Education Equality & Inclusion Luke Ray Di Marco Campbell Trade Unions Ungagged Writing

The Digital Picket, Covid-19, & Unending Precarity

Luke Ray Di Marco Campbell (2022)

This week, members of the University and College Union (U.C.U.) commenced our latest wave of industrial action, involving ten strike days spread across the next three weeks, encompassing two distinct but deeply interconnected campaigns. As outlined by the U.C.U., Week #1, focused on the U.S.S. pension dispute-only and involving forty-four institutions will cover five days running from Monday 14th – Friday 18th February 2022; Week #2 covers both the pension and the Four Fights dispute, reaching a peak of sixty-eight institutions, covering just two days – Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd February 2022; before Week #3 turns specifically to the Four Fights and involves sixty-three institutions for a final three days covering Monday 28th February – Wednesday 2nd March 2022. 

At a time when thousands of university degree programmes have shifted to either entirely or partially online for the majority of the last two years – many individual courses still adopting a hybrid model – the digital picket has become, perhaps, of equal importance to the physical manifestation. With ‘[e]mployees at Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Stirling, Strathclyde and the Open universities […] among those participating over the coming days’, the following emphasises the ways in which these multiple fronts are impacting workers across Higher Education in Scotland and the rest of the U.K…

At its most basic, the digital picket is: 

‘[A]n online and electronic boycott of institutions whose workers are on strike. A large proportion of university work is carried out via email and the internet, and social media engagement is a major part of academia. When we strike, we stop working and stop being paid. A digital picket line is formed, and all of this work and publicity stops.’ 

The digital picket isn’t new, but it’s become far more prominent in the last two years as Covid-19 wreaked havoc on education and many other sectors. Increasingly, communication on all matters shifted from in-person and on-campus to off-site and, in many cases, well beyond the past confines of the (semi-)regular working day hours. Competing demands in all our lives – that is the staff and students’ lives – meant work was suddenly often conducted late in the evenings when our dependents were resting, or in the moments we had the emotional and mental capacity to deal with the, easily, ten’s of emails containing points or questions that would previously have been asked in any given class. In addition to responding individually to signpost the enquirer to appropriate support, materials, or literature, many of us also utilised collective online spaces (e.g. forums) for each class to ensure all who might benefit from the reassurance or preemptive answer to a question. 

The rising workloads and conflicting demands fostered an unhealthy dynamic that contributed to an already challenging work environment, yet, rarely was this recognised by the universities. Digital correspondence became the only way many communicated, increasing social isolation, but the impact of that continues even as much of our work has returned to campus. Where we’re delivering classes or facilitating meetings in-person, we’re still teaching in spaces far from our usual classrooms in order to ensure physical distancing is possible. But, now, we’re already back protesting. To answer this, foremost, we must acknowledge that action has not been taken to address the concerns raised by tens of thousands of staff across the U.K., but also recognise that multiple fights are taking place concurrently. 

The U.C.U.’s Four Fights campaign is paralleling action against cuts to pensions has allowed staff at varying stages of their ‘career’ in academia to campaign collectively. Those closer to retirement age and most urgently affected by university leaders at the Universities U.K. (U.U.K.) toying around with the Universities Superannuation Scheme (U.S.S.) pensions fight side-by-side with others, such as myself, who are employed on extremely precarious contracts and face immense uncertainty in the hours we will be offered and the pay we will receive month-to-month. The reality, however, is that – as Alison Stenning (2022) stresses, new entrants (i.e. early career staff) are set to lose 20-35% of their pensions’, making the pensions fight one that not only demands our support today, but places our own latter years into a state of uncertainty. Encompassing low pay, casualisation, overwhelmed workloads, and inequalities in pay, Rory Turnbull (University of Newcastle 2022) offers a useful thread of the make up for the Four Fights campaign and how it’s distinct from the struggle for proper protection of pensions – with the example of casualisation at his own institution mirrored across the sector – but details why these are operating concurrently. 

Dr. Charlotte Lydia Riley – historian at the University of Southampton – illustrates this so precisely in stressing that ‘if universities don’t think their staff can get all of their work finished whilst taking action short of a strike — literally whilst working to contract — then universities are admitting that their workers have too much work’. The overburdening of staff is so abundantly clear, but the capacity to work-to-rule is already a privilege that not all staff are able to attain. Many of us on strike right now are, proportionately, even further impacted financially than others as our contracts are short-term, part-time, and minimum-hour or zero-hour. 

