Lessons From a Strike

Curt Rice considers the incongruities of being a professor on a picket line -- but is also glad to have had the experience.

June 28, 2012

On May 18 this year, my union informed me that if negotiations with the government were to break down, I would be put on strike.

With that simple message, union leaders quickly pushed so many of my buttons that I felt like the keypad on a teenager's phone during a speed-texting competition.

The negotiations did break down and from May 24 until June 7, I was indeed on strike. I went to information meetings, listened to arguments, applauded rousing speeches and stood on the picket line in windy, snowy weather.

I'm a professor and a vice president at the University of Tromsø -- the world's northernmost university. My counterparts in the United States generally aren't members of unions. I was elected to my job by faculty, staff and students of university community and -- like most public employees in Norway -- I'm a member of a union. The union negotiates with our employer -- the federal government -- on behalf of its members and if the negotiations break down, the leadership of the union can decide to strike without an authorizing vote by the membership.

My experience on strike highlights issues that apply to academics everywhere. How do we balance individualism and solidarity? How do we weigh economic concerns against academic ones? What do we bring to the bargaining table in discussions with university leadership or our public owners?

I've been thinking about these questions as I've tried to name some of those buttons that got pushed and reflected on what it means to abide by the rules of the game. I've been pondering the experience of being part of the top leadership of my university one day and a worker on strike the next.

Life in the Gray Zone

Being told to go on strike, I've realized, feels deeply at odds with the daily activity of being a researcher in the humanities; it clashes with the very personality traits that led me to choose academic life. The daily grind of research is building arguments that give new insights. We try them out in seminars, we parade them in front of colleagues at conferences, we write them up and we listen to others criticize them.

Arguments can always be improved and conclusions can always be refined. Researchers live in a gray zone. We like it there. Arguing is our business.

But a strike doesn't happen in a gray zone. It happens in a place where everything is black or white. Strike meetings are not about embracing ambiguity; they're about keeping the strikers engaged, emphasizing how bad our condition is and smugly reporting how much harm we're causing our employer.

A strike leader speaks: The government says we earn as much as people in Group X. But that doesn't matter; we're not like Group X. We're like Group Y, and we insist on being compared to them. They say it's black. We say it's white.

My inner researcher moves towards gray: Well, I can see that. In some ways you're right; we are like Group Y. But in other ways, maybe we aren't so unlike Group X either. I wonder if we could imagine a hypothetical Group Z that would be an even better point of comparison.

The strike leader has more to say: Higher education must give high salaries. To assure quality in the public sector, compensation in government jobs has to equal compensation in the private sector.

I start brainstorming for the question period: What are you actually counting as compensation? Is it just salaries or do you also try to put numbers on things like pension plans or job security? Are market pressures the same in the public and private sectors? Should that be part of the equation?

I'm not doubting the story from the strike leaders. I see their position and I think I understand their arguments.

But my job as a researcher and teacher is to help colleagues and students refine their arguments by imagining alternative solutions and asking difficult questions. In fact, it's not just my job -- it's who I am. I became a researcher because I resist the idea that someone is right and someone else is wrong. My approach to life is to move discussions into the gray zone. That's where I thrive.

Theories can always be improved upon. Better data can always be collected. Things are never black and white. Ever.

Except when you're leading a strike. When you're in that situation, you don't have time for subtle debates, for hypothetical modifications or for answering complex questions. You have to mobilize your troops; you have to make your dissatisfaction felt. I understand that. It's difficult to embrace, but I understand it.

Life on the Picket Line

Being put on strike makes me feel like I've lost my freedom. I'm forced to participate without having any choice; there was, as noted, no opportunity to vote on the government's offer. I have to loyally support the strike. I can no longer say what I think or go where I like.

If I had a job that formally included time for research -- which my current vice president job doesn't -- it could be even worse. When striking, professors with research time can't do any research activity. They can't correspond with international colleagues, can't finish long-overdue journal reviews and can't keep working on grant applications. The job of a professor is to think, to read, to write. If I were to fail to turn those things off when the union is paying my salary, I'd be a scab and would suffer consequences.

For a guy whose life is built on the notion of academic freedom without fear of reprisals, this -- as Norwegians would say -- is almost too big of a camel to swallow.

While I haven't previously found camel meat tempting, I've decided I now have to taste it. I've convinced myself that it's important and good for me to participate as my union expects me to and here's why.

Like most employees in the public sector in Norway, I made a decision to join a union. I knew when I joined that striking is one of the tools a union has; I could have studied the rules of the game better, so that the loss of freedom was less of a surprise. But I didn't and participation in the strike now is the only way to honestly accept the consequences of my earlier decision.

Participation in the strike has also given me an important leadership lesson. People who work in teams occasionally have to carry out decisions they don't understand or don't agree with. As I participate in the strike, that's what I'm doing, too. This experience will give me greater empathy and understanding when I'm back at work; it will make me a better team player. Finding useful lessons from striking has given me a new understanding of groups, collective decisions and solidarity.

I've now found one more way to reconcile my academic personality with going on strike. I'm writing. This piece has taken many days to think through and write, and it's one of my main contributions to the cause.

The buttons on my keyboard are the ones I want pushed and I want to do it myself. When I touch them, when a good sentence comes out, maybe even a good paragraph, then I feel great! That's how the strike becomes an interesting and important experience for a professor. That's how I discover the value in participating.

And when the strike is over, who knows what will happen? I might even get a publication out of it.



Curt Rice is the pro rector for research and development at the University of Tromsø. He blogs at Inside Higher Ed's University of Venus and on his own site about university leadership.


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