Participating in strike action is always tough. The ramifications of being on strike remain ongoing long after strike action is over. However, striking is a crucial way to visibly stand in solidarity against the destruction of working conditions across the HE sector. I never hesitated to strike when necessary.
Two years ago, I was on strike like many university workers this week.
While, I was often not physically on the picket line due to ill health – I’d just been through an MRI scan that would reveal the extent and severity of my stage 4 endometriosis – I participated fully. I didn’t check emails. I didn’t research. I didn’t write. I withdrew my labour completely.
Striking also gave me the time to reflect on where I was going; I began to acknowledge that in spite of all the solidarity and kindness I’d given and received, my pathway to getting well would involve stepping out of my 10 year career as an academic.
Today I’m no longer employed as an academic. I’m no longer in the Union. I’m looking at the current strike from the outside. From the position of freelance provider.
And yet, it remains difficult to disentangle myself completely; my working life has been academia; many of my friends remain in academia; my work is based on supporting women in academia. I’m still connected and I still care deeply about HE. I hope for change that restores the health of everyone working and learning within the academy.
I’ve tried to show my solidarity by continuing to talk about the strike to people on the outside, to share the message on social media. To do what I can.
But why am I writing this post today?
This week, I’m grappling with something that I never thought I would contemplate, let alone do; I will be crossing a picket line.
Yes, you read that right. Crossing a picket line. To give a workshop on dealing with stress to undergraduates.
On the surface this sounds like the worst decision possible. It feels like the abandoning of my politics.
I have spent many days on the brink of cancelling.
I never thought I would cross this line.
But I am going to and I wanted to be open about why.
Writing this post is pretty painful and scary – I fear it will lose me some – perhaps many – friends. I hope not. I hope you will keep reading to the end and join in a conversation about why some of us might do this.
You might think I’m writing this in part to convince myself that this ultimate compromise of my politics is is going to be worth it. That is partly true.
Yet, more and more, we are beginning to talk about why many who do see themselves as in solidarity with those on strike might cross that line.
We are talking about precarity and privilege – and all their permutations and intersections.
Perhaps I don’t have a good enough reason.
I’m not a precariously employed person in a university. I’m not a PhD student being threatened by my institution. I’m not subject to border policing.
I’m not in the sector anymore. I don’t have to cross that line.
I do have a choice not to do this.
And yet, turning down this work would mean a huge gap in my income over the coming months; continued financial dependency; the risk of getting back into the debt that I spent a decade getting out of; the fear that if my health flare up unpredictably as it does, that I won’t be able to ‘make up’ this deficit at another time.
The financial necessity is there, but so is something more; an opportunity to talk to students and staff about how this bigger picture impacts them; as the placards say ‘Our working conditions are your learning conditions’.
I’ve been asked to run a workshop on addressing anxiety and I’m not offering individual resilience building strategies. My work is never about accepting or bolstering the status-quo.
My workshops are always about getting real about how stress and anxiety are often rational responses to an unworkable situation; the organisational, political, economic and social pressures that lead to individuals feeling ever lacking, failing and unstable.
So, in crossing that line, it has to be about more than my own financial situation. It has to be worth it. I see this as an opportunity, a chink and crack in the system, to have some kind of impact. Albeit a tiny drop in an ocean.
I want the participants of the workshop – who will be crossing that line under final year pressures – to understand more about how they are affected, but can affect, a system that leads them to seek out a workshop on dealing with stress and planning what comes next. To feel some kind of control over what feels like all- encompassing uncertainty.
Perhaps I will regret my decision.
Perhaps I don’t have the right to include myself in this anymore; as the saying goes ‘I’ve no hat in the ring’. And yet, I feel like it does matter, like my actions can still matter.
Perhaps this is a circle I can’t square.
I never thought I would be standing on the outside, about to cross that line.
As the ways of working in – and with – academia shifts, so to must our responses. These conversations are beginning to gain ground. There is growing understanding of how difficult the choices are for those working in the sector as it grows ever more precarious and aggressive.
I’m on the outside. I’m not going to go back to being an academic. However, I still work alongside – and with – institutions and academics.
This is an odd space to occupy.
So, here I am.
Hoping that there will be possibility on the other side.