For someone on a zero-hour or even a minimum-hours contract, when the work does come, it’s often thick and fast. Significant volumes of marking, brief blocks of teaching, or sporadically negotiated observations for students undertaking placements. When someone is asked to complete, say, forty hours worth of marking, even if given a couple of weeks to do so, this bears huge disruption for other aspects of their lives – family time and broader care responsibilities, negotiating one’s work hours between multiple jobs, or even their capacity to plan where they will live if they’re unable to identify further contracts at the same institutions (as stressed, here, by Raluca Bianca Roman, Lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast).

Further still, such employment practices are detrimental to the students’ who may well receive feedback produced in a stressed, burnout, or sleep deprived state as rest and self-care is foregone in order to meet sudden deadlines. Students are paying thousands for the education they participate in at these institutions, yet, in many, their work is rarely given the time and attention it deserves. My own employer affords us three hours per Masters’ dissertation which is largely fair, yet, I’m aware through colleagues of markers being allocated as little as forty minutes to grade the similar works. Some universities have, evidently, taken offence to being called out for their shocking treatment of staff. The University of Edinburgh U.C.U. branch shared an extract from Peter Mathieson’s statement in which he talked about how it ‘hurt’ that the staff are undertaking ‘damaging’ actions that position their university as ‘uncaring or unsupportive’ – that’s kind of the point, Peter… A reminder, that Mathieson is the man who received a ‘£410,000 welcome package, with benefits including a ‘grace-and-favour’ five-bedroom house in the centre of the capital’ when hired by the University. As President of that U.C.U. branch and U.C.U. Scotland Executive member Grant Buttars reminds him, however, ‘[w]e are also not in a period “following the pandemic”, we are still in the middle of it’

Returning to the associate or casualised posts, however, for those who gamble that enough worth might come their way from the universities, they need to grab any hours that might come their way. It’s an incredibly reactionary way to live and places reliance on maintaining particular relationships which – however, we might otherwise claim – do shape what opportunities are offered. Power is omnipresent, and, thus, there becomes very little genuine ‘off time’ as the casual worker must keep themselves ready to grab any hours that might come their way. Amongst the U.C.U.’s 2019 findings on the impact this kind of work has on practice, they found that an estimated ‘37,000 teaching staff on fixed-term contracts, the majority of them hourly paid’, whilst ‘a further 71,000 [are] overwhelmingly hourly paid teachers, employed on the lowest contract levels and many of them employed as ‘casual workers’, with fewer employment rights’. 

We’re fully aware of the anxiety this action is causing for many students, and, for my part, I’ve spoken to my dissertation students individually and collectively to ensure they have what they need without support for the coming week-and-a-half before we can talk again during that break between weeks two and three but I know it’s unlikely to be enough to address the panic its causing amongst other students. Already, Monday morning when I set my out-of-office reply as encouraged by the Union before temporarily deleting from my phone for the duration of the strike, three separate message previews stated, ‘I know you’re on strike but’… If any of us answer those emails, we’re breaking the digital picket, undertaking unpaid labour, and creating small cracks in the unity that gives us any chance of forcing change. To, again, borrow from Spurgin, the blockade needs to include disengaging completely from ‘Answering work emails; Planning lectures/teaching; Webinars; Writing grant applications; Publicising work events; Publicising jobs/studentships’ and far more. 

From a personal perspective, very few of us want to be on strike; but the multiple fronts we’re fighting on matter. As a casualised worker, I’m already panicked over what happens at the end of April when my teaching and marking wraps. Despite working circa 20-30 hours on any given week since August 2019, my hours will drop to fewer than five per week across the summer. That kind of precarious employment is not safe for me nor my family. I adore my job and there’s few places I’d rather be any given day than working with and for my students, but this cannot continue. Solidarity and support to all taking strike action across the U.K..

So, to anyone reading this, know that for the next three weeks, crossing the digital picket line is – more than ever in the modern context – every bit as much crossing the picket as barging through the physical presence on-campus. It’s wonderful to see many supportive messages from individual students joining us on the in-person picket lines, press releases from other unions or the student representative bodies backing our actions, and that a number of journals – guided by their editorial boards – will not be publishing academic work during the strike nor posting on their social media accounts (e.g. the Community Development Journal). 

Let us close, then, with a supportive offering from self-described ‘trade union data geek’ Jenny Andrew, ‘[m]ay your boots be weather-tight, the coffee plentiful, and your employers more tractable to reasoned, evidenced negotiation than they have so far shown themselves to be’. 

See you on the picket line. 

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