I grew up surrounded by trade unionists. I distinctly remember seeing a news report about an industrial action on the news when my mother said: “If I ever crossed a picket line, my father would turn in his grave.” Her father, my grandfather, was born in inner-city Dublin, and having helped build the ESB coal burning station in Ringsend, went on to work there for decades as a turbine driver. I was shocked to learn that my grandfather, a tall, well-built, yet kind and gentle man, had spent a night in prison because of his union activity. Despite having five young children in a small house in Crumlin, he had gone out on strike with the Irish Stationary Engine Drivers Union. His decision to strike broke a court injunction, and as a result he spent a night in a jail cell. He remained a strong supporter of trade unions for his entire life.
My father too has long worked for a union in multiple capacities. He must have watched through his fingers as his son, undertaking a degree in Economics in Trinity, was embracing the neoliberalism many of his lecturers espoused. My father would sit at the dinner table and wax lyrical about the Guinness family, who built social housing for their workers and gave them free healthcare and leisure facilities, and lament the dearth of such businesses now. “If you had joined trade unions like us, you wouldn’t be in this mess.” I originally rejected his ideals. Free market economy was imprinted on my mind from four years of studying economics. It was not until I completed my undergraduate degree and dipped my toes in the world outside that I became sympathetic to his and my grandfather’s way of thinking. Though Ireland is a country founded on and strengthened by trade unions, the number of people who support them is dwindling. The public reaction to industrial action by Dublin Bus and Luas drivers reflects that quite clearly. The next time you experience a strike in a public service don’t rush to condemn it as inconvenient; ask why it is happening.
“‘Do what you love’ is now the opiate that placates you in a job that underpays and undervalues you. It’s a means of control.”
Studying at university leaves me conflicted with regard to my support of trade unionism and protecting workers. The perception is that most academics are on healthy salaries. These bulging pay packets, combined with long summers, limited teaching hours and the absence of stress caused by unruly children or adolescents, make for a good life. While this may be true for some, it certainly is not for most. The reality for most academics, those who teach students week in week out, is one of job insecurity and low pay.
Many of my lecturers are part-time. Their contracts are reviewed on an annual basis. What this means is that they receive none of the benefits one would expect, such as pension contributions or even maternity leave. These lecturers are paid only for “contact hours”: from the moment they walk into the classroom to the moment they leave it. From the outside that seems about right. However, it means that these part-time lecturers correct essays, write exams, correct exams, supervise dissertations and theses, and prepare and write lectures all without being paid.
How long does preparing a lecture really take? If the part-time lecturer is being asked to prepare a lecture on a topic that relates closely to their research, then not long. Unfortunately though, this is not a luxury that is granted to most part-time lecturers. Lecturers are increasingly being asked to prepare and deliver lectures on subject matter with which they are not familiar. This requires huge amounts of research, reading and preparation. It might just look like a series of PowerPoint slides with clumsy images to you, but it’s actually two days’ worth of work.
As a master’s student, every time I ask a lecturer for feedback on an essay or schedule a meeting with my thesis supervisor I feel as though I am crossing a picket line. Even sitting in lectures is becoming uncomfortable. It leaves me conflicted. I want to support my lecturers who radiate passion for their subjects, but for me there is no alternative.
“Do what you love”
“At present some of our teachers […] cannot afford to buy a home. Our teachers cannot afford to start a family.”
Worse is the apathy and lack of sympathy we, as students, show towards this. We seemingly forget that these academics were students once too. They were the students who were told to “follow their dreams” and “do what you love”. The latter of these phrases is the one that jars with me the most. “Do what you love” is not an inspirational mantra that leads to a happy and fulfilled life. “Do what you love” is now the opiate that placates you in a job that underpays and undervalues you. It’s a means of control. The embrace of neoliberalism by successive governments means that we are left with a situation whereby those who see their work as a vocation are exploited. Gardaí with 5–9 years’ experience are paid €33,000 a year, the average pay for a nurse is €30,865, and a teacher appointed after 1 February 2012 earns just €31,009 at entry level. The average industrial wage in Ireland is over €40,000.
Rather than leaving these pay figures in abstract terms, I’ll use my economics degree to look at them in context. Average rents in Dublin range from €1,663 in the south of the city to €1,365 in the north. The “golden rule” of rental accommodation is that one should not spend more than 30% of their income on rent. The average person renting in Dublin will spend €18,168 annually on rent. This means that anyone earning under €60,560 after tax per annum is breaking the golden rule. How can we expect our teachers, nurses, Gardaí and lecturers to pay rent, save for a deposit, pay travel expenses to and from work, and buy groceries? According to the Nevin Economic Research Institute, 15.2% of people in Ireland live on an income that is below the poverty line. Of that 15.2%, 12% are at work. This represents 5% of the Irish workforce.
Crossing the picket line
“Every time I ask a lecturer for feedback on an essay or schedule a meeting with my thesis supervisor I feel as though I am crossing a picket line.”
Universities are profiting from exploitative working conditions, and Trinity is among them. As students, we cross the picket every day and implicitly tell third level institutions that underpaying lecturers and academics is acceptable. We demand better teaching. We demand more interaction, more face-time, more feedback from our lecturers. Your lecturers aren’t doing this job because the financial rewards are huge. They are doing it because they want to. They are doing it because they love teaching their subject. Your lecturers would love to give you detailed feedback on your essays and exams. In their preferred world, they would do it.
I’m not suggesting that the student body is selfish. The precariousness of academic work is not something that is highlighted by universities or the media. At present, some of our teachers, the same people who sat in the seats we now occupy, cannot afford to buy a home. Our teachers cannot afford to start a family. Our teachers can barely exist above the poverty line. If we knew these things, maybe we might be more sympathetic. It’s little wonder that some don’t give detailed feedback when they teeter on the financial edge.
How can we as students avoid facilitating exploitative work practices and at the same time get as much out of our education as we can? It’s a dilemma that I have not yet solved in my own mind. So I continue to cross the invisible picket line each day. The only vow I can make is to do it less quietly than I did before.