike action will do, put my full effort into the action that the UCU has democratically agreed to take. I will argue my position robustly and attempt to persuade others to participate in the action, but I will do my utmost to respect different views and with respect for my colleagues who have chosen not to strike and I expect you to tell me if I don’t.

At least we do not have Margaret Thatcher, Robert Maxwell and MI5 conspiring to drive a wedge between us.

In solidarity with all,

Steve Watson

Faculty of Education UCU co-rep

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