Striking the University

Universities are not widget factories. They are more like municipalities. Strike actions should match that reality.

When it comes to strikes the labour movement tends to always look at every workplace as if it were a widget factory: a self-contained production facility where parts come in, are assembled by workers, and the product leaves.

Most of our workplaces are, of course, not like this at all.

Recent strikes at universities have highlighted the need to re-examine strike tactics and start looking at our workplaces as they are.

Why are we attempting to "shut-down" universities by blocking entrances?

When public sector workers strike at a municipality, the workers do not try to block all entrances to that municipality. And, we do not try to say that they are crossing the picket line when they are going home.

The only way we are going to get to this place is if we stop fetishizing the picket line.

The picket line is just one manifestation of strike action. It will always exist as it is a very identifiable show of strike action to the public. The recognizable public show of strike (or lockout) is important as a way to bring the entire society to the bargaining table, since every strike is at some level a strike against all of capital.

However, the purpose of the strike is to limit profit generation for the employer through the ceasing of value creation. Since value is created by labour, we withdraw our labour.

The unfortunate thing for workers in this context is that value can be captured within a process that takes time. Time is our enemy during strike as work that was done before (or will be done after) the strike can be captured in a process that undermines the value-cancelling that the strike intends to accomplish.

In these circumstances, the employer can wait-out the strike in ways that limit its impact. It is not just replacement workers (scabs) that make this possible. There are a variety of financial processes that can be used.

Affecting profit generation through strike in the public sector is more difficult to see, determine, and in some cases the direct employer does not even see this. This is because of the time element. It take a lot of time for strike action in the government sectors to translate into reduction in the general profit rate. And, depending on the economic policies of the government, it may not translate directly into a profit loss for capital.

It is important to remember that slow-downs of work and strike action can also affect profit generation in a greater than a one-to-one value. There are many operations within firms that require constant work. Any sudden stop in production can cause cascading effects long into the future.

While profit generation is the essential lever workers have in a protracted strike action, mischief is also a lever in the short term.

Mischief disruptions of work that do not affect profit directly but do affect smooth operations can be as effective in short-term battles with the employer. These kinds of actions are the kind of actions mostly seen in public sector strikes, but can also be highly effective in the private sector in financialized companies mentioned above.

Mischief disruptions must be part of strike actions, must be planned, and usually do not look like a picket line at the end of the drive way.

This kind of action is more often associated with political strike action, public campaigns, and directed at reputational risk for the employer.

The tactics of mischief disruptions are vast and unions must come to terms with how best to utilize, support, and plan for these during strike action. This means reviewing strike regulations for most unions that only see the picket line action as worthy of "picket pay".