This week is the 100th anniversary of one of the most important events in the Labor movement (at least back in the US): the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster in which the garment factory’s sweatshop conditions led to the death of almost 150 workers, mostly Jewish immigrant women, locked by their bosses into their lower-Manhattan factory while the fire raged. This tragedy had remarkably swift and positive repercussions, spurring the growth of the once-powerful International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and resulting in a new regime of labor laws actually intended to help workers and not their employers. (The New York Times is commemorating the fire on one of their blogs.)
So I am saddened and a little guilty that I will not be participating in the labor action being called for this week by my own union. The University and College Union represents academics in UK higher education institutions. In this precarious time for Universities, especially here in England, I am glad, in principle, that there is a union representing academics, a group of people who certainly aren’t in it for the money, and deserve at least a modicum of recompense, job security, and respect.
In principle. In practice the UCU has spent much of the last decade or so in the news not fighting for workers’ rights but because of the stance of some of its more radical (but sadly misguided) members toward Israel than for trying to improve the condition of its own workers.
Now, however, they’re trying to take on an issue that will certainly impact all of us (academics): pensions, which our employers contend have to dwindle in the light of supposed economic realities. I suspect and fear that, in the long run, the employers may actually be right, given the ageing and long-lived population, as is well known. But I also suspect that they are not negotiating with everything appropriate on the table. Hence, an impasse, and one that if not resolved will certainly harm all of us: academics, administrators and, not least, students. During this last week of our term, with only two hours of lectures left in my course, I would have preferred “action short of a strike” that would have enabled me to fulfil my teaching duties and my responsibilities toward my (blameless) students. Although, yes, I appreciate that the whole point of a strike is to cause harm, and show how indispensable we workers are, but this relies on generating sympathy for the workers, and anger directed at the employers. But with the rather woeful PR job by the UCU, I doubt many of our students would have known why their lecturers aren’t around.