On Realising Just How Middle-Class I Am

So I’m on strike today, as I was yesterday. I’m in the University and College Union, which is protesting about the 1% pay offer on the table from the University and College Employers’ Association. I’m on strike and I feel embarrassed. And, to be honest, a little embarrassed about feeling embarrassed. There were times yesterday I felt I was taking part in something which is utterly divorced from real people’s lives, has little connection with the history of working-class struggle or the increasingly-irrelevant Labour movement. And other times when I felt childishly proud I was making some kind of stand. Yep, I’m on strike. Paying the not-too-heavy price of two days’ wages and that sense of embarrassment to be able to say, ‘I’ve still never crossed a picket line’. And then wondering if that’s really why I’m doing it.

I earn a good wage for my daily compromising, for trying to subtly subvert an increasingly sour, spiritless, risk-averse system. My job has some kudos – less than it once would have had, but it still impresses people at parties (Guardian readers anyway – the only people I meet these days at parties). And I do (despite the increasing disillusionment) get to do stuff I really like. I feel (sometimes) I make a difference. I don’t feel oppressed by my managers. I’m not on a zero-hours contract. And the madness of the SJWs hasn’t quite wrapped its safe-space curtains around my workplace yet…

But. But. Universities (those at least that aren’t ‘engines of inequality’, those that aren’t – as one V-C recently put it –  ‘performing as an employment agency matching privileged children to elite professions’1 ) are still key, I think, to any hope of developing a fairer, kinder, more passionate and freer society. And maybe my field – healthcare – is in a better position than most to lead that influence. Which makes me, possibly, quite important. And means, possibly, I should be valued, my students should be valued, their learning valued, the million ways in which they can make the world better should be valued. I should maybe value myself a little more. And I feel guilty even writing that.

This strike isn’t, of course, really about salary. It’s irrelevant that Tim Blackman earns more than me or that academics’ wages have, in real terms, declined significantly over the last decade. The real driver behind this action (as it has been in the junior doctors’ disputes) is precisely this sense of being devalued, of the Tories’/New Labour’s price-of-everything-value-of-nothing culture crushing us all, of education becoming tick-box training, of ideas and thought and reflection and uncertainty and wonder becoming less and less important, of our culture becoming boxed and bled dry. And if that’s the case, maybe my embarrassment is useful to those who want to managerialise and monitor us all into compliance?

So. OK. For now, I think I’ll try harder to stop being embarrassed. A London University in 2016 isn’t exactly Orgreave. But maybe – maybe – it’s the same fight.

What d’you reckon?

Steve: I reckon it’s a fight worth fighting. Your stance is somewhat altruistic: you’re fighting on behalf of others, who may benefit in the future from the stand you are taking now. Matters of dispute in Health and Education are, in a way, more noble. They are also less likely to be looked on with disdain from certain quarters (that is, those who view traditional industrial disputes as selfish bully-boys fighting for their own jobs or for their own higher pay at the expense of others—the view many Londoners have of TfL/RMT ructions, for example). But, more important than all that, I feel I need to point out that you are definitely going to the wrong parties.

1. When universities select by ability, nobody wins – Times Higher Education

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