Solidarity in the Neoliberal University? Acts of Kindness and the Ethics of Care During the UCU Pensions Dispute

Solidarity in the Neoliberal University? Acts of Kindness and the Ethics of Care During the UCU Pensions Dispute

Sarah Burton and Vikki Turbine

Who gets to have, and give, solidarity in the neoliberal university? Is solidarity even possible in an academy so savaged and pock-marked by casualisation? Wanting to examine these questions further we agreed to keep and share our ‘strike diaries’. Pertinently, we ask whether a feminist perspective that centres caring for ourselves and others can help find genuine opportunities for resistance and rejection of the neoliberal and managerial university. Here we (Sarah, fixed-term Teaching Fellow; Vikki, permanently-employed lecturer, at the outer limit of definition of ECR) some of our initial reflections on striking in the neoliberal university, casualisation, and the role of care and kindness in undertaking this form of labour.

A strike for all? The case of precarity and casualisation

‘Some people, though, have been openly hostile [to early career researchers concerned about striking] – lots of use of ‘scab’ and ‘scabbing’, and the accusation that you’re not collegiate if you don’t take part in strike action, even when structurally unable. There’s also been a level of holding ECRs to ransom – essentially telling me that I can’t expect support from senior colleagues if I don’t strike for (their) pensions. The understanding of differential ability to strike has often been terse at best.’  – from Sarah’s diary, before strike action began. 

The contemporary university rests heavily on the shoulders of casualised workers – and this is a problem of both academic and professional services work. Casualisation and precarity is diverse – from Ph.D. researchers or freshly-minted early career scholars who work as hourly paid lecturers, to the proliferation of fixed-term Teaching Fellow contracts, Research Assistant roles that only employ you one or two days a week, project-dependent roles (academic and administrative) that are renewed ad hoc as more funding emerges – or summarily stopped when the money doesn’t come through. But precarity also comes in more subtle forms – women punished for taking maternity leave, racialised scholars dealing with everyday microaggressions, disabled academics contending with an academy that practically and conceptually shuts them out.

These details are not insignificant to a discussion of striking – the financial and professional ‘bite’ of striking snaps harder at the heels of those who are always already precarious in the university. How do you show your solidarity when striking knocks out the last month of your hourly-paid income – and you don’t know if you’ll get another job? How can you feel in solidarity when a securely-employed professor calls you a scab for doing your unpaid research on a strike day? In a space where the compassion afforded those who are viscerally worried about becoming even more precarious can be ‘terse at best’, how can we reflect on these failures of care in ways that allow us to build the university anew?

Importantly, though, in what ways has the recent UCU strike allowed new solidarities to be found and formed – and created a space for and of care? The relationships, connections, and allegiances formed during the strike allow us to locate and develop this invigorated form of striking which centres care, kindness, and generosity – and in doing so mounts a powerful conceptual challenge to the idea of the competitive, individualistic, and ruthless neoliberal university.

Locating solidarity: striking as acts of care

As we moved into the strike our inboxes began to drip with employer threats, coercions, and intimidations – ways they would surveille us, count us, punish us for striking. Full withdrawal of salary for working to contract. Sickness was counted as striking and therefore unpaid. Demands were made for teaching to be rescheduled. But, simultaneously, the picket lines – virtual and physical – began to emerge in force. Celebrations of funny, snarky, signs were passed back and forth. Everyone on high punning form. Messages of support from students made us cry with their generosity and understanding. Student-led movements – occupations, pickets, marches, bake-sales – were mobilised in imaginative and financial support of striking staff, and shared across the UK. The space began to feel vital – teeming with ideas, invention, and change. Increasingly, casualised workers were included in the rhetoric of financial equality: the language of the strike moved from pensions to sector-wide structural revolution. These instances of emotional connection moved us – literally repositioning our perspectives. Indeed, the proliferation of small acts of kindness were able to (re)shape the strike as a space of care:

‘Saw two photos on Twitter today that made me so uplifted: Johanna with her massive manicule on the Glasgow picket, and a photo of the Durham picket with two of my first years…One great thing about the strike is that it’s showing what people’s character is like when they’re pushed to act – and I’m so proud of my friends and students. Sharing support is infectious and has quite quickly moved me from feeling alienated to being enthusiastic’ – Sarah’s diary, during the strike

Our strike diaries point to ways that ‘solidarity’ is not necessarily a tangible and coherent destination, but rather something lively and mobile which is collectively brought about in both imaginative and material realms. In considering this, we began to think of solidarity not as an end-point we’re all aiming towards, but instead as a state of being arrived at through mutual recognition and generosity. Solidarity, in this sense, is more about bonding through the kindness of feeling seen and heard, and it rejects notions of ‘sameness’ and modes of activism that are conventionally intimated through solidarity calls. This emerged strongly on the virtual (Twitter) picket lines, and as the strike gained momentum so too did these forms of generosity and care – with senior staff offering institutional, teaching, and financial support to their more precarious and vulnerable colleagues.

The Ethics of Care? Lessons from feminism

This sensitive creation of community must be recognised as both physical and emotional work – and there are significant questions to be asked as to who does this work, especially the heavier burden of care work which rests on women and minorities within the academy. We also want to centre the care that the strike action allowed us to do in our own lives and how this pushed us to reconsider the emotional labour we give to the academy. Early in the strike Vikki tweeted a snapshot of domestic life – a rare weekend not spent preparing for the working week ahead. It felt, she noted, ‘luxurious’. This identification of family/personal time as an extravagance prompted further dialogue about our own complicity in our exploitation, and how we ourselves work to uphold the neoliberal actions of the contemporary university.

‘What the strike made me realise that I was doing more conscious care work in my paid work – for students, colleagues, than I did for myself and my family. I was sick of them getting scraps of my frazzled time. I was sick – literally – and exhausted. The strike made me want to check back into my life’ – Vikki’s diary, during the strike.

Our strike diaries present a difficult ambivalence, simultaneously showing the necessary place of care in the academy but also highlighting this as a further avenue of our mistreatment and abuse. A feminist ethics of care, where we recognise and reward emotion work, can function positively to undercut the individualist and competitive rhetoric and culture of the neoliberal university. Care, kindness, and generosity challenge managerialism, surveillance, and bureaucracy on grounds which wholly reject the market-based foundations upon which contemporary universities now function. Problematically, though, we’ve also shown that our orientation to care for others is taken advantage of by our employers. Yet, the strike emphasized the inventiveness, resourcefulness, and do-it-yourself spirit of university workers. This itself shows the existence of new possibilities for kindness, openness, and community – which themselves offer avenues to solidarities more befitting an academy undergirded by casualisation.

‘I have been nourished by the generosity of spirit and candour on the picket line. The camaraderie of all of us working in the academy from all levels and places. This cannot be lost once we are back in our offices’ – Vikki’s diary, towards the end of the strike. 

‘I want revolution in the academy.’ – Sarah’s diary, towards the end of the strike.

As feminism teaches us, care work is so often not valued, yet it is central to this project of resistance. To move into any sort of hopeful future the misrecognition of the work of care and ethic of kindness must change. Ultimately, what we seek is a re-harnessing of care – removed from neoliberal notions of ‘self-care’ and individual responsibility or censure, and refocused on cooperation and mutual recognition. Acts of care during the strike signal a profound softening of the practices and mechanisms of the neoliberal university. This functions as a radical counter to the ruthless managerialism and competitiveness we’re subjected to – and which we visit on others. Through these collaborations we hope to trace our collective footsteps to see how we got here. We want to forge new paths to better futures where all university workers are included, and we are collectively lifted up.


Sarah Burton is Teaching Fellow in Sociology at Durham University. Sarah’s research focuses on practices and processes of knowledge production, social inequalities, and literary sociology. Sarah sits on the Executive Committee of the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association, and is a member of Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network. Vikki Turbine is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow. Her research and teaching focuses on two broad areas – women’s perceptions and experiences of rights claims, activism, and women’s engagement with politics and political education. She tweets @VikTurbine.


Image Credit: Johanna Green (Glasgow)