UCU members at Goldsmiths began a three week strike this week. They are fighting to protect jobs, courses and conditions at their workplace. I spoke to the co-secretary of Goldsmiths UCU, Jacob Mukherjee, about why they are on strike, the underlying causes of their dispute, the issues this raises for higher education, and what we can do to support their campaign.
You can donate to the Goldsmiths strike fund here.
Simon Fletcher: Would you just tell us first a little bit about what has caused the strike? Why you're taking action.
Jacob Mukherjee: So the strike is over the threat of fifty-two redundancies at Goldsmiths which were announced in September, but have been coming for a while. If management's plans go ahead that would be thirty-two workers in professional services. So that is departmental administrators of different kinds: people who deal with student enquiries, sort out timetables - basically, the people that do the logistical work, that means that the university can run and that the lecturers can teach. So the plan there is to cut staff and move the remaining staff into a centralised department. And that will actually involve a form of fire-and-rehire. So people will be sacked and then reapply for jobs often at a lower grade in a centralised administrative department. That's part of management's plan, that accounts for thirty-two of the proposed job cuts.
And then the other twenty are academics in two departments, English and Creative Writing, and History, which were identified, apparently, because they have a low 'contribution rate' in inverted commas, which is quite an opaque formula that management haven't really properly explained to us. But basically, they don't think that those departments are as financially viable or bringing in as much cash as they could - even though, ironically, Goldsmiths' PR likes to boast that those departments contain, for example, the first MA in Black British English literature in the UK, and I believe that only the only MA in Black British history, and I think the only MA in Queer History in the world. So those courses are at risk. Every lecturer in History apart from the head of department, and every lecturer in English, apart from the head of department, has been given a notice that they're at risk of redundancy. So there will likely be, if the plans go ahead, courses closed.
Management's justification is primarily financial. They also say that they think the cuts will improve student experience. They haven't consulted a single student on the plans. But they give the justification that the finances require this. And specifically, that a loan that they've taken from two banks, Lloyds Bank and NatWest bank, demands these cuts, that the banks have demanded a specific headcount reduction - so a specific number of staff to leave the college as a condition for the loans that the banks have given to the university. This is quite a pernicious aspect of it, I think, because what you have is private banks dictating terms to a university. We're demanding as part of our negotiations that we actually see the terms of these deals because they were done without anyone being aware of them apart from a very small handful of senior managers. What we do know is quite alarming. So we know that the deal requires the college to make a surplus up until 2040, which is remarkable, and something that, say, a government would never sign itself up to. And the collateral for the deal is the university - the bulk of the university's property. So if the university defaulted on these loans, the banks would own the university. This is all pretty frightening stuff. And our view is that management has wanted to do this kind of thing for a while. They've wanted to cut some courses that they think are more traditional humanities and don't really have a future at somewhere like Goldsmiths, and they want to centralise administration, and they're using these bank deals as a pretext and the final situation as a pretext. We've done our homework on this and we actually think, because of the recovery from the pandemic, and student recruitment figures improving and this kind of thing, there's really no need to make this level of cuts, and there's no need for compulsory redundancies - that the financial picture is a 'this is no alternative' type pretext that we're familiar with, from austerity programmes pursued around the world. We think these cuts are not only unnecessary, but actually self-defeating, they will harm our ability to attract students and therefore more revenue, and they might have to lead to further cuts in future.
We have tried to negotiate around this, we have said to management “look, work with us to come up with alternative ways to cut the deficit”. There has been really no movement, no significant movement, so we ended up balloting for strike action. We got a huge eighty-six per cent vote for industrial action, for strike action - an even bigger vote for action short of strike action - on a seventy per cent turnout, which is extremely high for a postal ballot, and especially since we did it in three weeks. So we voted as a branch to take three weeks of action, which is a long period. But we feel that given management's intransigence and given the seriousness of the situation, and their timeline - which by the way, involved giving people their formal redundancy letters on the 22nd of December, just before Christmas - we had no option but to strike now and strike hard to try and get management to take the cuts off the table, and to resolve the dispute ideally before Christmas, so that we can avoid a protracted dispute, which would be really disruptive to everyone, including students.
SF: Three weeks is a long time for a strike in a way, isn't it? How are you going to maintain the momentum and enthusiasm for the for the period? I'm conscious that in the course of that there will also be a national strike over national issues at the same time.
Jacob Mukherjee: Yeah, that's a good point. So to take the question about enthusiasm and so on first: part of the reason that we went for three weeks and the branch voted for that, is because of the level of mobilisation there's been, that makes us feel that we have the strength to carry that through. There's been the ballot result, the attendance at meetings - but also all-staff meetings where we've had Unison and UCU members together. Unison, by the way are also looking at industrial action, although they're a little bit behind us in their timeline. We've had students organising, really unprecedented levels of student support, particularly from the departments where courses might be cut. We've had national and international solidarity. And that just makes us feel we've got the basis to take concerted action.
