>The Association of…. Actually Pretty Useful Tactics

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Like many lecturers I have a slightly jaundiced view of our union, the Association of University Teachers, but loyally pay the subs every month anyway. Like much political and social organization in modern ‘advanced democracies’, the AUT is driven by a small self-contained core of activists and officials, whose world of meetings and campaigns is rather detached from that of the large passive grassroots membership, who occasionally vote in elections, struggling (if they are anything like me) to choose between candidates with fairly indistinguishable positions and activist credentials. A kind kind of Stealth Democracy in miniature, if you will.

Occasionally, the AUTs politics generate some heat as with its much publicized (later reversed) boycott of Israeli universities, but this this sadly more akin to the politics of a student union – irrelevant, self-important and fractious – than anything that really engages me. Many people of my acquaintance see the AUT as part toothless but necessary watchdog, part expensive personal insurance policy. Others see little point but join or stay in out of a kind of residual social democratic sentiment that unions are useful organization and a feeling – that I share – they would not like to free-ride on others. A few, mainly of an slightly older generation are union stalwarts. A few (non- or ex-members) regard the organization with a degree of contempt. Fifteen quid a month is, after all, the price of an Italian meal, as one cynic noted to me.

She has a point. The decline in lecturers’ pay that the union rightly hammers home to us year on year is evidence not only of the slow hollowing out of higher education, but also the basic lack of bargaining power by lecturers and university staff. We are not train drivers – they are more concentrated, less diverse, more bound by workplace solidarity and better able to take disruptive action, and, of course, slightly better paid. My first experience of this, the AUT’s 2003 campaign of one day strikes and threatened assessment boycott, seemed to illustrate the lack of industrial muscle all too well- a damp squid, exaggeratedly militant in tone, poorly co-ordinated with other unions, and quickly stymied when members saw some cash on the table and voted to take the money. The sobriquet Association of Useless Tactics coined I think in the THES seemed sadly all too appropriate.

In 2006 the scenario is in some ways being re-run. Our employers do not seem to be sharing out the (admittedly rather limited amount of) cash from extra top fees as fairly as they might. AUT members voted for a one day strike and ‘action short of a strike’ – meaning a boycott of exams and coursework. Now the exam season is upon us and the assessment boycott is really happening. Except, of course, that it isn’t – at least not as far as I can see from my small corner of academia, where exam papers and dissertations are circulating fairly freely. This is of course in some ways to be expected. As last week’s THES estimated AUT membership is patchy, ranging from 80% at some institutions to 30% or less at others with significant variation across departments. Moreover some AUT members to my certain knowledge are not observing the boycott. Some say “ Well, we’ll have to mark it all eventually anyway”. Others (including me) are afraid of swinging pay deductions – Vice Chancellors are unsurprisingly starting to reach for the heavy caliber weaponry, as they said would.

Only now, however, do I start to see an unanticipated cleverness in the boycott tactic, which turns the weakness of lecturers as a group – the rather isolated, autonomous nature of their work – into a potential strength. Only a small critical mass of people, I realized, actually need observe the action for the complex examining, marking, and degree award process – tightly timetabled and administratively complicated at the best of times – to start to go off the rails. Few people will know who amongst their colleagues is taking ‘action short of a strike’ until black holes start to appear to marksheets in early June. The issue of the dispute is always raised in rather guarded terms and is something of taboo subject I sense. It may, I suspect, be difficult for the long bureaucratic chain of command typical of many university management structures to gain an accurate real time picture of how marking is (or is not) progressing

Rome never looks where she treads…

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