In this post, guest contributor Liam Shields discusses an important dilemma related to the strike in UK higher education institutions.

Members of the University and College Union, the trade union that represents many lecturers and other university staff in the UK, at 60 universities will be called upon to withdraw their labour from their employers from 25th November to 4th December. However, some are on research leave, or will not be doing any teaching on some or all strike days, so their striking will go unnoticed. The question then is: should they go on strike or not?

The strike is about two separate disputes. One on pensions and one on pay and working conditions. As this round of strike action looms I am reflecting on the pension strike last year when UCU members took 14 days of strike action.

The 2018 UK higher education strike was a formative experience for many of us, and there are many things I learnt from colleagues on the picket line and on social media.

However, I would like to discuss a suggestion that was made to me by a colleague at that time.

The suggestion is this: those of us who are on research leave, or who will not be doing any teaching on some or all strike days, should strike only on those days they will teach. Instead, they should work as required by their contracts and no more. Furthermore, they should use the salary that they receive to contribute to the Fighting Fund or local branch hardship fund to help support those who might not otherwise be able to afford to strike without great hardship.

A tactic like this deserves serious consideration, if we are concerned about how to make industrial action more effective. Three questions arise immediately:

  1. What principle could underpin the suggestion?
  2. What arguments support that principle?
  3. Are there any good objections to it?


The suggestion seems to rest on a principle of maximizing disruption. Some union members simply cannot cause much disruption through withdrawing their labour on those dates. Based on plausible assumptions, contributions to the strike fund can help maximize disruption by making it possible for others to withdraw their labour and thus cause disruption. The strike itself is premised on the idea that the disruption is what will incentivise employers to give in to the demands the strike ballot is premised on.

Alternatively, the suggestion could rest on a principle of causing a fair share of disruption or sufficient disruption. These might determine how much pay non-striking members are required to contribute to the strike fund, but for my purposes we only need to focus on disruption.