We know that we'll be targeting the banks through some of our comms stuff, our messaging, as well as potentially doing some direct action and demonstrations at the banks. So, we've got that to build into our timeline. We've had big speakers, we had John McDonnell yesterday on our picket line, talking to several hundred people, we'll have other big speakers coming up throughout the three weeks. So we've got just a huge amount of creativity, we've got ideas for using music, for using costume and dance because it is an Arts and Social Sciences and Humanities school and we've got the creativity, the ideas, the skills as a kind of learning community. It's actually really nice when you're in a period of industrial action and all those skills and that motivation gets turned away from for a temporary period from delivering the formal curriculum towards this kind of collective mobilisation - it's really heartening and shows actually, ironically, what management don't realise, which is what they've got at the institution, and that they're taking for granted.
But on the national picture, there are three days of national action which actually fall in the middle of our period, so we won't be taking extra days, but we will be putting the focus on the national issues. And of course, we were balloted for the national action - I think we got the highest turnout in the country, and we got a big yes vote for action there. So members are certainly motivated by those issues of casualisation, pay, inequalities, workload and the pensions issue. I would say that obviously the national and the local pictures are connected as well, it's worth bearing in mind. So, since 2010, and the funding reforms, places like Goldsmiths have been under pressure. We've seen moves to develop more of a market in education, to get students to think of themselves more as consumers, that's put pressure on a lot of humanities and arts courses. There's further funding cuts announced by this government for what they like to think of as soft subjects - which interestingly enough, a lot of them themselves did at university: it's alright for them to be able to do the traditional humanities, but not less privileged people. So there's this huge pressure there, which I think people do understand. And while our senior management are squarely to blame for this mess, the national context that's been created in terms of the pressure on funding, in terms of pay not increasing, in terms of the massive workload that's built-up and that's been exacerbated by the pandemic, these are national issues and we'll certainly seek to connect them on those on those strike days that are in the middle of our strike period.
SF: I saw a tweet by Jeremy Gilbert where he said that we'd already seen the destruction of Humanities and Social Sciences at places like UEL and "if Goldsmith's goes the same route, then that's the end for critical HE outside the Russell Group". I don't know what you thought about that, but it struck home to me.
Jacob Mukherjee: Yeah I think that's right and not to kind of idealise Goldsmith's too much, but it is one of relatively few institutions that both provide a critical, theoretical, as well as practical Humanities and Social Science Education and make that available beyond the privileged elite, basically. And there are issues there - we've got a big gap in achievement between white students and students of colour, which we need to address - but at the same time, it is one of those places where we're trying to bring a more critical, sometimes radical, but certainly rigorous humanities curriculum to a relatively mass student audience. I do think there's an ideological agenda here, really, with this government. I think they believe that the likes of Kings and UCL humanities, traditional humanities subjects are viable - but the rest of the university sector needs to be looking at more business-friendly courses, courses that seem to link more directly to employability, courses that will build up workplace skills and all this kind of thing. And the other aspect of this is the relentless focus on metrics - various metrics that can be used to quantify how well the courses are doing. But the precise thing that attracts lots of students and staff to Goldsmiths is the culture, the vibe, the critical-thinking traditions, and these are things which are very difficult to capture, according to these metrics. And that's come out really strongly in some of the support for defending some of the aspects of the institution which we do value.
Yes, I read that tweet from Jeremy, he's a friend of mine, and I think he's absolutely right. And I think the movement sees this really, that's one of the reasons we've got a lot of support from the broader trade union movement in UCU and education and beyond, because this is a dispute of national significance. If we allow these kind of economistic financial metrics to dominate yet further in education, and especially if we allow banks to have a big role in dictating what courses should or shouldn't run, that's a dangerous precedent for the critical humanities. I mean, is NatWest going to want to continue to teach about financialisation in the art world or about the exploitative nature of kind of precarious self-employment in creative industries, or the workings of the tech giants and how they're involved in global networks of exploitation? They might want to tone that stuff down and just have courses that brand themselves as innovative but don't really kind of develop a broader critical perspective.
SF: You've mentioned the students a few times. And I'm conscious from some of the coverage of the national dispute that the employers have tried to play students off against the staff that are involved in the dispute. And I just wondered if that has happened at Goldsmiths. And if it had, how you are responding to it.
Jacob Mukherjee: It has in a big way. So our Warden, Frances Corner, has written to students a couple of times and in the emails, she's very much set up this kind of staff-versus-students battle. And she's linked to and quoted directly from the very unfortunate UCL Student Union statement against national industrial action, around which there's lots of controversy because I believe it was only the sabbatical officers who approved that statement and students at UCL are organising to try to have it overturned. And something similar has happened at Kings. That's been very, very, very heavy in her messaging and in the university's messaging - that the disruption of the pandemic and previous periods of industrial action mean that if we want to put students first then we shouldn't take industrial action.
