Should theologians go on strike this autumn?

By Graeme Smith
October 10, 2010

I have been thinking about going on strike. Not, I should hasten to add, because of any dissatisfaction with my work, my colleagues or my superiors. I love my job. The pay and working conditions are excellent, the main tasks rewarding and fulfilling. I even respect the management; they seem to be doing sensible things in increasingly impossible circumstances.

So this is not some one man protest, “justice for Graeme Smith” - although on that question I do have some ideas, as I fear do others. Rather I have been thinking about going on strike because I expect that quite soon my union, the University and College Union, will ask me whether I support strike action over education cuts.

My reluctant inclination is to say no - but not because I do not support the cause. Strike action seems to have lost its bite, its effectiveness. As a campaigning tool it often seems to be counter-productive. What we need are new ideas for resisting damaging cuts. But this is a very difficult position to sustain and one which makes me feel very uneasy.

The Comprehensive Spending Review, due to be published on 20 October 2010, is expected to be bad news for universities and especially bad news for those who teach in the humanities.

It is expected that there will be big cuts and that this will mean departments closing, compulsory redundancies, pay freezes or pay cuts, fewer choices for students and overall, a worse student experience.

Remarkably, a 30 per cent cut in the budget for Higher Education is being touted as a conservative figure, and reducing university funding by a third means that what we now understand as a university is not what they will look like in five years time.

Theology is a vulnerable subject. Undergraduate numbers are relatively low, graduate employability prospects at best insecure and its contribution to the economy obscure. In the face of all this the union have been trying to negotiate with employers. But I suspect they will also ballot for strike action. So as a theologian, and theologian of ethics at that, shouldn’t I be saying yes?

One reason stands out for saying yes. If it is an effective campaigning tool. The campaign can have two ends. It can be to protect the well-being of myself, my colleagues, and the students in our care. And it can be an act of solidarity with those who are poor, on welfare benefits, and need others to help fight their battles. Probably both sets of reasons are intertwined. They motivate and inspire those who want to argue that strikes are the weapon by which government cuts are fought.

To some degree history is on their side. In the West, strike action has been a means of achieving proper justice for those who on their own lack the power to effect change. Richard Rorty, in lamenting the contemporary divide between the Academy and the Trade Union Movement, properly recognises the sacrifices made by our forebears, women, children and men who united to resist the greed and cruelty of business leaders.

We must honour their memory and one of the most important ways of doing that is to continue the struggle – so that would be a 'yes' to striking.

However, and this is the crucial difference, this is not a fight against child labour, a 12 hour day or premature ageing and death as a result of working conditions. This is not the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Strike action is not the only course of action available. So there is a legitimate question of how effective will it be.

Strike action is a political tool whose purpose is to win, to defeat opponents and achieve goals. This does not mean no action can begin unless there is a clear sight of victory ahead. Nor does it mean a compromise can’t be reached as a means of ending strike action. What it means is that in the circumstances this is the most effective way of achieving specific ends.

My reluctance, albeit with a heavy heart, at supporting strike action now is that as a tool it is not the most effective possible. In fact it can be counter-productive. Governments, of both political persuasions, have realised that there is mileage in appearing strong and resolute in the face of what they describe as militant action. A strike, as Ed Milliband seems to realise, can actually help rather than hinder the government. By striking all that may happen is that the cuts garner greater political support. So they just don’t seem effective.

But such a judgement imposes a moral duty. If strikes won’t work then what will? It would be wrong not to protest against the cuts. In fact more than that it would be wrong not to find the most effective campaigning tool so that cuts are stopped or slowed down.

We know MPs fear political damage, that opinion polls undermine leaders and shift policy goals. So campaigning can work, the ethical question is which will be the most effective. If we grasp too quickly at the path our forebears followed because it worked for them, then the danger is that we miss the new responsibility for our generation.

Those in positions of power have got good at resisting strikes – so what do we need to do next to protect not only the great work that happens in universities but also the poorest and most vulnerable in society?

There is no easy answer to this. But it would help if rather than asking 'do I want to go on strike?', the unions asked instead, all of us, how do we best campaign against damaging cuts to universities and further oppression of poor people? How next can the people exert power?


© Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He is editor of the journal Political Theology ( and his most recent book is A Short History of Secularism (IB Tauris, 2008).

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