13 September 2023

Strategy, Temporality and Collective Learning: An Alternative Proposal for the Future of UCU Campaigns in the UK

by Demet Sahende Dinler

The views are solely my own and do not represent the views of my branch. I appreciate the constructive criticisms and suggestions of UCU colleagues and friends who commented on the first version of this piece. Special thanks to the inspiring conversations I have had with Alice Corble, Arabella Stanger, Ben Rogaly, Ciaran Clark, Danny Millum, David Harvie, Jane Holgate, Jo Pawlik, Katy Fox-Hodess, Lara Coleman, Malcolm James, Mario Novelli, Mariya Ivancheva, Mark Pendleton, Nimi Hoffmann, Panagiotis Sotiris, Sam Solomon, Sophia Lycouris, Susan Kelly, Tom Cowin, Will Lock. I learnt the most when disagreements and different angles challenged me. All errors are mine. 


University College Union (UCU) has been in a pay and working conditions (casualisation, workloads, inequality) dispute since 2019 in a campaign also known as “4 Fights”. Until April 2023, this campaign was conducted jointly with the campaign to restore pension rights, which had started in 2018. The union engaged in a series of industrial action in 2019/2020, 2021/2022 and 2022/2023 for 4 Fights. In April 2023, the majority of UCU membership agreed to proceed without action due to improved negotiations over the restoration of benefits in the pensions campaign. But they rejected the very limited offer of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which did not make sufficient improvements to the pay and conditions of university workers. Union members undertook a national marking boycott over the summer period and faced extremely punitive salary deductions. The refusal of employers to negotiate resulted in a non-offer.

After so much sacrifice by membership over a period of four years of industrial action, the only choice at that juncture may seem like continuing to fight back immediately and giving up (or postponing action to an unknown future). It is perhaps not surprising that the union opted for more strike action before the end of the mandate targeting welcome week and renewing the ballot in September 2023. This decision is compatible with the general habit of the union to launch a ballot, use it as an opportunity to recruit more members and engage in further industrial action.

In this intervention, I will argue that alternative options beyond this binary (now or never, further strike, or giving up) are possible if we revisit our familiar tactics and strategies. I will defend a case for a long-term plan based on industry research, workers’ inquiry, collective learning, strategy discussion fora, redesign of campaign demands. While defending this position, I would like to express my respect for all union friends and colleagues who endorse continued industrial action. There is not one absolute truth valid for all times in union politics, our diverse views have their own moment of truth in different times (what I oppose here will be the right option at another time, for example) and strategically better positions can only arise from a shared dialogical imagination and relativising of our partial perspectives. Hopefully the perspective in this piece contributes to a genuine dialogue for our shared cause – better working/learning conditions and a more democratic, equitable higher education.

The piece is organised in five sections: First, against the commitment to the same type of action which assumes a linear understanding of time, I highlight the significance of multiple and non-linear temporalities of class struggle. I show how campaigns can have different timings for grassroot organising and action, depending on their context and specific needs. I also defend radical self-care as an integral component of the broader ecology of collective action, necessitating the responsible replenishing of activist energies and resources over time rather than over-exploitation. Second, I argue that we need to analyse carefully the specificity of the employers in this dispute, by putting their tactics into the context of struggle. I propose the launch of a Workers’ Inquiry inspired by the Italian autonomist tradition of factory struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, by further expanding its meaning and scope in our circumstances. Third, I indicate the need to address the strategic learning deficit in our union by launching UCU Strategy Discussion Fora to engage UCU members in a process of collective learning by mobilising our creative capacities. Fourth, I defend a redesign of the 4 Fights Campaign informed by local branch struggles, by making clear, relatable demands and giving greater agency to members. Finally, by using the specific example of Re-Imagining the University Workshops at Sussex, I try to rethink the strategy of refusal as a radical political imaginary for higher education. The article concludes with a possible roadmap for the future of our campaign,

Although this essay is specific to the UCU, I hope the insights I derive can speak to broader strategic thinking and campaigning for further struggles. I write the piece in my capacity as a UCU activist and rep, who had long years of experience of organising, training, researching in local and global labour movements. Whenever relevant, I choose the examples illustrating my points from my own first-hand experience as an activist.

