by Ania Plomien

This piece is a part of our Strike Archive, the only content we will be publishing throughout the UCU strike in February and March 2022. In it, we publish teach-outs delivered by our friends and colleagues at the LSE Department of Gender Studies in December 2021, as they withdrew their labour from the LSE in the first week of the strike against casual work, crushing workloads, pay cuts, gender, disability and racial wage gaps and pension cuts. Our archive joins existing initiatives like the LSE Strike Diaries in ‘collective memory making and memory preserving’ of our historic industrial action. As the strike resumes, we stand in solidarity – and ask for yours – with our colleagues at universities across the UK and workers beyond academia, who struggle for better, more equal futures for all.

Why are we here?

On Friday, December 3rd 2021, I am speaking in front of students and colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Instead of leading a discussion of ideas and research about understanding and improving the world in the classroom, I find myself outside the Library holding a megaphone and delivering an alternative teach-out.  This is occasioned by the University College Union strike brought on by a Four Fights dispute over (1) pay devaluation, (2) pay inequality based on gender, race, and disability,  (3) job insecurity and high rates of casualisation, and (4) rising workloads, as well as by a dispute over pensions. Unequal, unjust, and unsustainable working conditions among university teaching, research, and professional support staff translate into the students’ deteriorating learning conditions, while detrimental changes to the pension scheme exacerbate these. Social and feminist theory, research and activism depict the daily struggles for dignity in work and retirement as linked not only throughout the life course, not only among workers differentiated on the basis of their gender, race, and (dis)ability, not only between university staff and students, not only along temporal and geographical spaces, but also across the interdependent spheres of reproduction and production, where large scale structural reconfigurations are lived in the everyday.

Image of author with megaphone in front of LSE library

Photo credit: Clare Hemmings

The big picture

I start by framing an especially relevant, if constantly reconfiguring and ‘drunk on its own successes and excesses’ (Harvey 2017), structure – capital. Following Karl Marx, capital is a particular social relation (a relation between people) of (re)production. It is self-expansive by constantly increasing the total quantity of capital and it ‘validates private accumulation in ways that other social orders through history have not’ (Jennings 1994). Capital presupposes inequality (regarding means and relations of production) and generates more inequality to reproduce society as a capitalist society. Latching onto social divisions and hierarchies (such as gender, race, or disability) and turning them into difference of value, translated into wage differences.

Accordingly,  labour is determined by geo-socio-historical forms of value: various social determinations (such as gender or race) constitute value and this, in turn, is reflected in the value of labour power, with wages being a form of appearance of socially determined value (Elson 1979/2015). Therefore, value, wages, and inequality are socially determined (rather than by production costs or the ‘the toil and trouble’ explanation of Adam Smith 1776), constituting the lived experience of capitalism.

Feminist theory, research, and activism have long grappled with the problem of gender inequality – in pay, division of labour, the ways it is cross-cut by race, ethnicity, migrant status, sexuality, (dis)ability. In the world of work, the coupling of feminisation with devaluation has tended to occur as soon as women entered formal employment (Gutiérrez-Rodriguez 2014). ‘The work of women is often deemed inferior simply because it is women who do it. Women workers carry into the workplace their status as subordinate individuals, and this status comes to define the value of the work they do’ (Phillips and Taylor 1980).

But things have changed, right?

Yes, things have changed. Devalued and disempowered groups can and have mobilised against the power of capital and gained some revaluation. There have been significant equality gains for women in public life – in the labour market, in political participation, in education. Including on our campus – you only need to look around and see that staff and student body is different from when the LSE was founded.

Except, it is also true that things have not changed all that much. Many gains benefit only certain groups, those able to ‘lean in’ and ‘get a seat at the table’.  Greater diversity and inclusion in existing structures tends to accommodate those that fit the dominant mould – those free of caring responsibilities and unmarked by socially devalued differences. In so doing, however, it also ends up supporting and reproducing the very structures that require exclusions and inequality. Capital can and does try to overcome certain improvements in pay and labour market inclusion for some by finding others, cheaper and more compliant workers, and in the process transforms the labour process by accentuating  differences.

