This is a personal reflection on being an activist as my picture illustrates. Recently I have been standing on the picket line in the UK with other university academics in the University and College Union (UCU). This action challenged proposed changes in pensions by universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which would substantially reduce younger colleagues’ retirement income. Taking part in the union activity reminded me of why I became an activist and why I continue to believe in collective actions in an increasingly individualistic social context.
While I have taken industrial action before, indeed in the financial industry on one memorable occasion I was the sole individual striking in my region according to the local regional newspaper. I was the branch representative but we were not the most militant branch! Even through in our region the effects were limited the national strike caused the senior management to take action, to investigate why strike action had been called. It was discovered it was linked to poor communication, and an unwillingness to listen by senior management with negative views not being carried forward to the executive team. A regular industrial relations problem. Consequently a social partnership arrangement was brought in that helped change improve industrial relations for this financial organisation.
I have continued to remain committed to collective action that was inspired by my childhood experiences. To this day my mother still talks about ‘the arrival of the biscuit tin’ when my father was seriously ill for several months with no income. In the 1960s there was no sick pay legislation and thus the arrival of his work mates with a biscuit full of cash donated by his unionised work colleagues meant we could buy food and pay bills. While today in the UK we have a raft of laws to help protect individuals working on the shop floor. We must never forget the collective efforts of many trade unionists to reach this point. We also must never be complacent, particularly post-brexit as laws can change or work conditions and patterns change.
While many people question why I should believe in collectivism and union activity. I still maintain it is easier for people to agitate for social change as part of a group than individually on their own and that employee relationship for many remains an unequal relationship. It this belief that underpins my activism. Over the years I have seen union activism change policy, whether this is sick pay, equal pay or just senior executive attention to work issues where there has been a misreading of their employees’ attitudes towards issues such as pensions.
What the recent action over pensions has done for me has energised my beliefs. The solidarity and camaraderie of the picket line with my work colleagues ( And also their dogs! The ‘bring your dog to the picket line’ was a huge success). The feeling that others too share my beliefs is important to keep going forward as an activist and also to help others younger members make the transition to become activists. Hopefully to keep important issues at the forefront of negotiations and challenging inequity and unfairness where it appears into future decades.
I do not believe that I am alone in being an activist and believing in collectivism and the importance of challenging inequality.
Thus I am inviting other activists to send in a picture of themselves as an activist to illustrate the diversity of female and union activism that exists in the UK and internationally that activists do not globally stand alone. Here is my picture Dr Susan Sayce.