1. Temporality of class struggle is non-linear; grassroot organising with radical self-care generates a sustainable union.

One drive behind immediate reballot and industrial action is the understandable concern that we may lose momentum. Yet, this concern is underpinned by a linear approach to struggles: We fight back constantly until we win. One more push and we will get there. This is what we did, for example last year: Right after employers cut our pensions despite industrial action which lasted ten days, our union declared ten more days of action within the mandate during March 2022. We did not even have a chance to reflect on what happened. Not only we had limited participation, but we also lost ballots in several universities in the subsequent period.

Temporality of struggles does not pursue a linear teleological path. Things change during action. Our actions and employer reactions generate many anticipated and unanticipated, positive and negative consequences: Our energies are uplifted and depleted, our funds increase and decrease, our support among the broader community consolidates and weakens, our members get enthusiastic and disengaged, employers negotiate and do not move at all, our strategy works in certain ways and fails in others, we win in certain areas and lose in others. That is why we need to assess the impact, risks and unforeseen circumstances at each step of our campaigns. We need to question our rigid assumptions and look at things from counter-intuitive angles to be able to alter the future course of events to our advantage.

In this honest and genuine account of why they prefer a longer-term strategy rather than an immediate re-ballot, Edinburgh UCU Branch members Sophia Woodman and Sophia Lycouris explain the amount of time and energy we spend on delivering a ballot in local branches. Although coming from the specific context of a branch, I believe their points resonate many other activists: Winning student support, doing all the logistical tasks on our checklist to reach the threshold, engaging members to take action (not simply to vote for action), building broader community support to widen alliances, coordinating financial resources to keep going. We can add to this list how further energies are also needed to organise the logistics, pickets, picket rotas, teach-outs, public demonstrations, staff-solidarity actions, social media communications, allocation of local fighting funds to address inequalities around class, gender, race and disability. At this very juncture, we need to ask to what extent human and financial resources are available to meet those requirements for an action which did not yield desired results.

Collective action adds so much to our lives, but it also leads to activist fatigue. It is not healthy to build a strategy on endless sacrifice (which unsustainable workloads already inflict to our lives). We need more radical self-care for a sustainable union and brighter future, as Angela Davis reminds us: “Anyone who is interested in making change in the world must also learn how to take care of herself”. “If we don’t start practicing collective self-care now there’s no way to imagine, much less reach, a time of freedom.” Anger and frustration with the employer remain important emotions driving action, but they can also generate blind spots for a roadmap. Instead, what delivers success in the long run is serious calculation of risks, fair division of labour and joyous engagement with union work according to our diverse capacities. We need to replenish our energies and organise more members in actively getting involved in the union, a task we failed to achieve due to the urgency of immediate union tasks (stopping compulsory redundancies for example) and highly demanding Get the Vote Out (GTVO) cycles in the past five years. We need to encourage each other not to neglect the activities which are important to our well-being and loved ones.

GTVO campaigns are often considered as a tool of recruiting new members. However, recruitment (increasing the number of people who join the union) and grassroot organising (enabling members’ involvement in union tasks, local campaigns, strategic thinking and shaping union policy) are not the same thing, as Jane Holgate explains forcefully in Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence. The latter requires collective learning through both mundane union activities and training in our local branches. Strikes are vehicles of political education too, but long-term sustainable member engagement expects members to take an active role in the design of demands, tactics informing union policy. And this requires, at that moment of our campaign in my view, withdrawing from the central battlefield for a while and nurturing, resting, fertilising and caring for our internal garden back home. Within our own union.

A temporary withdrawal from the central field is not to lose momentum. It is to recognise what we won and what we lost, accept that we could not exert the necessary power to shift employer positions or stop their undermining strategies in this current round, and prepare for building momentum in future rounds. Temporary withdrawal is not to give up action. It is to take a series of different actions at a slower pace, which will prepare us for more effective and stronger action with the capacity to weaken employer power.

