The great radical journalist Alexander Cockburn, son of the even greater Claud Cockburn:

October 19, 1985

The Best Tunes

I open my mail. I find a letter from the International Socialist Organization. It begins:

Dear Sir or Madam

The future looks bleak: Racist repression in South Africa. Mass starvation in Ethiopia. Near-record poverty rates in the U.S. … Racist and sexist oppression is a fact of everyday life. Is there any way out?

What’s the matter with the left? How about:

Dear Sir or Madam
The future looks great: White slavers on the run in South Africa. The opening of a revolutionary era in Ethiopia. Popular rage in the U.S. Racist and sexist oppression under attack everywhere.

You don’t get far by making people feel bad. My father used to quote sadly the old Communist Party recruiter back in the 1930s. `Brothers and sisters, even as I speak our comrades in Latin America are writhing in the torturers’ thumbscrews, our comrades in India starving in the stinking jails of British imperialism, our comrades in Africa groaning under the boot of the oppressor. Brothers and sisters, join the Communist Party.’

Anyone working in higher education has a fair idea what is wrong: bad and worsening staff pay and conditions; a complacent and mediocre management culture; the destruction of education as a good thing in its own right; marketization and tightening state interference. Winter is here. The question is where to find the seed under the snow that will grow into the early days of a better system.

Clearly, we have done no better on pay and conditions, including pensions, than slow the decline. We have ground to make up and we need to do it soon.

We have, however, after years of steady campaigning raised the issues of casualization and of the gender pay gap. Our members, and the public, are aware of these issues, and students have come to see a common interest in eliminating those abuses. We do not need to convince members of our union of the reasons for ending precarious contracts: people on stable contracts understand that those contracts are undermined by other people being on unstable contracts. We have organized amongst people on abusive contracts and the public are taking notice.

After the junior doctors’ strikes it is clear that workers seen as middle-class professionals on a comfortable income can take action which is understood by the wider public.

Our employers are now squeezed between the state and their staff: if they want to do well on the league tables and the TEF, they need our cooperation. Bad as the TEF is, it gives us a lever which we should be prepared to use. The news that the NUS is to boycott the NSS is welcome: a Bath amendment (HE6A.2) at the 2016 Congress made it UCU policy to support this boycott. The news that Edinburgh University is not to participate in the TEF, and may be the first of a number of universities to choose not to, is even more welcome, but so far no English university has followed suit.

What is to be done? One concrete proposal would be to change how we go about industrial action. Instead of national strikes for a day or two, why not take indefinite action in a small number of universities, supported financially by the whole membership: an hour’s pay per member per month would cover the lost pay of members on strike in half a dozen branches. If the board of UUK or UCEA saw their institutions shut down indefinitely, they might be more inclined to see reason.


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