The Goldsmiths Wildcat Strike

While Goldsmiths markets itself on its woke credentials, the university is in the process of laying off hundreds of mostly BAME precarious staff after refusing their requests for furlough – but now, they're fighting back.

As a casualised lecturer undertaking a wildcat marking boycott at Goldsmiths, I’ve been enormously inspired by the actions of my precarious academic colleagues, transforming the state of affairs at the university. My colleagues and I have been taken advantage of and patronised, overworked and burnt out. We have also been underestimated. Now we have united in the face of this gross mistreatment, standing up to the university bosses who hold such sway over our futures. 

The context for this wildcat strike is the redundancy faced by 472 of the most precarious academic staff in Goldsmiths. All those facing redundancy are early career academics struggling to get a foothold into a progressively difficult job market. These are Graduate Training Tutors and Associate Lecturers who lead seminar classes, and early career lecturers filling in for senior academic staff on research buyouts or maternity leave.

Despite the fact that they work on precarious zero hour or fixed term contracts, these staff are what make the university. Together, they contribute to 39% of teaching across all academic departments. As student testimonials in support of the casualised staff suggest, the passion and care with which these academic staff approach their jobs make a lasting impression on students, impacting their experience of inclusion and academic development at the university.

Perhaps this is because these precariously employed academic staff can relate to the student experience at Goldsmiths. The majority are migrant, Black or people of colour. They have come through to the other side of the ‘broken pipeline’ to radicalise and decolonise academia, and yet, they find their future to be precarious. They find themselves part of an institution that extracts their labour to tick box its diversity and equality claims, but refuses to invest in them in the long term.

Just a year ago students undertook a 137-day anti-racist occupation to highlight institutional racism at Goldsmiths. The occupation only ended when Goldsmiths took students to court for occupying a building adorned with statues of slave traders. These redundancies demonstrate the performative nature of the university’s commitment to anti-racism. They demonstrate that institutional racism persists. The solidarity strike taken by Evan Ifekoya, the only permanent Black member of staff in the art department, is a painful testament to the divided college. 

What is most shocking, however, is how the layoffs are hitting BAME academics disproportionately hard. The gendered and racial nature of institutionalised precarity and marginalisation at Goldsmiths mirrors broader structural inequalities. In art, five of the six nonwhite academics in the department face the sack. In the department of sociology, all of the lecturers to be laid off are women of colour – half of whom are early career PhD graduates coming back to work from maternity leave.

These sackings are generating an equalities crisis at Goldsmiths. It also highlights how the institution has failed to follow through its promises to extend care towards employees with protected characteristics as outlined in the college’s equality and diversity strategy. This lack of care is more glaring given that these redundancies come amidst the Covid-19 pandemic during a non-existent jobs market. Precarious staff’s request to access relief through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – aka, the furlough – was rejected by university management, and the right to appeal denied.

In spite of these realities, Goldsmiths still makes much from its ‘political capital’, with performative wokeness on social justice issues and anti-racism – in particular, since the murder of George Floyd. There’s a big contradiction between the language Goldsmiths use and the reality of their workplaces and student environments.

This was highlighted last week by the call from Forensic Architecture (FA), a Turner Prize-nominated research agency based at Goldsmiths, for Goldsmiths to refrain from using FA research, including their most recent work on the killing of Mark Duggan, in communications emails until they take “clear steps to acknowledge and mitigate the devastating effects of intersectional inequality.” 

Moreover, at institutions like Goldsmiths that specialise in ‘critical humanities,’ and where senior academics often write from perspectives informed by some branch of Marxism, one also has to cope with what can be a jarring contradiction between the theoretical content of what we teach and the way the institution exploits the labour and the desperation of precarious workers.

Unsurprisingly, mental health problems are endemic  Perhaps this doesn’t sound like Goldsmiths – an institution more famous for political radicalism and the formation of a generation of critical sociologists and young British artists. While Goldsmiths fully deserved this reputation earned through decades of hard graft, creativity and political struggle, the current marketised and de-socialised approach has led to a breaking point which destroy this reputation.

Faced with this threat, precarious academics have hit back. Through a combination of department and college-wide Zoom calls, WhatsApp groups and rudimentary polling systems, hourly paid lecturers in three departments launched a wildcat marking boycott in a matter of weeks.

Initially, their demands were that the university furlough academics and extend their contracts ending during the Covid-19 pandemic until the autumn. Management refused, and the action spread as lecturers on fixed term contracts – a marginally more secure, but still highly precarious, layer of workers – joined the wildcat by refusing to submit their own marking. 

The pressure of the marking boycott and our social media operation has forced senior management to negotiate over our demands; if the layoffs are not abandoned, the Goldsmiths branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) may declare a formal dispute, possibly paving the way for official strike action.

Casualised academics are becoming aware that without our labour the entire academic system would collapse, and on this basis we are forcing their managers to revise these supposed cost saving measures. While those on casualised contracts do approximately 39% of the teaching at Goldsmiths, we account for only 7% of the wages.

We have far more in common with casualised, often outsourced, campus cleaning and security staff (both of which groups of workers have won their own victories at Goldsmiths in the last few years) than with managers earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. And – with perseverance and support from the wider trade union movement – we can win.