Temporality dynamics can change from one context to another. Sometimes seizing the moment without too much preparation may be the right answer when previously unorganised workers experiment with new forms of action as in Starbucks case. Or there would be times when the autonomy of the “political” precedes history and breaks the mechanical time of progress with rupture: it would be too late if action is not taken right now, as Daniel Bensaid shows us in his analysis attuned to multiple temporalities of politics.

In other times, when employers are likely to sabotage action and workers are suspicious about organising, it may be more sensible to wait for the right time, because premature action can be detrimental to long-term organising. For example, DADDER, Turkish Association of Seafarers, which is an affiliate of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), had to wait for quite a while before taking industrial action. This “waiting” involved taking a series of other actions such as slowly organising casualised seafarers during their maritime training courses, building long-term relationships of trust and investing in education. Following years of grassroot organising, they launched effective actions with 800 members ready to act and paying fees, and signed 152 collective bargaining agreements on ships in the course of a year. They also used institutional legal power effectively to sue ship owners for unpaid wages, which further built confidence and loyalty in new members.

In our sector, at that juncture, we also need time, time to analyse our past actions, existing weaknesses and turn them into strengths. A heroic determination to fight at any costs is not a strength, recognising structural weaknesses and working on them is. The industrial actions we have taken over five years reveal areas for further work to obtain stronger leverage. In an inspiring piece on strategic targeted action, Katy Fox-Hodess, David Harvie, Mariya Ivancheva, Sophia Lycouris and Mark Pendleton identify potentials we can exploit. Their ideas resonate with conversations I have had with various UCU members. For example, “Principal investigators who are mostly established academics could put spokes in the wheels of funding streams if there is an organised respite and delay on outputs, reporting, and the next round of funding application. Additionally, we should consider potential strategic choke points that could be exercised by professional services staff, particularly those in key roles in the university, such as IT services, administration, and admissions/recruitment.” In a recent intervention, The University Worker also argues that we need to organise universities as a whole, from academics to maintenance workers by establishing campus strike committees by all unions.

These suggestions require organising workers who are not represented sufficiently by our branches and collaborating with other unions. We would need membership listing and mapping, for example, revealing areas where local branches are weak to target specific recruitment. We would need member-led strategic thinking exercises to identify which categories of work offer the best leverages. We could learn methods of organising and empowering members which are proven to work in other contexts and adjust them to our own.

There are rich sources of training geared to grassroot organising and strategic campaigning. Some examples I am familiar with include the Organising Manual by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), offering a series of detailed powerpoint materials to prepare workers to do strategic research, build organising committees, identify workplace problems, develop campaigns, based on real life case studies. The Handbook and materials, which originated in the grassroot activists’ successful experiences in the transport industry, are applicable to all sectors. Rules to Win By by Jane McAlevey and Abby Lowlor also use diverse case studies to teach mass participation to make members involved in creative negotiations. Another training programme for British Medical Association members implemented by Jane Holgate is especially interesting, because of  the success of striking junior doctors who received this training in Scotland in Autumn 2022, less than a year before they achieved an important pay win.

Training for grassroot organising does not have to be formalised or burdensome. Training can happen anywhere and anytime, in small informal gatherings and even one-to-one conversations. The training we implemented for construction workers in Turkey happened on construction sites, coffee houses or in one-to-one encounters, focussing on small, easy to learn and replicate methods responding to the needs of a particular need and conjuncture. For example, workers learnt how to do communication lists, identify health and safety risks, locate subcontractor employers, prepare petitions and develop realistic and winnable demands. In larger multinational logistics companies, training included participatory workshops where workers were invited to do a micro-sociology of the workplace, analyse customer companies, identify choke points at transfer hubs.

