Industrial action in the academy

Here’s something I suspect not many university heads are able to say: on two occasions in my working life I helped organise strike action in a university (in my then capacity as an honorary trade union officer). I stood at picket lines, and on the whole I believe I was quite successful. But it wasn’t an easy task: most colleagues made it very clear to me that taking industrial action was not part of the academic profession’s ethos.

So now, here I am, having now been a university president and principal for 11 years or so, the poacher very definitely turned gamekeeper. And what do I think now of industrial action? After all, there have been several examples of it in Britain and Ireland over recent years.

Notwithstanding the much more militant rhetoric of lecturers’ trade unions these days, the reluctance on the part of academics to take real action is still there. An article in a student magazine from Nottingham University revealed that only 6 per cent of staff supported the recent strike action over pensions by the University and College Union (UCU), with the university Secretary suggesting that the action ‘may not have been noticed’. A year or two ago staff in my then university, DCU, were extremely reluctant to join one day strikes over public service pay cuts in Ireland, voting against participation in the ballot.

As the trade unions identify issues they believe are of concern to members, the way in which they raise these issues and seek to have them resolved favourably becomes crucial. Right now there seems to be an assumption that industrial action is a good way of getting results. Whether this is really true may be open to question. Unions often do not have sufficient membership penetration in universities to win major campaigns through militant action, though such action can create major inconvenience while they last – often at the expense of students. The latter reality also tends to ensure that it is hard for trade unions to make common cause with students, who will not tend to appreciate disruption to their studies, even in pursuit of an aim they support.

Perhaps universities need to look more generally at staff participation and consultation, to ensure that issues do not need to be addressed in a confrontational manner. But in the meantime, traditional industrial action may not be the most effective way for unions to advance their agenda.

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