Striking measures need to catch up with digitisation – but how?

The ‘tweetability’ of protest has never been so important


For the sake of argument, let’s say you are somebody who is generally a fan of workers’ rights and don’t enjoy the possibility of them being eroded.

Next, for the sake of argument, let’s say that they’re being eroded.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say you want to do something about it.

… what should you do?

The conventional answer is strikes and protests. You will gather your troops of underpaid and overworked employees and together you will stay away from your workplace. You may encourage others to do the same, potentially by constructing picket lines around the areas most people in similar positions will be going to and from.

In response, things, for the most part, continue to run. This time, from home – we’re good at that now, after all. People don’t have to physically walk across picket lines and face strikers in order to carry on. They just have to log in (and depending on their technical skill, shoot off a few emails asking exactly how Panopto actually works. Don’t worry, lecturers – I don’t know either).

Is that an effective protest?

Trust me, I am the first to bang on about the importance of not crossing a picket line. Working rights are human rights. That’s why it’s so vital that strikes proceed in ways that push for effective change, regardless of our collective growing aptitude for Google Meet.

Strikes have garnered support this year (Image credits: Vedika Mandapati)

It’s time to talk about the digital picket line.

The UCU has been running a series of interconnected strikes since 2018, but since 2020 they have become more varied to adapt and respond to the pandemic. Students here will be familiar with the rent strikes that occurred in the Easter term of 2020, as students remained at home while paying for facilities they weren’t allowed to access.

In many universities, the movement of everything online has been naturally followed by a movement of protest online. This has included the concept of a “digital picket line,” which includes lecturers refusing to upload prerecorded lectures during strikes and students refusing to access online resources in solidarity.

A digital picket line means that strikes have the same effect that they did before uploading lectures onto on-demand services became normal or even possible. Strikes would mean that students simply wouldn’t receive that section of content. This would in turn disrupt exams, and would mean that the effects of strikes continued on throughout the year.

However, it’s not as simple as “don’t upload, get your rights”

A digital picket line isn’t, however, a magic solution. After all, part of the nature of protest that makes it so powerful is the collectivist mindset people adopt when they’re “in it together.” Choosing not to click on a link doesn’t have that effect and may mean that even if a digital picket line were to be adopted, it may not be followed as closely as the physical one.

It is also significantly easier for pressure to be placed on individuals than a group, and lecturers may end up subject to pressure to upload their content during a strike. Distinct laws are in place to protect employees against being pressured out of striking, but such legal measures haven’t caught up to the digital world quite yet. The gaps that are yet to be filled in statutory law may put strikers at risk.

Current students have had such significant impacts on their education by the pandemic already that resentment may build if they once again feel deprived of necessary content for their exams and learning. This could weaken student solidarity, a vital aspect of the strength of university strikes.

 

With COVID in mind, some students are divided in their strike solidarity (Image credits: Camfess)

This is not to say that a digital picket line would have no impact – but it’s by no means the master key to unlocking working rights.

It’s a Cambridge thing.

In particular, strikes are a difficult thing to manage effectively at Cambridge because of the nature of a collegiate system.

(Image credits: statement released to all students by Professor Graham Virgo)

As demonstrated by the email sent to all students above, strikes here occur on the assumption that “lectures, seminars, laboratory work, supervisions and PhD vivas will take place as normal.” This is because the colleges continue to run while the university is striking.

This creates two distinct problems: firstly, it significantly weakens strikes, as students continue to receive many valuable aspects of their education throughout. Secondly, it puts supervisors and other college-level staff in a difficult position. Do they support the strikes and risk their jobs, given that they are not protected by a formalised strike? There is no easy answer to this question.

So… what now?

There are no easy answers to the questions the pandemic and the digitisation of education have brought to the surface. The potential for digital picket lines both answer difficulties, and themselves bring up yet more problems.

The collegiate system has been a barrier to effective striking since striking itself began, but now this issue is becoming significantly more prevalent as strikes face more and more issues to contend with.

Even more extreme measures – occupations, for example – make less impact as staff return to their already-set-up home offices, complete with a potted plant they’ve somehow kept alive since March 2020.

Occupations of university spaces continue (Image credits: Rebekah Treganna)

But even after all this, for the sake of argument, let’s say you still want to do something about it.

I, for one, don’t know what to do – what about you?

Feature image credits: Rebekah Treganna and Ruby Cline, edited by Ruby Cline

The Cambridge branch of the UCU and the University were contacted for comment.

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