2. A large-scale Workers’ Inquiry can do a concrete analysis of employers’ tactics, identify our weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

We are not fighting against any generic employer, but a special type of employer in a particular context. Thus, we cannot apply a blueprint recipe to struggles in our sector. The strict discourse used during action and punitive deductions show it is vital for employers to assert their power. Refusal to talk with the union despite the risk posed to graduations, tactics to undermine action by recruiting assessors, asking non-unionised colleagues to mark assignments and imposing emergency powers to enable graduation show that quality of education/assessment are of little interest. Refusal to negotiate despite the calls from those vice chancellors who took initiative in writing joint statements with some of the union branches indicates a commitment to weaken union power.

We need to learn from these behaviors and tactics. Perhaps in this campaign with complex demands (which is different from the pensions campaign with the clear aim of restoring benefits), a frontal assault with weak leverage is not sufficient right now. Instead, until we get larger numbers for action, we can consider a battle of siege by building roads and barricades in a broader sphere of influence. It is more and more common to do industry research on key relationships in which employers/decision-makers are involved in order to identify multiple leverages and pressure points which will complement the structural power of unions. These are “financial institutions, government, regulators, politicians, suppliers, vendors, other employers, professional organisations, same industry or market customers, service users, owners, shareholders, directors, public, civil society, parents, subsidiaries, subcontractors, international organisations, middle management”, among others.

In Future Perfect, Steven Johnson compares nineteenth century French railways which were organised according to a very regular geometry and German railways which were chaotic, uncoordinated and distributed along diverse networks. During the France-Prussia war, the latter turned out to be superior because they could handle the fractal geometry of war with their capacity to carry logistics, people and information through a distributed network. When one network failed, others could be used. We can create such distributed networks suitable to the fractal geometry of real-life battles in our own sector.

Legendary workers’ leader and political thinker from Italian operaismo tradition Mario Tronti who passed away on 7 August this year argued that workers’ struggles have been formidable information conduits for capital, because capital restructured its operations by learning from our struggles. According to Matteo Mandarini, it is not always clear whether workers were able to do the same by learning from struggles with capital. Mandarini reminds of the importance of workers’ inquiry and co-research in the Italian tradition as vehicles to mobilise for a revolutionary epistemology.

Rather than engaging immediately in further industrial action, UCU can launch a large-scale Workers’ Inquiry to analyse the current situation and produce knowledge which will inform mobilisation. In co-research political mobilisation and production of knowledge are not separated, they are mutually constitutive. Our local branches in various universities have already demonstrated how much information they can produce to support collective fight. Cross-fertilisation and dissemination of successful practices are needed to maximise their effect. Think about the brilliant LSE UCU casualisation report that generated a creative algorithm which other branches could use for their own context and raised the profile of our demand on casualisation. Or think about how governance bodies in some universities were able to resist emergency powers university managers enforced to enable graduation despite missing marks and undermine our action, whereas others failed. One good example was the University of Cambridge Regent House, which voted against emergency powers. We can also reflect on the differences of deduction levels between universities during the marking boycott. For example the University of Sussex limited salary deductions to 25 per cent and recently agreed to pay back all deductions after the boycott ended thanks to negotiations conducted by the UCU Sussex Branch. Or, we can investigate how coalitional power with students could be mobilised in certain universities such as Edinburgh more than others.

Behind successful achievements, there is a lot of local branch work in analysing university managers, building coalitions, innovating, using the strength they built over the years on their campuses. In our context the meaning of a Workers’ Inquiry can be expanded to include this knowledge coming from the creativity and hard work of our members. We can register, share, celebrate and spread these innovations and tactics.

3. Strategy-building is an evolving learning experiment rather than a blueprint: The possibility of UCU Strategy Discussion Fora

In Critique of Forms of Life Rahel Jaeggi argues that different forms of life (defined as institutionalised forms of aggregations of ensembles of economic/cultural/political practices from family to capitalism as a whole) can be thought of as problem-solving mechanisms. The success of a form of life can be evaluated with reference to whether it enables or truncates learning. Learning is a process of trial and error. When a form of life confronts a crisis, problem-solving requires a successful learning process, which not only helps develop an understanding of the problem as such, but also enables a progressively richer and more differentiated experience of developing solutions. Learning opens possibilities to cope with the problem in the broader world which we confront and helps to generate new solutions which then qualitatively transform the form of life (either by making it richer with new experiences or by turning it into another one). The success of a form of life can be judged with respect to whether it enables or blocks learning processes.

