This week there’s a Digital Picket going on in the UK: in solidarity with the strike action, a lot of people have been pledging not to blog, tweet or promote education-related things. So this won’t be a Classics post! Normal service will be resumed next week, I promise – but this week I thought I’d tell you a bit of my story.
This week a lot of UK university workers have been on strike, and have been attracting both positive and negative headlines in the media. There are lots of reasons for the strike action, and they’re all important; but precarity is a big one, and I know quite a bit about that.
I’ve been a precarious worker, in one form or another, all my working life. Sometimes the casual contracts have suited me. Mostly they haven’t. Being in precarious employment brings with it a permanent feeling of uncertainty: you never know what the next year will bring. If, like me, you’re a single parent, that uncertainty looms large. For years I’ve had to deal with the very real possibility that if student numbers drop in Classics, I won’t have a job in October; or my job will become so small that it won’t pay the bills. I save obsessively, and have back-up plans for my back-up plans; but sometimes it’s still hard to sleep at night.
I tend to take on more work than I should, because contracts can easily vanish, so the more you have, the more secure you are. So I’m always overworked because I’m unable to make the sensible choices that would give me a healthy work-life balance.
A few years ago I found myself in need of a mortgage. It was September. The bank wanted to see my payslips from the last three months: but because of the nature of precarious work, I hadn’t been paid since June, and couldn’t prove that I would be employed in October. So, no mortgage.
Unpaid summers are tough. You save, of course; but unless you earn a lot, it’s difficult to save enough to do more than pay basic bills through the summer. So, no holiday. And it’s the way of things that that’s the time when you get hit by unexpected expenses – like last summer, when the power kept going out in my house and I couldn’t afford to get an electrician in to find the problem. So you find yourself taking on whatever paying work makes itself available: tutoring, editing, writing. Of course, this work is usually available because other people realised it wasn’t worth it, so often it ends up taking far more time than you have available.
It’s worth stating that, like many people in my position, I love my job very much. I get to meet the best students, and to do something that I believe in. But that doesn’t mean I have to love my working conditions too.
I’ve lived in the precarious world longer than most – but there are many other people out there who have it worse. Sometimes I’ll read a brilliant and innovative Classics book, then find that its author is on a zero hours contract and may be forced out of academia next year, or has already left, or is working four jobs to make ends meet, or is sleeping on somebody’s sofa, or is making a loss because the cost of their travel is more than their teaching wage. The system is broken – it chews people up and spits them out.
For minorities or people in already difficult circumstances, the consequences of precarity can be severe. As a single parent, I feel near constant worry about my ability to earn a reliable income; as an autistic person, my need for structure and routine is constantly being challenged and disrupted, because I have very little control over my own life. As a working-class academic, I have no financial safety net. Sixteen years of this have left me constantly exhausted and inclined to panic when things go wrong – like the storm that ripped through my street last week and left me with a kitchen full of leak-catching buckets.
But this isn’t supposed to be a sad story. For many people it is, but maybe not for me. And maybe my happy ending is a sign of hope for our universities.
This year, for the first time ever, I won’t have an unpaid summer. This year, for the first time, I am guaranteed a job when October comes around. This year I could take my payslips to a bank and I wouldn’t be laughed out of it.
That’s because The Open University, in agreement with the union, has promised to create a new contract which will make all of the tutors – thousands of us, who have been on multiple precarious, time-limited contracts for decades – into permanent staff. We’ll have a % FTE, and a workload, and stability. We might finally be able to sleep at night.
It’s not been an easy process, by any means. I remember this being promised a decade ago; for years I made plans based on an imminent contract change which never arrived. Then last year it looked like it was going to happen – until the rug was abruptly pulled out from under us by a management decision. So my very literal brain requires me to see it before I believe it. But even I have to admit that the signs are looking good. And when this change happens, it will shift the landscape of Higher Education in a small but significant way. It will show that the sector-wide movement towards reliance on casual staff is not the only way forward. It will set a precedent. Maybe it will even show university management that they might benefit from a workforce that isn’t constantly having to move on. And I get to be part of that.
This week I’m very overworked, and tired, and my computer’s playing up, and my kitchen leaks and I can’t find a roofer to fix it. But for the first time I can remember, I’m not worried about next year. It’s a pretty great feeling.
Well done to everyone out there on the pickets this week!
The lecturer who lived in a tent – The Guardian
Bosses refuse to budge – UCU
Students react as staff walk out – BBC
Strike in Scotland – The National