I had a baby on Tuesday, a strange day to give birth in Paris. It was the 13th day of a massive strike against pension reforms, and unions had called for a big day of protest. We took an Uber to the hospital on Monday evening. Across the city, entrances to the Périphérique were at a standstill. Our driver said he wouldn’t be working the next day. ‘There’s no point. Paris is going to be blocked, with protesters going from République to Nation.’
Last Wednesday, at a time when I would have been delivering an undergraduate lecture on feminism, my students organised a teach-out on some of the themes of the course: capitalism, work and reproduction. I sat at the back of a crowded seminar room in Balliol College – the Oxford colleges don’t recognise the UCU, which means that when we strike it is only with respect to our university, not college, contracts – and listened as students spoke about wages for housework and sex work, marketisation and commodification, Rosa Luxemburg and Silvia Federici.
In the BBC TV play Threads, broadcast on 23September 1984, the nuclear bomb that drops on Sheffield is something of a social leveller. Mr Kemp, an out-of-work steelworker, is badly burned in his terrace house and his young children are killed outright. But there’s little to envy in the extra few days endured by the steelworks manager Mr Beckett and his family in the sturdy cellar of their large suburban semi. Just before the bomb falls, CND activists are rounded up. Police muscle into a demonstration and snatch a trade unionist calling for a general strike. Barry Hines’s screenplay was a response to Thatcher and Reagan’s economic policies as well as their nuclear brinkmanship.
Dear Sir Alan [Langlands]: a decade ago, when my late husband, Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, was assembling his Collected Critical Writings, he decided to dedicate the work not to any single person, but ‘To the University of Leeds, in memory of Edward Boyle’. There was a reason for this. It was the Department of English at the University of Leeds, under the headship of Professor Bonamy Dobrée, that had appointed Geoffrey to a post as lecturer while he was still in his early twenties. It was at the University of Leeds that, for twenty-five years, he established himself as a poet, teacher and scholar of literature. It was at Leeds that he found the security to let his mind range, and to think and write. He was in the English Faculty at Leeds when he published his first four books of poetry; the first essay in the Collected Critical Writings was his inaugural lecture as a professor there, and the Geoffrey Hill archive now resides at the Brotherton Library. Geoffrey knew how much he owed the University of Leeds, and, reciprocally, the University recognised the degree to which he adorned it. It was Leeds that first awarded Geoffrey an honorary D.Litt. and it was at Leeds that I had the pleasure of meeting you at the memorial event that the English faculty held for him a year ago this month. All this is in my mind now as I write to urge you to consider changing your mind and your stance on the collective action by the staff of the University of Leeds.
This morning the vice chancellor sent a message to all staff of the University of Oxford: Dear Colleagues, I am writing to follow up on yesterday’s meeting in the Sheldonian which my colleagues have told me about. I was very sorry not to be there myself but I had scheduled a trip to New York on university business before the meeting of Congregation was called. In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of Council today at noon and will be recommending that Council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with Congregation’s resolution.
As feared, 21 people stood up in Congregation today to block a debate and vote on revising Oxford's position on pension reform. At least some of the 21 were university administrators, and included the pro-vice chancellor for diversity, as well as other members of Council (the university's executive body). The vice chancellor was not there.
At 2 p.m. today the University of Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, will meet in the Sheldonian Theatre. All academic staff are members of Congregation, and any twenty of them can propose a resolution for debate. For consideration today is a resolution that would revise the university's submission to Universities UK's September consultation on staff pensions. Oxford, along with Cambridge, was among the 42 per cent of employers who called for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to take 'less risk', which in practice means a shift from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension. It now appears that one-third of the employers calling for 'less risk' were constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
Next Thursday, staff at UK universities will begin a wave of strike action in defence of our pensions. Fourteen days of strikes will roll across 61 of the ‘pre-92’ universities; the other seven are being reballoted by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) as they didn’t meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act. On days not covered by the strike, we will work to contract.
This time, the colour was red. At the Women’s Marches in January, we wore pink: pink pussy hats, pink scarves and pink T-shirts with slogans like ‘Pussy Grabs Back’. But on International Women’s Day, 8 March, when women worldwide were asked to strike – both for women’s rights specifically, and more broadly against the globally ascendant far right – women wore red. On the sidewalk in New York it was easy to see who was striking or in solidarity with the strikers. There were red blouses and bags, red jumpers, red dresses, and many, many red hijabs. Red was dense downtown in the afternoon during a rally in Washington Square Park. There were red hats, coats and scarves crowding around the fountain; fathers toted daughters in red pullovers towards the playground; dogs with red leads sniffed the fire hydrants.