Our organisation cuts short, rather than enabling and nurturing, collective learning to lead us to a richer, deeper, more differentiated experience of union life. We are not even invited to discuss in depth the root cause and make sense of the problems in the first place. Despite some internal differences, the only strategy available seems to be “Engage in industrial action (either gradual or indefinite) until you win and never give up”. Then the essential task becomes to recruit more members and convince them to vote yes in the ballot or consulting them with binary questions on whether they support a re-ballot or not. Those binary questions do not give any chance to discuss alternative options which can emerge from local innovations by members and to shape the nature, timing, specific details and targets of industrial action itself. Sometimes debates are framed in such a way that the main disagreement is shown as between those who are radicals committed to action and those who want to evade, compromise or give up action. This dichotomy is misplaced. A willingness to discuss alternatives does not mean “de-escalation”, but desire to try new routes when existing ones reach an impasse.

There is not an inherent radical kernel hidden in any form of action. What makes an action radical change according to circumstances. Chartism of the nineteenth century can be retrospectively seen as not radical enough for limiting its demands to a parliamentary democracy, but it was very radical to demand political citizen rights to be extended to the working class. An action becomes radical when it dares to go beyond the usual and familiar, to produce disruption on and possibly alter the existing course of events. Escalating means to increase pressure points aiming at qualitative change rather than doing more of the same. Thus, taking more industrial action at that juncture of our fights is neither escalating pressure nor radical. By contrast, experimenting with new ideas and tactics beyond our comfort zone is radical. This does not mean that different actions are substitutes for strike action. But it is to acknowledge a diverse repertoire of powers and actions available to us as I discussed previously here in my critique of indefinite strike and proposals for an alternative in January 2023. In a nutshell I proposed the concomitant use of structural power (threat of industrial action with high member involvement targeting the most vulnerable parts of the university), coalitional power (building long-term alliances with students, their families, professional disciplinary associations against employer tactics and narratives) and institutional powers (use of norms, codes of conduct, regulations and institutions at our strategic advantage) rather than focussing only on industrial action.

It may sound surprising that a union which is very resourceful and offers so many learning opportunities in various areas falls short of collective learning. UCU offers a wide range of workshops on neurodiversity, ableism, decolonising, decarbonising, casualisation, negotiations, equalities, organising, amongst others and everyone has the possibility of benefiting from these resources. But this is not the same thing as collective learning of the union as a living organism. There is a gap between making available learning sources and turning the experiments, forms of knowledge, ideas into materials to enable problem-solving and growth. This point resonates with the insights from an upcoming book Laboratories of Learning by Mario Novelli, Birgul Kutan, Patrick Kane, Adnan Celik, Tejendra Pherali and Saranel Benjamin, which ask how social movements learn and produce knowledge in various case studies from Colombia to Nepal. The authors remind the importance of closing the gap between everyday forms of action and knowledge production by activists with larger strategy building, something Novelli called “strategic pedagogy” in his previous work.

In Learning from Defeat, aimed at rethinking strategy in the light of the failure of the Greek left and government, Panagiotis Sotiris adds further insights to the problem of learning. He argues that alternative networks of solidarity were deployed by the left in an instrumental manner rather than “learning practices and experimental sites based upon the collective ingenuity of people in struggle.” All local branches which undertook action over five years can be thought of as experimental sites based upon the collective ingenuity of our members. We need to pay to each of these sites the close attention they deserve and excavate insights.

It is welcoming that since December 2022, our union members started engaging in strategic thinking grounded in insightful argumentation and evidence. I can cite a few here such as Targeted Strategic Action, Discontinuous Indefinite Action, Indefinite Strike. I agree with some and disagree with others, but they are all well-defended and teach us novel insights.