How we've dealt with it, is we talk to students a lot. The ironic thing here is that management wheel out their ideal figure of the student as this kind of monster-consumer, who doesn't like the unionised workers, and who just wants their degree, and that's it. But they never actually really interact with students, senior management. We're the ones who do. Clearly some students will be annoyed about the disruption and most students will experience disruption but they also do sympathise and have solidarity. And part of the reason for that is because they know how hard we work for them, they've seen the work that we've put in to switch to online delivery over the pandemic, and try and support them and help them. They've seen the work that we've done sitting down with them and explaining the reasons for the industrial action, the ways they can be supportive, the ways that we're also going to try and still support them during the strike period, just in different ways. So, through organising, teach-out programmes, through setting up support pods, by loads of activities on the picket line that they can be involved in, and sending the message that actually this industrial action period can still be a huge learning experience and an exciting time, frankly.
I personally - and most lecturers who are taking action would have done this - I spent several hours in the week before the strike talking to students, talking it through, answering their questions about things like when they'd be able to have essay tutorials, what would and wouldn't be happening during the strike. Basic questions as well, like what actually happens when you're on strike? What is a picket line? Do you get paid? How does that all work? Because, of course, especially for younger people, many of them are working, but they are unlikely to be in unionised occupations, they won't themselves have taken industrial action. So there's a whole work of education to explain what goes into that. But by all UCU members at Goldsmith's putting in the work with their own students and others, I think we've developed a level of trust and student solidarity that management would like to have.
It's hard to gauge numbers, I reckon we may have had as many as five hundred people at our opening strike solidarity rally yesterday, probably half of them were students. We've got students planning actions at the banks, students delivering a mass complaint letter to the warden today, all kinds of activities like that, and it's just so important to cut through that supposed dichotomy between staff and students' interests. And also to show that students are not just “monster consumers” that they do appreciate the aspects of critical reasoning, of critical thinking, of developing alternative perspectives that we also value. The final thing I'll say on this is, I was asked about this in a BBC interview the other day, and I said that actually one of the lessons I'd like my students to take away from this industrial action is that you don't have to put up with precarious contracts, with exploitation at work, with low pay, with attacks on your pensions - you can fight that stuff and you can win. I'd like them to take that message forward, when they go into the world of full-time work. I'd like them to join unions, I'd like them to take action. And I hope they can see what we're doing as a bit of a message and a bit of a modelling exercise for what they can do as well, because many of them will end up in insecure employment on low pay, and I'd really love them to take heart from what we've done and see that they can organise that in the workplace as well.
SF: I've got two quick questions to finish with, because I'm very aware you should get back to the picket line. First, what is your current message to the employer at this point in the dispute?
Jacob Mukherjee: That's a good question. So our number one demand is for no compulsory redundancies. If they were able to guarantee no compulsory redundancies, as well as an end to the restructure - that sort of fire-and-rehire programme - then we would certainly consider calling off the industrial action, even at this late stage, when it's already started. We'd have to put that to members and discuss it, of course, in a branch meeting - but they can end this dispute. And actually, having looked at the latest financial figures, we believe they have the power to do that, to end the dispute at this point. So that's really our central message is that they have the ability to end this at this point, rather than prolong it.
And the other part of the message would be if they carry on, then we'll carry on. And we'll look at further ways to take action next term, because we're not going to back down over this. We don't think it's acceptable for staff to be sacked, essentially at the behest of banks.
SF: Last question, what can we all do to help?
Jacob Mukherjee: So one of the main things that we're asking people to do is if they have the means to donate to our strike fund, three weeks is a long time. A lot of our members are on casual contracts and can be earning two or three thousand pounds a year from this employer. And also because they often have hourly-paid lecturers, you often only get paid for ten weeks of the year - if three weeks of those you're on strike, you're losing potentially a third of your income. So that's a severe hit. We're asking people to give to the strike fund, to share the link to the strike fund if they can, so that we can amass a bit of a hardship fund, to allow those more poorly-paid and casualised academics and other workers to take action. That's the main thing.
The other thing is just to help boost our message online. We have this hashtag that we're using, #goldstrike. And that reached 1.3 million people yesterday when we began using it and we began our industrial action. We've got a couple of others that we'll be rolling out. So I'd say, follow Goldsmiths UCU on whichever social media platform is your favourite and look out for announcements about online actions as well. Because I think management doesn't care as much as it likes to claim about students or about staff; what management does care about is reputation. They care about their brand image and so we've quite effectively been able to cause them some brand damage, and we'll continue to do that. And that's one way where allies and supporters can come in and help boost our message.
SF: Thanks, Jacob. That's absolutely fantastic and good luck.