It’s strange, witnessing the arrival and return of students from the ‘outside’ this time around. Sainsbury’s has been preparing for this moment for weeks, the welcome and orientation weeks heralding a frenzied bustle of students shopping alone or with their parents’ assistance in that last-minute clamour for the essentials. Management, in their absurd ‘huddles’ – which in reality demoralize and divide more than unite or uplift – relay the sales statistics in the weeks prior to the students arriving, and inform us that the start of the new term will be indispensable to recuperating lost ground in the context of sales revenue. ‘You need to be at your best’, ‘always smile’, ‘give customers your undivided attention’ – the familiar constellation of hollow slogans of customer service are repeated ad nauseam, sugarcoated with gestures towards co-operation and the fulfilment of ‘common objectives’ (as if we ever see management on the shopfloor except in a fleeting capacity of ‘checking in’ to stave off any potential aspersions on their being out of touch, and as if Sainsbury’s profit margins were proxies for our wages, conditions or collective well-being).
There’s an insidious undertone coursing through the ‘motivational’ language and hyped-up performance review, which the workers implicitly all of course understand, though we diverge on the extent to which we’ve internalized the details as right, inevitable or necessary. The Mystery Customer scheme – which, stripped back, is little more than a covert, private spying mechanism designed to root out workers who have not adequately adopted the optimal Sainsbury’s persona – is at the forefront of a set of underhand, yet innocuously framed, monitoring and disciplinary techniques deployed by the company to assess the performance of workers and establish grounds for regimentation and punishment. These ‘huddles’, of course, underneath the bluster, are about reasserting management authority, and reproducing an ideological homogeneity in which we identify our personal desires, motives and convictions with the framework of Sainsbury’s commercial targets and success.
This process is all the more effective when they recruited a whole new cohort of part-time staff to deal with the surge in commerce entailed by the arrival of students. Our shift patterns are arranged so Sainsbury’s are not legally obliged to afford us any breaks. The pay is low; the work physically straining, onerous and monotonous; sexist and transphobic harassment frequent, and the expectation of our resignation to it intimately bound up with a virulent idea of the inexorable ruggedness of service-sector emotional labour; monitoring from supervisors, bosses and surveillance systems relentless; and productivity quotas and targets interminably bear down on us. There is no union presence, no remnant even of the idea of its necessity. This is all framed simply as the dynamism of the modern workplace – and we must learn discipline, passivity, gratefulness for even being granted this opportunity. The conditions of the vacancies on offer – temporary, at around 10 months, to reconcile with student term dates, part-time, etc – were justified under a rubric of flexibility around studies, thus concealing and normalizing a whole-sale decimation of protections and rights across the labour market under the Conservative adminstration.
Work and university are mutually constitutive in their tensions and contradictions: not only because university is a site of service and knowledge production, increasingly subservient to corporate interests, but because more and more students are being forced into work due to heightening financial pressures, and universities and workplaces are more and more subordinated to the same ruthless logic of market forces. In particular, programmes of performance management dominate both spheres, contriving impossible standards of productivity in which workers’ livelihoods are interminably at risk, with increasing workloads, deteriorating working conditions and even dismissal due to ‘financial underperformance’ commonplace. We are ever more over-burdened, under-remunerated and emotionally spent as we police ourselves against consistent measuring and monitoring, our affective capacities territorialized as a resource by capital. The looming pressure of deadlines and exams for students are mirrored in a vast bureaucracy of metrics and targets for workers: with these competing pressures often acting on the same subject. Alienation from the mission and purpose of one’s work, having oneself and others made into rivals, resentment with conditions and rules over which we have no control, self-repression, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, instability, feelings of ‘falling behind’ and ‘never being able to do or be enough’ and all-or-nothing competition, inadequacy, dejection, result.
This is not simply an indication of the importance of staff-student solidarity in our struggles, both in and beyond the university, but fundamentally gestures towards the ever-increasing importance of recarving the strategy of student struggle itself as an industrial one. Students must become a power in and of themselves, not simply offering solidarity to sections of the working class from the broader community, but also becoming a self-organized industrial force, mobilizing as workers as well as tenants, subjects of oppression, autonomous social actors, etc.
This is especially true because the political potentialities of university are always in tension, due to their being traditionally conservative institutions home to a middle class cultural elite, engaged in projects of gentrification, and acting as sites of reproduction for managers, politicians and technocrats. This dynamic has been somewhat recomposed by neo-liberal reforms, with universities increasingly rendered as sites in which indebted consumers and trained professionals are equipped and disciplined for the labour market. Throughout history, students have acted as the revolutionary agitators within broader processes of working-class mobilization due to the specifics of our situation – more spare time, free access to academia and radical enquiry, cultural spaces of independence from the nuclear family and social orthodoxy, the (sometimes mythical) trajectory of universities as tasked with a public mission to grapple with and challenge received wisdom upheld through rigorous struggle, etc.
A strategy delimited by too restricted a ‘student’ focus could indeed advance a narrow scope of ‘student interests’ at the expense of the broader community. For example, students can and must be at the forefront of fighting against casualization when our passivity to such work regimes is approved by the state as a proxy for tacit acquiescence in the broader working class. This is especially true in a context where precarity and temp agencies are created, propagated and legitimized by our own universities, normalizing casualized work across cities and communities. Our interests as students and as the working class must be understood, and actively unified, as one in the same. Indeed, a perennial problem of student organizing, high turnover – engendering short-termist strategies and a tendency to not develop resilient infrastructure – is increasingly applicable to waged work and its post-Fordist recomposition.