Most recently Roberto Mozzachiodi offers some fresh thinking on how casualisation in higher education calls for a strategy of refusal based on new forms of action previously unfamiliar to our sector. We do have those capacities and yet they need to be encouraged and cultivated across broader membership. What we can do this Autumn is to launch a UCU Strategy Discussion Forum to invite all interested members to engage in such thinking and propose ideas. The idea comes from Motion 41 of UCU Congress 2023, which was submitted to the Congress by my own UCU Sussex Branch, currently led by President Jo Pawlik, whose excellent negotiation skills as well as ability to work with a diversity of member views and tactics was instrumental in winning recent local campaigns. The Motion suggests the establishment of “Chatham House” type workshops accessible to all members to disseminate information on operational and legal constraints faced by UCU, share different views on industrial action strategy and attend motion-writing sessions to empower members to influence UCU policy. The Congress did not have a chance to discuss the motion, we can still put the idea into practice and see what it brings to us.

During these fora, there are plenty of examples we can derive from history and contemporary trade unions in order to explore shifting, diversifying strategies. TUMTIS, the Turkish road transport workers’ union lost several fights in organising logistics workers in multinational companies with their traditional methods (direct action which worked in local cargo companies) before they changed their strategy into engaging in campaigns coordinated by global federations. This meant combining strategic research with the use of coalitional and institutional power together with associational power. They were criticised for being bureaucratic and less radical at the beginning, but today they have collective bargaining agreements in large multinational companies and launch new organising campaigns every year. In Brazil, a traditional rural trade union anticipated the future and changed its organising strategy. Rather than facilitating access to land, they targeted higher wages and better conditions for rural workers who were being recruited by global horticultural supply chains. Who can say the first one became less radical and the second one more?

ITF Organising Manual reminds some patterns in the way campaigns fail: Incomplete buy-in by workers, the fact that the campaign message does not appeal to the public and most importantly lack of strategic thinking and use of familiar tactics, “when we go through the list of what is usually done and then repeat these activities without thinking about whether they will be effective or strategic.” UCU Strategy Fora can be the place to think beyond the familiar tactics and experiment with unfamiliar ones.

In a forthcoming article “Breaking the Impasse: Reflections on University Workers Organising in the UK” to be published in Global Labour Journal, Katy Fox-Hodess, David Harvie and Mariya Ivancheva offer insights similar to this approach and advance them further. By criticising the existing structures which preclude the possibility of open and honest discussion and formulation of “strategy from below” the authors argue that we need spaces for such discussion in order to go beyond workplace disputes and address through a long-term strategy the inequitable and unworkable funding model of higher education. As they put it so brilliantly, “without these spaces, we are left to rely on the fantasy that organizing momentum can be conjured out of thin air through inflated rhetoric, rather than through the hard graft and day-in, day-out work of grassroots organizing.”

4. We can take stock from and galvanise local campaigns; reformulate the national campaign with clear, relatable demands. 

Our local branches have won important campaigns in the past few years from stopping compulsory redundancies (Sussex, Kent, Liverpool) to having significant wins in working conditions. Here is a list of the wins of the 2022 marking boycott at Sussex. Our working groups negotiated new doctoral tutor contracts, regulations to keep working load at sustainable levels, improvements and better prospects for fixed-term contracts. For example, Sussex Senate approved the rule that “No faculty member should be allocated more than a full-time workload (1.0 FTE), or pro rata according to employment contract, unless agreed by the employee”. “In cases where a workload allocation does go beyond the full-time workload, as agreed by the member of staff, the extra hours/workload should be clearly recognised, addressed, and compensated in a reasonably equivalent way, for example through an equal reduction in workload in the subsequent year.” Or, as part of Sussex campaign to recognise the role of post graduate researchers as staff and improve their working conditions led by UCU PGR reps Tom Cowin, Nat Arias and Kam Meakin, a new local win on grade uplift was made possible: From September 2023, demonstrators and doctoral roles currently on Grade 5, which is over half of the tutors at Sussex, leading workshops and labs in Sciences are being uplifted to Grade 6. The recently implemented Goldsmiths Framework Agreement which assimilates hourly paid staff into the pay spine is also another good example of what local negotiations can achieve. We can make an inventory of all those wins from our sister branches, think about how we can consolidate those wins in broader branches.

