The phrase 'I’M ALRIGHT JACK' has been boring a channel between my ears ever since the University and College Union, of which I am a longstanding member, asked us to strike after an overwhelming majority voted for industrial action over pensions. Like so much UK slang it originated in the Royal Navy. ‘Jack’ is slang for sailor. When the last sailor climbed on board he would say, ‘I'm alright Jack, pull up the ladder’.
But the phrase has changed meaning. That sailor presumably ensured that everyone else was safely on board before he said it; the contemporary meaning, that the speaker is not prepared to put themselves out in the slightest to help others, may have been cemented by the 1959 comedy, appropriately about a strike, I’m All Right Jack. This seems to me to be the position of all the large number of senior and retired academics who are neither striking nor at least speaking up in support of the strike. They are happy to pull up the ladder while younger colleagues emit distress signals below.
All pension money already ‘paid in’ to the system before the proposed changes kick in (April 2019) is guaranteed to be ‘paid out’ as a fixed percentage of earnings, not left to the mercy of the stock market. This means that I, like everyone else who has been paying in for many years, have a relatively secure future financially. I am alright Jack. So are academics who have already retired.
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But my young colleagues who have joined the Universities Superannuation Scheme more recently are in a precarious position. And when they signed up for an academic career on a salary which is tiny relative to what they could be earning in other professions, they did so believing they would receive a fixed-percentage-of-earnings pension. They have been conned.
Academics have been polite about not criticising non-striking colleagues. I do accept that some people, for political, religious, or ethical reasons, do not approve of industrial action in any context and/or feel concerned about the welfare of their students. But the strike will be over most quickly, and the students suffer least, if senior academics stop propping up the daily activities of the university.
And what I believe is really motivating most of the large number of retired academics in not speaking up, and senior academics in not striking, is, in philosophical terms, the 'Rational Egoism' of Ayn Rand: they have convinced themselves that no action is justifiable unless it maximizes their own self-interest. Or, as Henry Sidgwick put it, the agent ‘regards quantity of consequent pleasure and pain to himself alone important in choosing between alternatives of action.’[i] They are not prepared to have their own wages docked on strike days, or deal with any disruption to their routines, even in support of younger, poorer colleagues.
Yet it is precisely the senior academics who have most job security, can best afford to lose a few days’ income, wield institutional clout, and can activate the loudest voices in the media. The quietists are in my of course very personal view guilty of committing what Aristotle called a ‘wrongdoing by omission’. I would ask non-strikers, as the action continues, at least to reconsider their position one more time, and retired academics to begin writing those collective letters to parliament and the mainstream press.