There is power in a union

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In September of this year, many university workers in The Netherlands started rising up against the abominable conditions many academics, non-academic university workers, and students alike face in academia. Many joined unions. In the United Kingdom, academics in November of this year again decided to picket and protested their precarious contracts, pay, and called for the protection of pensions within academia with many students picketing in solidarity. Indeed, it is clearer than ever that the majority of university staff, academic or otherwise, as well as its PhD students, are workers too and that love for the field does not preclude exploitation by bosses or dire working conditions. The fight between labour and capital within academia and wider society alike has escalated. Workers across the spectrum are uniting and unionising. In the words of Joe Hill (by way of Billy Bragg): there is power in a union.

The ivory tower – the hallowed halls of academia – are often seen through rose-tinted glasses. To many within it the work they do is indeed something they are passionate about and work often doesn’t feel like work at all. But the privilege of doing something you love, and the hallowed halls themselves, have been blinding many within and without from the decline in working conditions amongst its dwellers. Many academics are overworked. This state of continual working is, amongst other things, caused by scarcity of permanent academic positions, precarious contracts, the pressure to ‘publish or perish’, and also the internalisation of the neoliberal instinct to see each other as competition. We have normalised working in uncertain conditions on temporary contractsPhD students – who aren’t actually students but workers too – suffer from mental health issues, and there are ever slimming chances of getting a job within the hallowed halls that many of us hold dear. However much we might want to pretend that we are not the same as other workers in other sectors, the facts suggest otherwise.

Union membership in The Netherlands has been declining. The decline in union membership is a trend seen in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom as well. At the same time, workers across the spectrum have been seeing a decline in their working conditions, increase in precarious contracts, and stagnating wages. The decline in union membership, and in some cases their bargaining power, has not come out of nowhere but is the result of systematic policies. Many people, especially young people, may believe that unions are therefore an anachronism and have no relevance to the life of a modern worker. I believe nothing could be further from the truth. Organised labour gave us the five day workweek and many other gains. Both in academia and outside of it, the need for workers to organise against exploitative bosses and bad government policy is more pertinent than it has been in a very long time.

Both in academia and outside of it, the need for workers to organise against exploitative bosses and bad government policy is more pertinent than it has been in a very long time.

If we are going to organise against austerity, against the dismantling of our universities and gutting of public services, against precarious contracts – if we are going to organise against the exploitation by capital of our labour – we, within academia’s ‘hallowed halls’, are going to have to understand that we are not somehow better that other workers or the exception to the rule. The time to stand in solidarity with other workers who are striking, picketing, speaking up and fighting for better conditions (whether it’s health workersteachers, transport workers or others) has come. We can change the system not just for ourselves, but for each other with each other.

I believe that academia and its promises are worth saving. There is such passion for its reform within many of its workers, academic or otherwise, because we value education, research, and curiosity. In this moment of awakening and awareness of our conditions, and that of our fellow workers across different sectors, it is imperative that we stand in solidarity with each other and that we use our collective bargaining power to make life better for everyone involved. Trade unions have a great history of protecting, fighting, and gaining (for) our rights. They are not obsolete, but instead can help us progress. Solidarity between workers of all stripes is the only thing that will move us forward. There is power in a union, indeed.

#MeToo in academia

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In the last couple of months, the stories of sexual harassment of women in the workplace have been ubiquitous. The catalyst for this were the Harvey Weinstein allegations, and subsequently the popularisation of the #MeToo hashtag in October 2017. Hollywood’s women have been brave enough to come out with their stories of sexual harassment and assault, with many women across the world chiming in. Even though the spotlight has mainly been on Hollywood and its perps, there is also a sexual harassment problem in academia.

For women in academia things are already tough. The STEM fields, in particular, remain heavily male-dominated. As mentioned in my previous blog post, the upper echelons of academia are still largely male. This is a problem in and of itself, with sexist incidences not being uncommon. One prominent example of this was the unfortunate incident in which Dr Tim Hunt suggested we segregate labs by gender. This might have been a lighthearted joke to him, but naturally in the context of a heavily male-dominated field it garnered a lot of backlash.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has rightfully raised some questions about the state of sexual misconduct in academia. In November media outlets reported that a Boston University professor sexually harassed his, then, student whilst on a field trip to Antarctica. Jane Willenbring bravely came forward, but this is not an isolated incident. There are others. Others like the anonymous academic writing in The Guardian (Dec. 2017) in which she talks about being sexually harassed at conferences. In this article, she clearly points out something that has been at the core of all of the sexual misconduct allegations: power imbalances.

Feminist analysis has long noted that power is one of the driving forces behind sexual assault and other kinds of violence against women and girls. This power manifests itself in many ways in patriarchy (I know! The scary p-word!), and power explains everything from the perp’s thrill to the reason why victims often remain silent. Vulnerable women in academia (and politics, Hollywood, and everywhere else) are often propositioned by men in positions of power (tenured and published professors, older politicians, managers and CEOs, big directors, husbands they are dependent on etc.), and threatened with the ruining of their careers if they dare speak out about it. Having more women in positions of power is not the panacea, but as we live in a world in which women are still largely disadvantaged, are subject to sex-based violence, and are underrepresented in positions of power, it would likely be a small step in the right direction.

As female academics are pushed out of the academy, and those that remain are still severely underrepresented in the upper echelons, it is easier for those with ill will to abuse the power they have. However much we, who love the academy, might like to think that we are above things like this, we aren’t. The culture of silence, and the lack of female representation as mentors and professors, are things we have to deal with if we want to banish sexual misconduct from the academy. Of course this is part of a wider, and more systemic, climate of violence against women and girls that knows no borders, but as scholars; scientists; innovators; mentors and teachers in, perhaps, one of the world’s worthiest institutions, we have a particular responsibility to lead the way in fighting against injustice within our own ivory towers. The rest of the world might just follow suit.