Demand formulation is a very important part of member engagement, something 4 Fights campaign has neglected. Thus, I agree with the claim in The University Worker that demands of 4 Fights should come from a bottom-up approach and members need to have ownership of the demands they are prepared to fight for. Absence of specific concrete demands weakens campaigns, because the broader communities we try to ally with need to have a sense of what they support. For a long time, we did not have a clear sense of what we are fighting for apart from “improvements in pay” or “plan to reduce workloads and casualisation”, because we delegated and deferred concrete demands to the bargaining process itself.

We can differentiate what can be achieved locally and nationally and be more strategic in using local wins to inform national campaigns. Our negotiators can help frame the debate with the progress they made so far, and members can engage in a debate on the question of “What would a win in a campaign on pay and working conditions look like” to set the terms and conditions of the campaign from the very outset. We can collectively set specific targets and make demands more tangible rather than leaving them simply to the process of negotiation.

5. Re-imagining an alternative university can be a constitutive component of a strategy of refusal. 

It is time to revisit Tronti again. While recognising the importance of economic and social struggles, Tronti thought that their nature was inevitably “politically retarded”, as formulated by Mandarini. In fact, Tronti argued that workers’ struggles which emerged from the problems internal to capitalism, often helped reduce or resolve the contradictions of capital. That is why he defended a Strategy of refusal, refusal to be part of capital and its contradictions. A refusal to work, a refusal to cooperate, a refusal to be “dead labour”.

What would a strategy of refusal look like in the contemporary factory of higher education today? I would argue that a refusal to be the university factory worker could be re-formulated as a strong impulse and desire to be someone else, who enjoys their individual autonomy and contribution to collective/public good in science and education. This means the question of refusal would be a question of re-appropriating the alienated forms of university structures as our own and transforming them. Such a position is also compatible with how Ruth Wilson-Gilmore understands abolition not simply as a process of negation but as a process of creating new forms of being, relating to the world, producing, caring for others.

During February and March 2023 strikes, Sussex UCU Branch organised a series of staff/student workshops called “Re-imagining the University with and beyond strikes”. The eloquently simple questions were formulated by our colleague Will Lock who also co-facilitated the workshops with me: “What do we want from the university?” and “How do we get there?” The answers to the first question turned into the components of a draft collective manifesto on an alternative university we want to work in, which also inspired a creative collage workshop curated by Alice Corble and a staff/student solidarity zine connecting radical legacies of Sussex to contemporary activism.

Re-imaging the University workshops Feb/March 2023Re-imaging the University workshops Feb/March 2023

Pictures: Re-imagining the University workshops, February/March 2023, University of Sussex (Credit: Demet Dinler and Alice Corble)
Pictures: Re-imagining the University workshops, February/March 2023, University of Sussex (Credit: Demet Dinler and Alice Corble)

Although I cannot do justice to the rich discussions and diverse views involving so many participants, I would like to offer my take of the workshops in order to illustrate my point about how alternative imaginaries can drive strategic debates.

The first pillar of an alternative university could be to treat education as public good. As Lara Coleman reminds, our union should have been pro-active in a campaign for public education against the increase of fees back in 2010 and without defending a campaign for publicly funded education, it is hard to promote our other demands on working and learning conditions. The second one is transparent university finances from open and participatory budget to labour and environment friendly procurement processes. This principle implies resources should be allocated in a way to make sure everyone at the university has sufficient time to think, read, write, innovate, enjoy and care. The third one involves fair, egalitarian forms of social reproduction such as affordable housing and food, which can be provided by workers’ cooperatives set within university structures. The fourth one is to introduce democratic, accountable governance bodies. The fifth one is to remove disciplinary boundaries between Arts and Sciences with a strong commitment not to make some departments redundant when market demand is low. This means, in the specific case of Sussex, to go back to our roots, when our founding scientists such as John Maynard Smith introduced the principle of Arts students taking mandatory Sciences and Sciences students taking mandatory Arts courses. The sixth one is to remember colonial legacies and re-activate radical histories of our institutions to nurture decolonial, egalitarian futures.

