Today, thousands of academic and professional support staff from 74 universities will begin a rolling 14-day strike action over a four-week period. This will be the largest industrial action ever taken by higher education workers in British history, surpassing the scale of previous disputes in November – December 2019 and in 2018. A considerable amount of ink has been spilled on the technicalities of the strike (Mike Otsuka, in particular, has written extensively on the pension dispute). My focus in this post is different: I want to establish some of the moral aspects of the strike through the principles governing the resort to war – jus ad bellum.

Let me first address a concern to this approach, namely the applicability of the just war framework with regards to something like strike action. The two issues, war and strike, do not share any commonalities. How could moral principles used to govern war be deployed to understand strike action? I think that the content of individual ad bellum principles can be useful in revealing morally relevant facts in a number of contexts other than war. For example, the principle of proportionality, which demands the benefits of an action must outweigh its potential harm is relevant in almost all situations. The principle of last resort, which demands other less harmful options to be tried first, is also relevant to the undertaking of strike action, given the enormous financial and educational costs. Taken together, the framework of jus ad bellum gives us a substantive moral picture of the action.

My aim here, to reiterate, is simply to show a substantive moral picture of the strike through the lens of jus ad bellum. I make no claims regarding the overall moral permissibility of the strike. All just war criteria are individually necessary and jointly sufficient in order for a war to be justly fought. I don’t know how many criteria would need to be met to justify a strike like this one (or should more criteria be introduced).  This is an interesting query, though not one I’ll pursue here.

Just cause:

The principle of just cause dictates that a war can only be fought to achieve aims that are just. Applying this to the strike, it asks: is the strike being called to achieve just aims? I think so. The strike is a continuation of the 2018 dispute on proposed pension reform and the newly-formed four fights. The five issues at stake are: pension, fair pay, equal pay (gender + BAME pay gap), precarity and unsustainable workload. To add some context, academia is one of the most casualised professions in the UK with more than 100,000 staff hired on fixed-term or other types of precarious contracts. The gender/BME pay gap remains unchallenged. At my institution, the mean gender pay gap is at 18,4% while the ethnic pay gap is at 10.5%. These factors have negatively impacted the mental health of academic staff with record numbers of cases being referred to professional support services. Ultimately, the strike aims to achieve better and fairer working conditions for staff in higher education. It’s difficult to refute the legitimacy of this aim.

Right Authority:

This principle asks if the strike was called by a legitimate authority? In (traditional) just war theory, this is to rule out the possibility of private wars (wars waged and fought by individuals). Only the sovereign has the power to declare war on the behalf of the community which it governs. The strike was called by the HEC (Higher Education Committee), the body with the legal power to do so. This principle is met.

Last Resort:

Is this strike action the last resort? Note that ‘last resort’ here should not be understood as literally last resort. This would imply an action (war or others) can never actually be just for there is always something else to do. A more plausible understanding of this principle demands all actions short of strike which can be reasonably expected to work to be attempted before a strike is called. This includes negotiations, threats of strike, working to contracts (or ASOS). There is a case to be made that all actions that can reasonably be expected to work have been tried. Before the first round of strike in November last year, the employers were unwilling to acknowledge the severity of some of the issues (especially on precarity and workload). Strike action in November and the threat of more strikes have moved the employers to make some concessions. But the latest (and only) UCEA offer on four-fights was rejected outright as it was deemed as insufficiently substantive by the negotiators and a majority of HEC members. Most recently, Mark E Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton and chair of UCEA has said that the employers will not concede any further. It seems that all other options short of a strike have been explored and failed.

Proportionality and Prospect of Success:

This is perhaps the thorniest issue. Some UCU members have questioned if 14-day of strike action is proportionate to the massive financial loss and disruption to students’ learning, especially since the notion of success is murky in this instance. The strike must have a good chance of achieving its aims within the constraints of the proportionality requirements. It cannot, for instance, employ disproportionate measures even if doing so would increase its chance of success. Now, part of what makes this criterion difficult to answer is the non-quantifiable nature of some of the aims being pursued. How are we to answer questions such as: what is proportionate to end precarity? What is proportionate to end the gender/ethnic pay gap? The systemic nature of these issues adds to the difficulty in defining what, exactly, constitutes success for this strike. The gender/ethnic pay gap, casualisation and unsustainable workload are not going to be fully addressed by a 14-day strike. Does this mean that any achievement short of this indicates a failure?

I think this might be too strong a claim. Changes have to start somewhere but systemic changes take time. In this light, each industrial action is not an isolated incident. Rather, strikes that are closely connected, i.e. waged on the same issues against the same employer, should be seen as part of the same dispute, despite the staggered timeline and occasional spikes (like this one) in intensity. Each round of strike action moves the employers and employees closer towards an acceptable compromise. The notion of success, in this sense, should be defined more modestly. That is to say if the strike doesn’t fully end precarity, the gender/ethnic pay gap, the assault on pension, etc. for good then it doesn’t necessarily mean that the strike has failed. If this round of strike action can achieve a nationwide framework with specified commitments from the employers to address staff’ concerns on the 5 issues within a reasonable timeline then that could be seen as a success. The costs of walking out for 14-day are undeniably high. But the costs of not striking, the continued pay gap, the casualisation of academia, the routine 55-hour working week, etc. are even higher.

Anh Le

I currently work in the NGO sector on environmental issues but previously taught at the University of Manchester, where I also got my PhD, writing on the ethics of force short of war.