Why we strike
We are striking for 14 days over four weeks. Here are some perspectives from staff, students and others.
I don’t want to go on strike. It’s cold out there. But, I’m striking. Why am I, a member of design staff, striking? Why is it important to strike even though my strike has such an impact on my students’ education? Why is it important to strike even though it will affect my colleagues ability to do their jobs? I can list two reasons.
One: Learning. Unit 19 works on the relationship of labour to space, speculating on what disruptive spatial, social and economic models for post-capitalist and post-work society might look like in architectural design, fabrication and assembly. As you may suspect we are fundamentally against the neoliberalisation of higher education - which is what this strike action is really about. My students, after educating themselves about the strike, came together as a group to support me. I feel touched - and proud - that they understand this strike goes beyond their midterm crit, beyond their individual academic experience. It didn’t take much effort to prioritise this as a space of learning, in real time, as real action. It is an opportunity.
Two: Health. In addition the undergraduate students I have spent 4 years working closely as a Programme Director with the students who have have been most affected by neoliberalisation.
I have seen the effect of this in real terms in the marketisation of the university - the student as consumer has transformed how we deal with progression rates (for example). I have seen this in the casualisation of roles (although we have worked hard as a School and programme to put design staff on permanent contracts in the last few years). I have seen this in the financial impact that £9k tuition fees have had on the composition our student body (higher levels of mental, emotional and financial stress, elitism, a narrowing demographic, less risk taking in their time studying). I have personally worked on temporary contracts for over half of my professional life in academia. A good pension was a big selling point for me to come to the Bartlett and work my way up to a full time post. Security is important when in our working lives we regularly go beyond the call of duty. I understand most design staff are mostly in practice and not a full time academic like me. But if we are all concerned first and foremost about our students - which I believe we all are - then to strike against changes to pensions is to ultimately strike for the health of their educations.
University staff are striking because of the cuts to their pensions... But this does not affect us as students, does it? If anything, it is trouble for us: it means we are losing classes and tutorials for which we're paying so much. This is surely inconvenient - but the strike is an answer also to our problems.
As architecture students, we experience everyday the disastrous consequences of neoliberal policies for higher education: grants have been slashed and fees are out of control, so we are often committed to one or more sidelines in order to pay them; and after we complete the studies, we find only precarious and unprotected jobs.
From this perspective, teachers' pension cuts are not an independent issue, but only the last implementation of the neoliberal agenda. So, if we want to do something against this here and now, let's support the strike! We can fight precarisation in the education sector only if we stand together, beyond our professions and categories. Because defending teachers' pensions also means fighting for a democratic and free university.
For a teacher, striking at a university is difficult because of the tension between commitments: to broader social issues and to particular students. I suggested a teach-in, following the US tradition, as place for political debate and transformational pedagogy, in the Bartlett lobby during the strike. But a colleague warned me that a teach-in might be perceived as a strike-break, because it involved crossing a picket line.
Yet I had thought of the teach-in, not as a way of continuing business as usual, but rather as a potential occupation. And certainly NUS and UCU are in support of sit-ins. UCU suggested moving the picket line back to the card barriers, so we would be both inside the building and outside the picket line. But when I informed management of this plan, I was told that picket lines must be outside the employer's premises.
So back to binaries: inside or outside. On strike days we are going to work the picket line into a transitional space with potential for dialogue. Whichever side of the line you are on, we hope you will come and join us.
Corvus Oculum Corvi Non Eruit’: ‘a crow will not pull out the eye of another crow.’
Our lecturers are striking: why should I care?
Our education is being impacted: who is to blame?
Our fees have been paid, our pockets emptied: where has it gone?
As students, we are conflicted.
Conflicted by the fact that our classes aren’t being taught, that our money has been taken, that our academics have left the building.
But the blame lies not with our staff, not with our lecturers, but with the university managers, the higher-ups, who see higher education as a cash cow, a factory for profits.
Our professors and lectures are striking.
Yes, striking against an attack on their pensions.
But, they are striking against the monetization of education, striking against a consistent and maintained attack on our systems of higher education.
They strike because they care about our future.
They strike because the University seems to care more about the money in their pockets than the quality of education they provide.
University is supposed to be a place to shape the way you think, to be exposed to new and critical worldviews, to question the status quo.
