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Monday, 30 May 2011

The UCU Guide to Strategy and Tactics, OR Taking the General Haig approach

According to this piece, UCU (The University and College Union for the uninitiated) - a.k.a. The World's Worst Union - are balloting its members (including me) about industrial action in support of its defence of academic pensions.  Now, I'm not going to pretend either that the employers' stance, and especially their behaviour, hasn't been shocking in relation to this, or that the union's position isn't on the side of the angels.  I let out a weary sigh when I read this bit:
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU - full name: the University and College Union - told the BBC earlier that staff may "withdraw labour" to delay the process of awarding degrees and making offers to prospective students.
And then this:
Action could be focused on tasks such as marking and external examination, as well as vetting applications for university places, she said. 
Oh dear.  0/10 for strategic skill and imagination there, then.  When I get round to writing 'The State We're In' Part 3 I'll say more about just how wearisome, not to say more than a little risible, the division of the sector into 'management' and 'workers' is, but for now let's see whether we can even try and come close to grasping the sheer tactical brilliance behind this plan.  The aims of industrial action, as I see it, are (using terminology I employed in the introduction to my edited book on violence and society) either tactical - to hit the employers and their 'business' so hard that prolonging the dispute is more costly than giving in to the union's demands - or strategic - drawing attention to the dispute so that pressure from third parties outside the dispute (government, the Great British public, the media [perhaps], etc.) intervene and bring pressure to bear on the employers to end the dispute.

Whichever way one sees this, this is a strategy that is already doomed to failure - indeed costly failure.  Hitting examination marking is not tactical as it won't hurt the employers at all.  Refusing to participate in admissions will hit them more but it is really under the strategic heading that the sheer dumb-assery of this cunning plan is brought out.  Who does this plan really hurt?  The students.  Now, students on the whole make me want to bang my head against a wall a lot of the time, I admit, but of all the people who ought not to be hurt by the union in this dispute, students surely have to come top of the list.  Not simply on first principles, as a matter of plain, natural justice but also on strategic terms.  For students do not spring from the ground as fully formed FTEs, as Sally Hunt (head honcho of UCU) and her cohorts appear to think, but have parents and families, who have hopes, as well as finances, invested in their performance.  And amazingly enough, these parents and families do not merely constitute the Great British Public, but many of them are also people in positions of power and influence and/or in the media. 

So hurting the students will also strike a devastating strategic blow ... against the Union.  It is difficult to think of a strategy better designed than this one to bring popular pressure to bear against the Union, and in support of the employers.  The general perception among the general population of the deeply anti-intellectual population of the UK is that academics do no work anyway and/or are an expensive luxury.  This will not be affected by this action.  Indeed it will simply allow the media to play on this.  Not only will this action not further the aims of the Union; it will erode whatever support might possibly exist for academics, in this time of ideologically driven Tory slash-and-burn policies, amongst other public sector workers or amongst anyone else.

If UCU go ahead with this idiotic scheme, the employers will be rubbing their hands with glee.  The union will be marching to disaster (yet again).  All Sally Hunt and co need now are the likes of Gary Sheffield, Bill Philpott and Gordon Corrigan (1) to write revisionist right-wing histories portraying them as misunderstood tactical geniuses.  In the meantime, I offer this snippet:
Melchett:       Good man. Now, Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field. [they gather around a model of the battlefield]

Blackadder:     Now, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy sir?

Darling:        How can you possibly know that, Blackadder? It's classified information.

Blackadder:     It's the same plan that we used last time, and the seventeen times before that.

Melchett:       E-E-Exactly! And that is what so brilliant about it! We will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard! Doing precisely what we have done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they'll expect us to do this time!
1: Authors of (to my mind) deeply unethical, objectionable, inhuman 'histories' of how the British general staff in the First world War were in fact waging an imaginative and skilful campaign, and that all the stuff about how bad the First World War was is no more than 'poppycock'.  Collectively, I term this sort of history 'Haigiography'.  I thank you.