My Privilege, Your Stories, Our Fight

Since becoming Northumbria UCU Branch Chair, I have spent a lot of time saying to people, honestly and humbly, what a privilege it is to have been elected. I'm fired up about helping in the fight for fairness, decency, and dignity at work and in the wider world. It is a fight that many, many others, past and present, have made their own, and it is at the core of the trade union movement. But what a fight it is.

We live in a society which even the UN sees as causing and suffering 'systematic' poverty (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48354692 ). Poverty reflects inequality: compared to other developed countries, the UK has a hugely unequal distribution of income, with the poorest fifth of society having only 4% of the total income, while the top fifth have 47% (https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk). Work should counteract poverty, but doesn't because inequality, low pay and precarious work go hand-in-hand, as Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison (The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, 2019) and Melanie Simms (What Do We Know and What Should We Do About the Future of Work?, 2019) show. Likewise, universities should counteract inequality, but all too often don't (see John Holmwood, A Manifesto for the Public University, 2011). In fact, inequality takes many pervasive and intersectional forms in our sector: for example, there are only 25 black female professors in the UK ( https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10075/Staying-Power/pdf/UCU_Rollock_February_2019.pdf ).

 Now, as we enter into a pay ballot, issues of low or depressed salaries, and inequality (in pay and otherwise) come into focus. But even if we thought we were lucky enough to be fairly paid for doing more-or-less secure work we love, many of those we teach or share our lives and communities with are not so fortunate: ‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be young, women, students or those in part-time employment.’ (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/23/number-of-zero-hours-contracts-in-uk-rose-by-100000-in-2017-ons). There’s a reason why the Students’ Union have set up food banks.

With a no-deal Brexit threatening to trash workers’ rights (to say nothing of environmental safeguards), no university is an ‘ivory tower’ cut off from the problems beyond its walls, especially not one so involved in and committed to the regions it serves like Northumbria. If all this seems bleak, let’s remember the fight, and unions’ role in it, and ask this simple question: what makes a happy, healthy, safe, prosperous society? As Robert Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed in their ground-breaking 2009 book The Spirit Level, there’s one very convincing answer: equality There are lots of ways to achieve equality, if we want to. The Equality Trust suggests one way is through worker representation and engagement. This is integral to equality in the workplace, and unions, like yours, are integral to that (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/research/remedies).

Now, as I’ve been talking to people about the union, and listening to what people say they need from it, I’ve also had cause to reflect (and not for the first time): who am I to join in this fight? It may be my privilege, but that may also be because I’m privileged: as a white, Oxford-educated, (almost?) middle-aged man who teaches Shakespeare, I embody it. A recent tweet from PhDisillusionment makes the point well:

Quick tips on how to improve your #student #evaluations: 1) Be white 2) Be a man 3) Grow a beard, preferably a salt & pepper one to show you're distinguished 4) Don't teach any classes at 8:00 a.m. 5) Only teach upper-level electives for majors ( https://twitter.com/phdisillusion/status/1121438817435693061?lang=en)

But just as I want universities to be engines of social mobility, not tools for reinforcing inequality, so I want to be part of the solution to privilege, not the problem. And so even as I reflect on my privileged status, I also reflect on experiences like campaigning against fascists in Leeds and Bradford a few years back, when a BNP supporter looked at me and said ‘you should be marching with us’, and I responded, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.

I was Oxford-educated, but I went to a large state comprehensive. My time as a student, and later as a tutor at the same place, only sharpened my view of how deep-rooted inequality is in our society and education. I am white, but no ethnicity is homogenous. My dad arrived in 1950s Newcastle aged 7, on a ship in the dock opposite what is now the Baltic, the son of a post-war ‘economic migrant’ from Denmark. He didn’t speak a word of English (let alone Geordie). He’d never even seen a hill before. As one-time UNISON branch secretary, he went on to work for Rochdale council, devoting his life to helping other newcomers and the communities they found themselves in get a fair deal for housing. My mum grew up as one of a family of Yugoslav refugees in West Yorkshire, where what used to be called Serbo-Croat was her mother tongue. She worked as a nurse, mostly on nights, from the age of 16. As the son of two public-sector workers, with backgrounds like these, in the north of England in the turbulent 1980s, politics was part of everyday life. I breathed in the importance of respect, tolerance, and diversity and I try to uphold my parents’ values now, not least in my work for UCU’s members.

And yes, I teach Shakespeare, but mostly I learn from great writers like him, and the students I work with. And what do I learn? Well, to ask questions about how power operates in the world we live in, like ‘What is the city but the people?’ (Coriolanus). I know there are no easy answers to such questions, especially not in Shakespeare. But sometimes, as Greece’s ex-Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis has shown (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65AUD3usn9Q), a resolve can be found in his work that speaks to our own times of socio-economic inequality and political disempowerment: ‘distribution should undo excess’ (King Lear).

Being (almost) middle-aged, I am not as young as I used to be but I have kids and I fear for them living in a future with even more precarious working conditions and contracts, loaded with debt, where climate change has become irreversible. I also know that whether you’re having or adopting children, parental leave – including fair maternity pay – is vital. And whether you have kids or not, or other caring responsibilities, if you work in academia you know the importance of flexible working, reasonable workloads, and a healthy work-life balance. All these, sadly, can be very hard to achieve when you expend all your energy and good-will trying to cope with the stress of being everything to everyone – researcher, teacher, administrator, colleague. So, I hope I understand why Northumbria UCU members want us to focus on precisely these areas in the months and years ahead.

Reflecting on the work of the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, the authors of a recent book suggest ‘Equality would mean securing privilege for all’ (Keywords for Today, 2018). Let’s aim for that, shall we, using the skills and experience within and beyond our brilliant branch? Because, like privilege, political identity and political education can take many forms. We all have our own stories about what has brought us here, to do the work we do, to live the convictions we hold dear, and to write or read a blog like this. This is my story. But what’s yours?

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