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Is it possible for academics to strike?

The expansion of factory logic and factory relations outside of the factory itself, the process Marx called the subsumption of labour under capital, brought labour that had previously been outside the exploitation/production dynamic (i.e. contributing to the production of surplus value) fully into the fold. Autonomist feminists like Federici and Fortunati have described the ways in which housework and other forms of women’s labour were “unproductive” in the sense of unpaid while at the same time contributing to the reproduction of the labour-force, the cheapening of the costs of labour, and the increase in surplus-value production.

The neoliberalization of the universities is the process of subsumption applied to academia. Previously insulated (as professionals) from the labour-capital relationship (exploitation, surplus-value), over the past thirty years, academia has gradually been brought fully into these relationships. Only once academia had been proletarianized was an academic strike really possible. But structures like academic freedom and tenure help to maintain the illusion that part of the academic workforce is non-proletarianized, constituting a labour aristocracy that faces both proletarian university workers and the working classes of society at large.

When the players in the NBA and other leagues went on strike to protest racist police brutality, the owners and the media were careful not to call it a strike but a boycott. On the other hand, the “#ScholarsStrike” which developed in support of the players called itself a strike, but it is by no means clear that it in fact constituted a strike. To call a strike a boycott is ideological self-defense; to call teach-ins and public lectures a strike is co-opting the radicality of a strike in the name of the status-quo.

The first indication that the Scholar’s Strike - at least in Canada - was going to be turned to the advantage of the universities was when it was folded into a university’s strong and solid commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. My university president put out a statement confirming this commitment and encouraging (deigning to allow?) any academic or student who wanted to participate in the Scholar’s Strike to do so. It is a strange kind of strike that has the blessing of the employer.

In the event, academics with tenure and academic freedom who participated in teach-ins and lectures did not, in any sense, withdraw their labour. At best, they used their autonomy to do something else that day (some universities made sure that classes and previous commitments were rescheduled to accomodate the “strike”). By all accounts these were valuable and well-attended, but they were academic work, and they relied - like all academic work - on the labour of others (support staff, programmers, admin assistants, etc, etc). One academic referred to participation in the Scholar’s Strike as “professional development and service work that contributes to the mission of the university”. If it was either of those two things, it does not fit the definition of a strike.

Last year, unionized academics in the UK went on a number of strikes that were absolutely intended to (and succeeding in) impede the business of the university to the extent of winning at least some acquiescence to the demands of workers. Workers weren’t paid (because it was a strike) and had to rely on union strike funds. In Canada, some academics have been asked to take vacation time, which raises the question of whether anyone can be considered to be on strike if they are still being paid by their employer?

While the teach-ins and lectures were, as I say, valuable and well-attended, it is important not to co-opt the language of a strike for something that isn’t a strike. Not only does it allow the universities to claim EDI credit for something that absolutely did them no harm, but it weakens the strike claims for other workers. In other words, calling something that isn’t a strike a strike is the flipside of calling a strike a boycott.

Baharak Yousefi put it concisely when she tweeted, “If strike, then withhold pay & no public statement of support from the employer for the striking employees. If not strike, then no withholding of pay (or “vacation”) & public statement of support for employees who choose to take part in the action. Don’t get to mix and match.”

The issue here really is that both the university and the academics benefit from calling the Scholar’s Strike a strike. The university because it can appear to be supporting a radical social movement for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and thus be on the right side of history; and academics because they get to play at radical labour action without actually risking what striking workers risk. This coincidence of interests is, really, the definition of a labour aristocracy.

ADDENDUM: In this post I have deliberately adopted an anti-intersectionalist stance in a way I think is similar to what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called “strategic essentialism”. Analytically, if we want to challenge the structure of labour aristocracy, we have to simplify the identity-relationships in play, in order to enable academics to recognize themselves as workers. I am completely aware of gender, racial, class, and other differences at work within academia, and that more risk and more work accrue to the most marginalized positions. But presenting academia in an essentialist way can help to uncover the class and labour relationships and the ways in which an academic labour aristocracy benefits from the differential exploitation of the most marginalized.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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