The most effective response to these conditions is, I think, to draw on and meld the best of both the robust traditions of unionism, and the fluid, horizontalist practices adopted to suit conditions of precarity and popularized by the recent history of anti-austerity revolt. These histories, and this collective imagination, though in some sense propelling and rejuvenated by the Labour project, is largely non-existent across most workplaces (with exceptions such as the SOAS Justice For Workers victory to bring all workers in-house among one of many notable examples). A rupture in the neo-liberal consensus has indeed occurred, and this must be celebrated – but hope has not translated to the shopfloor, and without organized rank-and-file working-class militancy, the strategic vision developed to occupy this rupture cannot be realized. With disproportionately young people leading canvassing efforts and voting for Labour, our role as workplace organizers must too be recaptured.
Most of those in the new cohort at Sainsbury’s are, of course, students ourselves – college, University, or recently graduated. We see ourselves projected in the multitudes of students acclimatizing to their new-found independence, that excitement and apprehension invoked by thought of the novel academic, social and personal possibilities of university – what could be, what is, what was. Mostly I see vague wisps of what should have been, if universities were the sites of transformation, exploration and discovery they now only aggressively market themselves to be. I see glimpses of campaigns and dissent in which we collectively realized these values; realized something beyond a compulsion to desperately pursue every experience at university as an ‘opportunity’ to advance our careers in a ruthless labour market, as if HE institutions were merely training grounds in a battle with the looming spectre of debt; realized something beyond our state of owing, paying, toiling. Everything positive I found at university – love, community, empowerment – was wrenched from it in struggle, asserted despite and against it rather than because of it, wrested as concession rather than gift. I don’t want these students to go through what I and others went through.
I shouldn’t have to recall university mostly with pain, rent across by memories of oppressive harassment and abuse, to overbearing disillusionment with a course I undertook only for its job prospects, to episodes of panic as I struggled to reckon with the aftermath of traumatic police and security violence, to shedding flurries of tears as I approached exams in a haze of overwhelming stress, to those same floods of tears lamenting the convictions and community service levelled by the court for protesting against fees, to the doctor’s visit diagnosing my depression, to supporting friends through illness, self-harm, abuse and violence in the absence of professional infrastructure, etc.
Though our experiences are not homogeneous, these are all too common features of a Higher Education system aggressively oriented towards the interests of the market – which demands and engenders alienation, isolation, often unbearable academic and financial pressure, regimes of auditing and assessment, oppression, evisceration of support services and democracy and community, a sentence of debt, and preparation for an existence of professional drudgery and social submission. With suicide rates deplorably at their highest ever rate at universities, too many of us are haunted by recollections of university as the first time we were struck by the devastating desolation of suicidal thoughts, ideation and even attempts. Too many of us have felt like we would never again experience happiness, in a place we were exhorted would be our home. Too many of us have not made it. So many have dropped out and temporarily withdrawn, unable to cope with the pressure. This is a product of a social order in which hope is a luxury, ciphers in a brochure, artificial symbols of aspiration and acquisition to contend for and clamber towards through mires of debt.
It should not be this way. It cannot be this way. I don’t want to look into those students’ faces and see ghosts, shadows of loss and fractures of despair through which bitterness and jadedness whisper when co-workers ask me ‘how did you find your time at university?’. I want to be happy for them. I want to be excited for them. I want adventure for them, possibility, worlds that support their collective flourishing and self-realization – just as I want that for every worker here who damn well deserves better than this, deserves better than a life at the mercy of bosses, toiling in unrewarding and arduous work, performance managed until our emotions and personalities are subsumed into the machinery of a faceless corporate persona, our dreams and potential untapped and sacrificed for the sake of the rich. A narrative which conceptualizes any of these problems as inevitable byproducts of the rigours of independence, or failings in individual resilience, is a callous one which can only serve to reproduce these problems. It is a narrative that sanctions ailing public services, the voiding of collective empathy and solidarity, the prescription that we should be content with a regime underpinned by insecurity, anxiety and domination, in which most of us are exhausted and debilitated to the point of desperation.
I think back to the instances of joy at university – and hold to them, like moments of clarity and stillness amidst a cacophony of check-out beeps and barked orders from bosses. They still linger on, in the infrastructures of political organization we’ve formed, the memories of struggle we’ve forged, the change we’ve catalysed on campus. I am now largely uprooted from that certainty, that continuity, that collective strength, with many of my dearest friends and those with whom I started Warwick For Free Education disappeared to every corner of the country. I like to hope that these are connections that span histories, transcend distance, can and have overcome any adversity. Whether actively asserted and communicated as frequently, these connections have impacted me indelibly, changed how I carry myself, believe in myself, and care for others. I never felt like I truly belonged anywhere before I found them. And when I see the excitement gleam in those fresher’s eyes, it’s those contours I’ll see, silhouettes of tears dissolving into warm embraces and clasped hands and locked arms. And I’ll remember not only the moments I thought I’d never know joy again, but the moments I knew joy more beautifully than I’d ever known it before. And I’ll think: maybe even in this place, then, I can know it again, if we dare to fight. But it’s hard, harder in this place because there is no collective memory, no infrastructure, more regimentation and corresponding adaptation, and I barely know where to begin.