The Winter of Discontent
Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer by er, Someone? Anyone?
It’s really cold and everyone’s striking, and all this sounds vaguely familiar.
I was born in the middle of the Winter of Discontent, the cold, bleak winter of 1978-1979. I had no idea at the time of course but if you look up anything about that winter, it makes for pretty grim reading. Rubbish bags piled up in the streets and dead bodies piled up unburied as strikes by public sector workers became widespread. Of course, this had no direct effect on newborn me, but I have long been against striking. I have long believed that it does not make any difference, merely causing heartache and grief for the strikers and their families, for very little reward.
I have always maintained that striking is utterly pointless – but whilst those around me support putting down their stethoscopes and writing pens and picking up placards, I support their right to do so and I’m happy to have my mind changed, if it works.
As a postgraduate student, I have no classes today. I should have been learning about research methodology in historical studies. OK, it’s not the sexiest of subjects when there are Kings and Queens and beheadings and battles and syphilis to learn about, but you need the nuts and bolts classes too. Well, I’m not having a nuts and bolts class this week because my lecturer (and his colleagues, the librarians and admin guys) are taking industrial action over the proposed plan for them to be crapped on from a great height. An email to my lecturer came back with an out of office reply stating that he was sorry he couldn’t reply straight away as “he was supporting the UK-wide strike against the plan to decimate the academic pension”. He put it more eloquently than I did.
Yes, it has cost me a lot of money to be here. Yes, I am mildly irritated, but I would rather that money went to the people who are making a difference to me and my life. It’s lining someone’s pocket but definitely not theirs. I’m just still not convinced that striking will help anyone.
There will be people queuing up to show me examples of when striking has worked. Don’t think I started pondering this without looking for some myself. My favourite has to be the Liverpool gravediggers during that 1970s winter. They agreed to a 14% pay rise after two weeks of letting the bodies pile up. Apparently, people don’t like the thought of piles of bodies awaiting burial. The problem for lecturers (and university staff) is that I’m not sure anyone gives a stuff about the effect of all this on students or university/academic work.
Even the junior doctors walking out didn’t change anything at all. I watched from my comfortable #HuntFreeZone in Scotland as doctors (including some friends) in England got nowhere and I was clear in my conviction that if I was in England, that I would NOT have gone on strike. It was an easy stand to take when it wasn’t my working hours or my patient’s safety being threatened. I am very much aware that this puts me in a position of privilege. Don’t mistake that privilege for a lack of sympathy. I support them, and I support their action, doing what they think is necessary. I just don’t think there’s any hope for a decent result.
Without a class to go to, I went along to a Teach-Out arranged as part of the protest, in a very cold church hall outside the university grounds. A bunch of students standing in solidarity with the handful of lecturers, all shivered together. The talk, about the local history of protest, was very interesting and thought provoking. I learned new things, but I couldn’t help but conclude that our local history of protest has never been terribly successful. It felt more about the struggle than the desired result. Perhaps that was confirming my own bias, but it wasn’t helping the cause. I would rather have been in my classroom across the street.
It has been 39 years since the Winter of Discontent. It is freezing, it is snowing, and I am working at home today. Nothing changes. I am yet to be convinced of the point or usefulness of strike action.
Now nurses – if they went on strike…