Being a self-expansive social relation, capital requires reinvestment, generating ever more surplus value, creating more markets and new needs. This brings me to marketisation – expansion of markets into areas of life that have not and should not be subject to market relations, like universities, and turning socially useful activities, like education, into those that generate surplus value. This is accomplished by commodifying education and turning students into (often indebted) consumers, and staff into competitive entrepreneurs. And, worse still, the lowering of labour costs through outsourcing organisation-sustaining tasks (e.g. cleaning) and resorting to casualised teaching, research and administration, means that we are all implicated in the ‘internal differentiation along productive attributes of the collective labourer’ (Starosta 2016). This incessant pursuit of greater productivity via precarious and unequal working conditions is the reason we are engaged in the Four Fights.

The transformation of the labour process, and the rearticulation of the concomitant inequalities is a problem for universities, but it is not just a higher education sector issue. Following Rosa Luxemburg, the capacity of capital to adapt itself leads neither to the disappearance of crises nor to social equality or the improvement of economic and political position of those with little resources and power. The capitalist social order, to which inequality is inherent, exists on a continuum – it differs across spaces and between people. How does the lived experience of capitalism look in contemporary ‘uneven and combined’ Europe, the ‘most advanced gender regime in the world’?

The lived experience of the unequal capitalist social order

The inequalities lying at the heart of the UCU strike are experienced by workers everywhere, as demonstrated here with vignettes from research on transnational labour mobility and social reproduction in Europe with Ukrainians and Poles employed in care provision, food production and housing construction sectors.  Their narratives resonate with workers experiencing pay devaluation, pay inequality, job insecurity and high rates of casualisation.

Questions of pay have been articulated by Agata, a Polish nurse working in the UK, whose inadequate earnings in healthcare were a key motivator to migrate:

Agata: I was a paediatric nurse and I liked it, but to be honest, it was unsustainable. Working during my studies was better money since there weren’t so many social security contributions. But after graduating we had to pay premiums, then they started these new contracts in healthcare. Suddenly wages dropped, there was so little you could do with this money – I always joked that it was ‘the 1500 PLN generation’: no matter what degree you had, you were getting PLN 1500. I had to look for something else.

Relative differences in wages and employment afford migrants opportunities to access steadier jobs and incomes, as conveyed by Kyrylo working in construction in Poland, or to develop personally, as expressed by Anatolij, working on a German farm:

Kyrylo: The labour market here is huge. Poles themselves have left for the neighbouring country, where they’re better paid. We come here because the pay is higher than in Ukraine, and you can find a job. I knew, but it didn’t matter, that when you come here you’ll be paid a little less than Poles. A Pole is a local (…) he works in his own home, and I came here, to his home, just to earn money. Some might say that you came here to rob them of their jobs if you earned the same.

Anatolij: Ukrainians are not willing to emigrate, or even move from their villages or towns to cities to improve their financial situation. People love where they’re from, their vegetable patches… Besides, they are not willing to move because of risks of being exploited or hoodwinked. I’m more of a risk-taker (…) I want to use the time while at college to earn, gain  experience. It’s not an ideal job, but it doesn’t matter that I’m a migrant. I can use it as a kind of self-improvement, I can say ‘I’ve worked in Germany!’ – which will be valuable in Ukraine.

But the relative and temporary improvements accommodate, not overcome, inequality. And, migration does not always improve security – both Monika from Poland with a job offer in the elderly care sector in Germany, and Olena from Ukraine in domestic care in Poland, attested to this:

Monika: I got an offer, through a friend in Germany caring for the elderly. I didn’t like the idea very much, but I thought ‘well, I’m young, don’t have any obligations, why not give it a try?’ So I went, but it turned out that this woman died and I had to wait. They did not provide any accommodation, I had to find a place to live and wait three weeks for a new person to look after. I thought ‘how am I, without any earnings, supposed to stay here for three weeks? Spend all my savings, and then try and dig myself out again?’