A place from which you approach the precipice of what you know, and look over the edge into the future, the undiscovered, the quest for answers.
But to do that we need a staff that can lead us, guide us, support us.
And, to do that, they need to be able to survive, to thrive, to live.
Instead of properly compensating our faculty, the university is looking to cut costs (at the expense of our education and the well-being of our educators).
Cut costs to increase their profit.
To the University we aren’t students. At the best, we are clients, and they the service provider.
At the worst, we are the raw material being pushed through their factory: make it cheap and make it fast, don’t worry about quality.
I and all my fellow students (international and domestic alike) pay a lot of fees, fees which have been increased year to year by the ever vigilant privatization and marketization of higher education in this country, and many others around the world. I pay my fees because:
- I have no choice. To get the education I want, that was promised to the generations before us I must go ever deeper into debt.
- I expect my fees to graciously compensate my tutors, staffs and others working at the university. It is their experience, thought, dedication and research that makes University possible. (This proposed change could strip pensions by £10,000 per year in retirement, a loss of up to £200,000 total for younger staff)
- I too want to go into academia. I want to teach, and learn, and be a part of the system that helps frame the way we understand our world. Therefore, I want to support the current professors, lecturers and staff, so that there is an academia worth coming into.
So with this strike, what happens to these fees? UCL management and UUK have turned education into a consumer product. Due to UUK’s lack of management of resources, their inability to properly compensate faculty, and their commercialization of education, the staff here at UCL and 61 other universities have been forced to strike in defence of their pensions and higher education as a whole. We never asked for education to be commercialized, but UUK and the government made that choice. If I bought a phone that didn’t make calls or a microwave that didn’t warm things up, I’d return it and get my money back. Well, we were promised an education, and if our fees aren’t being used properly, if they aren’t going towards providing us with the said education, you have sold me a faulty product…and I’d like my money back, please.
I extend, in the first instance, my heartfelt support to the striking teachers at UK institutions of higher education, and to their students who support them in the recognition that their education depends on the livelihood of their teachers. Not just the economic security of teachers, but the future livelihood of students is at stake in terms of the precedents that could well be set in the management of pensions where risk is transferred to the pension holder. Students will become teachers or professionals who will also be obliged to look after these matters of concern. For all the threat that looms is how easily futures are rendered economically precarious, even pre-emptively exhausted.
As part of a small project that has been simmering away, I have been reading into the histories of May 68 Paris, the protest of protests, and the general strike, which extended well beyond the capital into the provinces, and how it mixed intellectual contestation with workers’ demands with militant decolonial actions. And how the unprecedented encounter among these diverse political actors is often overlooked. It is fifty years since this event took place, which means that its various, perhaps contradictory memories are celebrated and memorialised, or obscured and purposively forgotten in diverse ways. I’ve been reading Kristen Ross’s May ‘68 and its Afterlives (2002) where she argues that the memory of May ‘68 tends to be corralled by a few key actors, or else memorialised through singular, individual voices expressing their existential angst, and even regret following the event, ‘we were young then…’. Instead, what should not be overlooked is that May ‘68 was not an isolated historical and geographical political event, but admits a back-history in the Algerian War, in relation to decolonial struggles and the early promise and potential of a third world, and as part of a mounting critique of the Vietnam war understood as the threat of American imperialism. The legacy of Paris ‘68, Ross argues, is today reflected in diverse movements that have not just informed philosophy (from Sartre to Blanchot to Rancière and Badiou, she names no women philosophers and does not cite Deleuze and Guattari), but has inspired such domains as agriculture, specifically the “egalitarian rural radicalism” of Conféderation Paysanne and how this movement has informed critiques of agri-business, and even anticipated contemporary activism in response to the industrial management of food and GMO. I have been Reading Ross, and returning to Mavis Gallant’s Paris Notebooks (1968) and I have been reading Daniel Bourg’s From Revolution to Ethics May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought, recently reissued to celebrate the 50 year anniversary since May ‘68. (2017). Gallant, though perceptibly condescending about the students, in nevertheless taken up by the excitement and energy and potential of the moment, describing in detail being caught on a traffic island as a sea of bodies pass her, and discovering from this position that they number close to three million (though other body counts will also be circulated). In a diary