These radical imaginaries share the purpose of socialising what has been captured and alienated by capital. Rather than being pushed to a distant future, something which would happen after we secure some economic rights, they can be part of a union strategy here and now, from mundane curriculum changes to local demands on greater control over our time and more democratic decision-making processes in our departments and professional units. Perhaps this is also where we can find much deeper connections with all other workers who resist the conditions imposed on them – nurses, doctors, bus drivers, barristers, cleaners – in the courage to think that the order of things can be otherwise: a different system of education, health, transport…etc. is possible.

Conclusion: A possible roadmap (among others)

Let me return to where I started. The choice we have does not have to be binary. The alternative to action is not inaction. The alternative is to engage in a series of other actions which will generate joyful, sustainable, well-grounded campaigns with maximum member involvement. At any time during this process, we can take industrial action as well if necessary, at the right time.

Here is a possible initial roadmap (among others):

Phase 1: Curiosity

Inquiry, Local Analysis and Collective Learning

-Launch Workers’ Inquiry to collect information on the following themes:

  • Membership mapping to determine and target low density areas
  • Analysis of local employers, campaigns and wins
  • Local stories of successful strategies to reverse employer tactics during industrial action and failures
  • Collecting workplace and nation-wide demands which matter the most to members

-Launch Grassroot Organising and Training Campaign:

  • Implement trainings which have been proven to be successful for grassroot organising
  • Make the best effective use of resources (for example enabling experienced activists who had training as peers to train peers)
  • Test organising ideas in local campaigns and negotiations
  • Reflect on how local organising can align more with the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion

-Launch Strategy Discussion Fora on the following themes:

  • Self-reflexive analysis of industrial strategy in the past five years
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of our union
  • Commission research needed to inform strategy discussion
  • Strategic analysis of national employer and sector
  • Develop a set of diverse strategies to discuss collaboratively
  • Bring lessons from experiences of other sectors in strategy-building
  • Discuss the building blocks of long-term plan to build an alternative to existing higher education funding and structures


Phase 2: Consolidation

Nation-wide Analysis, Demand Formulation and Coalition-Building

  • Compile and analyse the results of Workers’ Inquiry and Strategy Discussion Fora
  • Continue grassroot organising and training in key strategic areas
  • Coalition-building with students and their families by following successful examples
  • Start aggregating winnable demands for national campaigns
  • Develop long-term strategy on higher education

Phase 3: Praxis

Preparation, Action Points, Campaign Launch

  • Re-design the campaign with concrete, meaningful and relatable demands
  • Build a strong public narrative appealing to broader audience
  • Calculate possible unintended consequences and counter-actions
  • Go back to local branches to discuss future plans

Credit: Boxy tree, leafy circle — old photo, newly edited for a project” byeilonwy77 is licensed underCC BY-SA 2.0.

Although I believe our union needs a lot of inquiry, discussion and analysis before taking new action in our context, those phases do not pursue a linear trajectory in real life. At each phase one can do new analysis, take some targeted action (industrial action or other), reflect on past action, launch new inquiry. As decolonial and critical pedagogy traditions teach us, praxis and theory are very much intertwined, practices opening new forms of theoretical reflections and vice versa.

How do I know this rather convoluted and yet rich and differentiated union practice is possible and delivers wins? I know it because I witnessed and experienced it in person, from remote construction sites next to the poor squatter settlements of my home city to giant workplaces of multinational companies, from the experiences shared by the dedicated activists from the Global South to the meticulous, creatively strategic hive mind of my union branch, which became a second home. Anyone who already tasted the hard work and reward of creative diverse organising would vouch for it. It is bold, beautiful and can be transformative of our union and our lives.

Demet Sahende Dinler is a Lecturer in Anthropology and International Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex and UCU’s Sussex Branch Anthropology Rep.

Image Credit: Time shift” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.