Olena: Someone called me offering to live-in with the family in Warsaw, give them massages, help them at home, accompany them to their family home. And so, I worked there, but it turned out that we had agreed one monthly payment, but they reduced it by half. I was so surprised. I worked really hard, I even mowed the grass,  or not mow, but I dug the soil, I raked  leaves, tidied the garden in the spring. They did  not pay me as agreed.

Migrant work pivots on the hard-working and submissive  worker figure.  This is conveyed by Witold, a Polish farm worker in England:

Witold: The owner tried to hire locals. This lasted three months. It took eight people to do the job normally done by three migrants. In the end my boss realized that he should respect migrants’ work better. We now have mostly Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Latvians. To be honest, Brits would not work for this kind of money doing the same job.

Seasonal, casualised, and intensive work makes it difficult for local workers (who still may have other options) to secure their social reproduction needs, whereas migrant workers, with fewer or no alternatives, must defer theirs.  These experiences are recalled by Darija from Ukraine working at a vegetable plant in Poland, a Polish carer Urszula in a social care home in England, and a Ukrainian carer Inna, who has worked in a care home in Poland:

Darija:  People ask what its like. You wash vegetables and the water is very cold, or stand sorting and packing all day. In the hot summer weather we weed in the field, but its fine. I mean, we work 12 hours, on Saturdays we have a short 8-hour day, on Sundays we are off. Poles work for 8 hours, and we have to stay on and finish. Some of our tasks are worse than what the Poles do. It is tough, standing 12 hours washing leeks in cold water, so Im cold, my hands and my feet are cold. But Im used to it, and the managers are used to me. Everything they ask me to do, I do. Darija, go there, do this, and do that’ and they know that I will do everything the best I can.

Urszula: My manager knows that I’m flexible and she also knows that if I feel well and she needs me to come, we’re on WhatsApp, if there’s  an emergency… When I have 2 days off, she writes if I can cover a shift. (…) Even though I’m permanent, they offer flexibility. I have a 36-hr contract, but usually I work over 50; 208-240 hours a month. (…) My manager asks me which unit I’d prefer, I say ‘I don’t care, I can work on this unit, on that, or any other unit ‘ and she says: ‘We need workers like you! You know, we are very happy that you are with us’.

Inna: In the care home we worked 12-hour days, starting at 7am, non-stop the whole day. Every day. No difference – weekdays, weekends. I had little time for anything, some shopping, that’s all. Every hour there was some task, moving from one to another. I looked after many women – feeding, making beds, organizing clothes, washing them, grooming, feeding, washing again. It’s not like at home, where I can stop or do something later, or differently. It was constant.

Connecting experiences and uniting struggles

Workers’ conditions are connected and workers’ struggles must be united. The solidarity at the 3 December 2021 UCU march and rally expressed by transport and care sector workers poignantly made clear that education, transport and care are services that workers provide for other workers. They are not intended to raise profits. Inequality and marketisation of higher education in the UK is a locally specific expression of a wider process of market-making, which requires and deepens inequalities. Inequalities differ across spaces and between people, and narrow movements towards equality in one place and of one kind (like gender equality gains in the UK achieved through partial inclusion instead of transformation), shift the burden of inequality elsewhere and onto other groups. Equality struggles must, therefore, be against not one or another manifestation of inequality, but against the principles that turn differences between people into differences of value – the essence of capitalism. The UCU struggle is a step in this direction. In the summer of 1912, labour activist and Women’s Trade Union League member Rose Schneiderman addressed middle-class women organizing for suffrage in Ohio. She said to them:  ‘What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest workers have not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.’ The problem that unites us is the struggle against the denigrating of human diversity to market value.

Ania Plomien is Associate Professor at the LSE Department of Gender Studies. She researches the social reproduction, production, and migration nexus and other aspects of the interface of paid and unpaid work. She is currently working on interconnected transnational labour mobility in Europe and on gender inequality in the banking and finance sector in the UK.