Strike: ghost of the past

October 31st, 2013: The nation-wide strike in higher education today shows how strikes are no longer conceived as adequate forms of protest.

Members of staff went on strike today at the University of York as part of national movement in response to a pay rise offer of just over 1% this year.

What happened today is somehow of great political significance: this is the first UK-wide joint strike between higher education unions, which is supported by UCU (University and College Union), UNISON and UNITE. The strike is aimed to protest against a drop of wages by 13% in real terms since October 2008.

Strike movement seem to belong to the past. ©National Library of Ireland on the Commons; Image credit: Flickr Commons

Although some members of staff are resolute not to swallow another of the Government’s economic prescription, the silent majority are consequently accepting a further fall of their income.

But nobody seems to care.

Some of us might have enjoyed an extra hour in bed because of a cancelled seminar or lecture, but for most students, the strike had no impact on their day. Most classes ran smoothly and the library was open and running.

Nobody seems to care. Overall, the students may be the most concerned about the movement, fearing that their class will be cancelled, which is quite a loss considering the £9,000 fee budget. However, missing a nine o’clock lecture because of a hangover seems far less of an issue.

A commentator on national news said:

“Nobody wants to be on strike, but a 13% real-terms pay cut as vice-chancellors’ pay continued to increase and universities’ surpluses built up simply is not fair.”

If it wasn’t clear before, it cannot be made clearer now: strike does no longer seem like an acceptable form of protest in our society.

The word itself, “strike”, though still haunted by images of the masculine and sometimes violent and angry mobs of the 1970s, has today lost its threatening meaning. The genuine concept of a strike is one that belongs to the past. But should it?

The current reluctance to strike wouldn’t be a problem in itself if social grievances found other means of expression. As far as I am aware, Britain isn’t exactly experiencing a general consensus between its population and its politicians, nor does it have a very effective voting system which acts as a security valve against social discontent.

On the contrary, while politicians are unable to bridge the gap with the population and that the voting apparatus suffers from wide spread disinterest, people have increased their capacity to suck up their resentment and push further away the line of the unacceptable.

If strikes gather little support it is less because people disagree with the nature of the strikers’ demands but rather because a deep rooted loss of faith in the power of action. It is likely that most members of staff considered that complaining about a fall in their wages wasn’t unjustified, and yet they regarded the means for complaint as inadequate. To be honest, there are legitimate grounds to believe so: even after thousands of protesters, most of which were not strikers but students, went down to the streets in November 2010 against the £9,000 tuition fees, they voices were ignored and the proposition was enforced.

And yet, I believe that the running discourse which dismisses strikes as infective and a waste of time is one which should be fought against. Indeed, whether it is by strike actions or through other politicised channels, voices of discontent need to be expressed in order to defuse what can be a dangerous time-bomb.

As such, society urgently needs to reconcile itself with some ways in which groups can make heard their discontent and disagreement with high politics. Silent moaning has never solved any problems and it is only through expressed words that compromises can be found.

Whether or not striking is an adequate means for such expression in 21st century Britain is a long debate; and yet, since no other channels have proved themselves much more effective, today’s strike movement is one which should be welcomed as the voice of grounded and genuine exasperation.

More on the strike here.

Published on The Yorker, October 31, 2013.

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