Academics go ‘on strike’ against workload with out-of-office reply

06 Nov 2019

For the entire month of November, WOinActie sympathisers are going on strike to raise awareness of the workload — on paper, that is. Academics are stating in their out of office reply that they will not be working more hours than they are required to based on their contracts.

Those who sent an e-mail to researchers or lecturers over the past few days may have already received the WOinActie’s special out-of-office reply:

I’m currently participating in the WOinactie “work-to-rule strike”. This means that I am currently limiting my number of working hours to what is stipulated in my contract. As a result, it may take longer than usual before you receive a reply to your e-mail.

‘This e-mail campaign is intended to further increase pressure on the government to invest more in higher education,’ explains Marijtje Jongsma, spokesperson for the VAWO scientific union. The VAWO is teaming up with WOinActie, just like fellow trade union FNV. ‘Previous actions, such as in Leiden during the opening of the academic year, did not yield any results. On the contrary, the minister only made further budget cuts. This is adding insult to injury.’

Untenable

This is why WOinactie is now launching a ‘work-to-rule’ strike. It is not an actual strike, but a possible step towards one. By using their automated reply, activists want to make a statement: academics are consistently working overtime, and it is untenable. This leads to work pressure and sick leave. For that reason, they will strictly be adhering to the hours mentioned in their contract throughout November.

The action is receiving support nationwide. On social media, dozens of researchers say they have adjusted their e-mail replies, including Nijmegen professors Marc van Oostendorp and Mike Jetten. Jongsma, who is a researcher at the Behavioral Science Institute: ‘Everyone agrees that it is impossible to do all the work within our contract time. For example, this weekend I was conducting experiments in NEMO. I don’t have time to compensate for that time during the week.’

Preaching to the choir

However, the call to action has also lead to criticism amongst academics. The action would mainly affect academics themselves, not the government. ‘It’s a complex form of ‘preaching to the choir’,’ as noted by Eelco Runia on Twitter. Runia resigned last year as a university lecturer at the University of Groningen out of dissatisfaction with the academic work culture. ‘Those who need to face facts are not usually the ones who send me e-mails,’ states Mathijs van de Sande, assistant professor of philosophy at Radboud University, in his tweet.

Van de Sande, also a member of the Works Council, notes that it is mostly the experienced researchers who are joining campaign. ‘It is easy for them to make this statement,’ he says, ‘while younger researchers without appointment cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of working less hours.’ ‘It suggests that many of the academics who go on strike are only partly aware of their own relative privilege compared to younger/vulnerable colleagues.’

Snowball effect

VAWO spokeswoman Jongsma does not agree with that criticism. ‘On the contrary, I think it is great that professors and senior academics are participating, it ensures more mutual solidarity in the workplace. This will show institutional directors that we cannot handle the amount of work.’

‘People do not necessarily need to work less hours,’ she continues. ‘I understand that this might be impossible sometimes. Turning on the out-of-office reply is mainly intended to signal that something needs to change.’

The work-to-rule strike is the first of a series of new actions. For example, WOinAction has asked that trade union members in academic works councils not agree to academic budgets next year if it is not clear whether sufficient funding and man-hours are available for all educational and research tasks. ‘But ideas for further actions are always welcome,’ says Jongsma. ‘We are hoping for a snowball effect.’

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