Lessons in Unionising the Future: The Art of Estrangement and Critical Pedagogy on the Picket Line

By Heather McKnight

“Strangeness that does not betray and sell us has a wholly different effect. It makes the beholder look up; it seems artful, not artificial; it reveals its own quality in its otherness”
Ernst Bloch – Alienation and Estranagement (1970)

Sussex UCU Picket Lines

Last week I joined the Sussex picket of the national University and College Union (UCU) pension strikes to deliver a teach-out entitled Unionising the Future. It aimed to draw attention to the difficulty of joint working between Trade Unions and Students’ Unions, highlighting the laws that can restrict everyday joint working, while still drawing a utopian horizon of hope from the solidarity emerging on the front-line of the protests.

The industrial action follows the proposal by Universities UK (UUK) to end the guaranteed pension scheme, impacting on tens of thousands of university staff. The proposals change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from a defined benefit scheme which gives a guaranteed retirement income, to a defined contribution scheme, where the value of the pensions are floated on the stock market. Research shows a typical UCU member stands to see their retirement income reduced by £10,000 a year if these cuts are imposed, with younger staff members likely to be hit the hardest, and some standing to lose around half their pensions. The strike is the largest called in UCU history lasting for fourteen days over 4 weeks, with 88% of members voting for strike action across 64 universities. At Sussex, and at other institutions up and down the UK, the actions on the picket lines have been supplemented by strike supporting events such as teach-ins, teach-outs, occupations, marches, workshops and socials.

My experience of the teach-out was inspirational, as well as drawing lessons for me around the aesthetics of strike action and pedagogy combined. As I was delivering my talk, I felt as though I were dancing in front of a seated audience, as if embarking in a theatrical performance rather than an academic one. Perhaps it is wrong to draw this distinction, but teaching has become integral to the actions, through what I would like to refer to as the estrangement – an ongoing theatre of dislocation, education and resistance, present on campus as a result of the opposition to pension cuts and wider discussions around the marketisation of higher education.

When Bloch discusses the Brecht’s concept of Verfremdung or estrangement, he speaks of the displacement of a character or action out of its usual context, with the subsequent effect being the character or action is no longer to be perceived as wholly self-evident. This then creates a sense of incompleteness and indirection where the alienation can be seen for what it is and the world can be revealed in a different light. In the strike action the familiar is made strange through a similar process, people are on campus but displaced from offices and teaching spaces. In the teach-outs evinced is a different type of pedagogical space, one more open to question and critique, which does not follow the prescribed curriculum, but instead a curriculum that responds to the local politics of the Students’ Union and challenges to joint working. Crucially it is one more politically charged and anticipates action.The estrangement has its own aesthetics expressing the political and social. We are “removed from an aliening landscape [which] itself is wounded and covered with growing uniformity by an abstractly organising technology, which has no relation to it.” The picket line designates a number of borders and edges, a sense of difference, liminality and boundary. It is the geographical edge of the protest at the opening where students come from the bus and train stop, but also the edge of the countryside, of the local Stanmer Park, of trees and grass. There is a wilding to activities on the picket, a sense of being out of the institutional buildings and spaces that are reinforced by the neutrality of the undergrowth, and the proximity of a more natural and less ordered hierarchical world. Here alienation and estrangement are bound together by a sense of the alien and of the external, but they embody opposing forms of experience. Moments of estrangement are created in the learning space of the picket, the strangeness and otherness compared to a class room that facilitates an opening up to new ideas. Estrangement enforces a reduction of hierarchy and a creation of community essential to establishing critical pedagogies that seek to resist modes of cultural reproduction.

In this space, the teach-out highlighted a number of laws that restricted political activity by both Trade Unions and Students’ Unions; reinforcing them, but at the same time the liminal learning space opening up the possibility for them to be challenged and reinterpreted. We discussed how the Education Act 1994 obligates Students’ Unions as promoting the general interests of its members as ‘students as students’, requiring them to operate under charity law. Through doing so the law restricts their ability to commit their resources to broader political aims and purposes, and depoliticises the movement. The lecture drew attention to the stricter balloting rules for industrial action, which are particularly so for public services such as education, making it more difficult to call industrial action by Trade Unions. It also highlighted how despite UCU members voting to boycott the Prevent Duty (brought in through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, obliging universities to monitor the activities of non-national students over their national counterparts), they were unable to do so because continuous industrial action would have left staff docked of pay for actions short of a strike.

The students’ expressed their surprise at the laws in place that defined Students’ Unions as charities, with even those engaged with the unions unaware of these restrictions on their political agency. Many were disturbed and shocked by the implications of the Prevent Duty, that allowed students to be treated as potential suspects and monitored for radicalisation.

Here, estrangement is about surprise as well as dislocation. This is an emotional response to the world being not as you expected, a re-sensing of the aesthetics of power. This process of being ‘startled awake’ through new information, alongside the openness for dialogue during the discussion, creates alternative spaces for new ways of thinking, through alternative teaching. It is an example of creating the potential for anticipatory pre-consciousness where the not-yet potential for a new and better world can emerge. Narrow zones are accessed where “it is still possible to avoid an existence of selling-and being-sold.” Such acts of resistance as the strike and the picket line reconstitute interaction in such a way as to make staff and students more receptive to each other, more understanding of others’ perspectives, offering a different type of space for reflection and resistance through the art of critical pedagogy. In the discussions at the end of the teach-out students not only understood and questioned some legal limits placed on their Students’ Union, but also reflected on how the process of the strike has opened up new knowledges available to them. Over the first few days of the strike they had learnt of the bookable spaces at the union, and of the willingness of staff to work with them for change. This is the materiality of this collective daydream. It grows from a moment of estrangement, the new emerging from the strange.

On the 7th March these students met on the same picket line to start student-staff discussions on a ‘Manifesto for Solidarity’ to be presented to the University that reaches beyond the outcomes of the strike. The demands discussed included a more democratic and transparent approach to governance of the university, greater recognition of academic freedom (to include freedom in how students learn and how staff teach, and a fairer approach to intellectual property), action on attainment gaps, different approaches to flexible working, resistance to the Prevent Duty, caps on student rent prices and democratic student involvement in running university accommodation, staff pay ratios or pay caps, bringing services in house and a reversal of current poorly managed outsourced contracts, and a focus on improving staff diversity, as well as decolonising the curriculum. This meeting was the first step in broader and sustained action. In their reflections the students hold up a mirror to both amazement and concern, and then turn upwards and outwards to create a new and different reality, new iterations of community with new aesthetics, rules and demands.

Heather McKnight, Doctoral Researcher, Sussex Law School – Researching resistance to the marketisation of Higher Education through joint working between students’ unions and trade unions since 1970.


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