The Elephant in the Strike

The memoirs of British employees in the timber industry and the archives of British-owned timber firms both document  some small-scale and seemingly-spontaneous strikes that occurred in the Burmese jungle during the 1920s. Elephant drivers—called oozies in Burmese—refused to work unless their conditions and pay improved. But striking in a jungle timber camp was not an easy act. Oozies had spent years developing close relationships with their elephants. The animals depended on daily care for their health and well-being. This was a relationship based on an intimate and tactile companionship. Legally, however, the elephants were not theirs. They were the property of the timber firms. Elephants were thus not really co-workers—they didn’t sell their labour—they were the industry’s means of production. As a result, striking affected the elephants. Indeed, contesting access to the elephants was a central part of the conflict between the European supervisors and the oozies. European supervisors kept the animals chained up in an attempt to manage the herds during the strike. Oozies attempted to maintain contact with the elephants to ensure their health, sometimes sending their spouses to feed them. Elephants were caught up in these localised labour disputes.

Source: 'Elephants at Work', Philip Klier c.1907
Source: ‘Elephants at Work’, Philip Klier c.1907

The clichéd image of a strike, taking place in an industrial setting with alienated workers downing tools and abandoning their stations, clearly does not fit. Alienation was not the only emotional effect of the oozie’s labour. Their close contact with elephants could also produce affection. It is in this that I see a connection with the current industrial action being taken by my union, the University and College Union, over rampant casualisation, shameful gender inequality and unfair pay. As it was for oozies, it is hard to disentangle ourselves from the objects of our labour because of the emotional ties engendered by our day-to-day work. Teaching in higher education means feeling for and with students as learners (rather than consumers). We share in their frustrations and anxieties, as well as in their successes and excitement. Research too is often a labour of love. As a result, striking can feel as if we are doing damage to the very things we care most about in our work lives. Worries about meeting the exam board deadlines increase with the accumulation of unmarked scripts. That book review gets another week overdue.

As the industrial action moves to working to contract, those of us taking part in the action will become aware of just how much additional work gets done because of these emotional ties. In the jargon around the dispute this extra work is often called “customary” or “good-will”, but the motivation to keep working beyond contractual expectations runs deeper than these terms suggest. For me, this dispute is about how we value our labour. It is not just about how we value our contractual duties in the measurable terms of time and pay, but how we value our emotional investment in our work. The causalisation of academic work with fractional and temporary contracts devalues academic labour even while it depends on these emotional ties. Staff on fixed-term and hourly-paid contracts invariably work just as much (if not more) as full-time, permanent staff, and do pretty much the same work. They do this not out of obligation but because they care about their work. Across the university sector, these emotional ties are being used to extract as much work from staff as possible whilst driving down the monetary cost. This is why I am supporting the union in this dispute. As painful as it is, university staff need to temporarily walk away from their own elephants. Unlike those of flesh and blood, they will not die in our absence.

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