Demanding the impossible: a strike zine

by JCE June 5, 2018

This article is part of a JCE online curation of the UK university 2018 industrial action.

At the end of the UCU industrial action in February-March 2018 a group of geographers at Nottingham University produced a ‘strike zine’. This was made as a record and reflection on their experience of the 14 days of strikes that took place at universites around the UK in protest over proposed changes to pensions under the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) brought in by Universities UK (UUK). It is made available here as part of the Journal of Cultural Ecomony’s archive of that strike action and the issues that it raised for teachers and workers in education in twenty-first century Britain and around the world.

Contributors to the zine were:
Nick Clare,
Richard Field,
Isla Forsyth,
Cordelia Freeman,
Shaun French,
Sarah Jewitt,
Holly Jewitt
Kiri Langmead,
Steve Legg,
Suzanne McGowan,
Carol Morris,
Jo Norcup,
Susanne Seymour,
Ellie Soccorsy

Demanding the impossible is a testament to the sense of solidarity and spirit of resistance that fomented in response to UUK pension proposals. A spirit of solidarity that is manifest in the groups’ conscious decision to eschew the conventions of individual authorship in favour of a collaborative authorship model that better captures the collective praxis of striking, picketing and manufacturing the zine itself. And thus seeking to challenge, albeit in a small way, the conventions of the neoliberal academy. It brings together a collection of perspectives that represent a national, if not international, reawakening of what 50 years earlier had been a call to arms against the machinations of an interventionist and conservative state. The notion of a zine reflects that back-street radicalism, although the production values afforded by a DTP production and PDF distribution channel indicate the arguably more sophisticated dependance on technology and its attendant aesthetics and acronyms.

The various articles in the zine encapsulate a moment in academic life when the rank and file seem to have shaken out of a slumber, induced perhaps by the relatively comfortable salaries and flexible working conditions enjoyed by a decreasing number of old-school tenure-track positions. It is clear to many that the onerous demands of the increasingly administrative work that many must do alongside teaching and research leave little time for reflection or resistance.

But the proposed shift in burden of pension risk from institution to individual appeared to cross a line, spawning careful examination – and sometimes didactic explanation – of contemporary finance and political tactics, as well as protest songs, personal testimony, common ground, and shared hashtags. This strike, many have suggested, changed everything.

What has been made clear by the first six months of 2018, a clarity which can be distilled from this zine, is that the skills of academic staff – skills we have learnt from our own research and teaching experience – can be harnessed. We can draw upon our expertise to disseminate the results of our various projects and programmes and to improve the day-to-day experience of our students. But we can also harness our collective will and well-honed analytical lenses to focus on wider structural problems that have been unsettling and unnerving us for decades and to recapture a ’68-like spirit of radical critique and streetwise resistance that seemed lost.

Yet by early June at the annual UCU congress, it seems that the union that had ostensibly been brought together by this strike was in the process of falling apart. Newly radicalised members’ demands for university and union reform were being ignored and their potential contribution to debates was being denied. The senior management of the unions had, it seemed, closed ranks, and, like the senior management of the universities, turned on its members. How this plays out over the subsequent months may become crucial to the future not only of individual staff but also of the wider academy and its political landscape.