mode, of fragments and exclamations, and anxiously offered details, she describes snaking lines outside banks, and even how the telephone time, l’horloge parlante, has gone on strike. In time, as Ross explains, as May turns to June and the general strike takes hold of the nation, the cost of books will go up 40%, as the radio and TV stations have shut down. Paris has become a town where “no one could mail a letter, find a newspaper, send a telegram, or cash a check,…take a bus, ride the metro, drive a car, find cigarettes, buy sugar, watch TV, hear news on the radio, or get the trash picked up,…take a train out of the city, hear a weather report, or sleep at night in the parts of the city where tear gas filled apartments as high as the fifth floor.” (31). I have been trying to gain access to the affective feel of the time, trying to imagine the weight in my hand of a cobblestone (around 3 pounds according to Bourg), and the surprise of the sand to be found beneath it, and what it feels like to overturn a car, and to exist amidst the jostle of bodies day and night. Anger, joy, fear, exhilaration, disappointment, exhaustion. Ross lingers over the moment when the art students occupied the Beaux Arts and renamed it the Atelier populaire des Beaux Arts, pumping out posters using serigraphy, 250 an hour, and realising that now, rather than representing history after the fact, they were presenting history resituated as the contemporary moment in the midst of which they were discovering themselves alongside others, working harder than they ever had to express their solidarity, to take part, to break down hierarchies. Not liberty, but equality, Ross explains, and less ethics (understood as a moral framework) than politics in action. What Ross stresses is that this was not merely a cultural phenomenon, this was politics, it was not just about the boys in Nantes claiming access to the girls’ dormitories, nor the girls switching from skirts to pants, it was something collective and powerful, a belief that social structures could be organised otherwise.
In a 1963 letter from a Birmingham, Alabama jail, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. propounded the principle of “nonviolent direct action”. It is an action which “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can longer be ignored.” The human blockading of buildings and spaces evident in today’s British university strikes is a form of disruptive direct action with honourable roots.
Spatial occupation was a tactic used by British Chartists to protest the alliance of church, gentry and power as they took over Anglican churches in the nineteenth-century. The North American civil rights movement seized spaces of white supremacy and counter-planned them; from Rosa Park’s refusal to move seats on a Montgomery bus in Alabama, to lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the 1960s, students have mobilised sit-ins in university and high school spaces. A forgotten history of architectural pedagogy also mobilised direct spatial action as a tactic of social protest and a strategy for forcing change.
In the 1970s, students and staff from the AA architectural school in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury left the elegant Georgian terraces behind and entered a world of direct spatial action. Staff and students took design from the studio to the street. In November 1971 students in Bernard Tschumi’s studio temporarily occupied Kentish Town West Station as part of an on-going studio project. The station had been burnt out seven months earlier and AA students were involved in re-planning its future. They produced plans endorsed by the local community and residents and expected to re-open the station as a community centre and eventually to rebuild the station. In November 1971 AA students started to re-paint the interior of the station as a prelude to renovation but were stopped by police before their ‘action could be completed.’ Tschumi later wrote, The five-minute attacks and the rhetoric(al) appropriation of space were the first steps to free urban use.’
A tradition of strong British trade unionism underpinned another AA design studio occupation. The Architects Revolutionary Council had been launched at the AA in November 1974. Led by AA tutors Brian Anson and George Mills, the ARC brought their revolutionary skills to bear in a protest occupation of Bridgtown, Staffordshire as part of studio work for a 1976-77 AA unit. The town was a traditional mining community but the population had halved since the 1950s. The ARC was waging fierce resistance to a recent rezoning and relocation plan for the town. Planners had decided to move the entire community. The township was not happy.
The ARC cell was assisting Bridgtown’s people, particularly its Residents Action Group. Two ARC members were living part-time in a squatted village house to fiercely resist any covert incursions. The ARC were preparing an alternative plan for the village and negotiating with authorities in a trade union like manner. Proclaiming ‘our unity is total’ and we will ‘ resist even the bulldozers if necessary’. They affirmed their commitment to barricade the village if need be, and installed barbed wire brought from Bridgtown in their AA diploma show. Barbed wire, not architectural drawings, was the material artefact of their studio.
Barbara Penner has asked me to share some of these stories from my research on the projects of London’s New Left architectural scene so that today’s striking staff and students know that you stand in a tradition of radical architectural pedagogy and direct action.
In solidarity, Karen Burns.