The relationship between local campaigns & unions: report from conference workshop

Over the coming days, we will publish a number of reports from workshops at our recent February 2015 conference. This one is from Caoimhe Mader McGuinness and Eleanor Roberts of the Queen Mary Against Casualisation campaign, who spoke at the “Relationships between local campaigns and unions” workshop.

This is a more positive report on the possible relationship between unions and grassroots local campaigns. As some people involved in grassroots organising have expressed an uncertainty about how to approach unions and their local branches, we will also briefly outline how to get involved in UCU activity and get more anti-casualisation representatives on your local committee.

Our background and history

Since November we have begun organising a grassroots campaign on campus called QMAC [Queen Mary Against Casualisation]. At the same time, our local UCU branch had successfully negotiated with management to get more positions on the committee for casualised staff, and was seeking out three anti-casualisation representatives. Three of us from the QMAC campaign became reps, and we hope to reinforce the point that a grassroots campaign can strengthen union (and thus management) engagement in issues of casualisation at local and national levels. Hence, it is important for UCU to support grassroots campaigns rather than stifle them – not in the least because of the proven boosts in union membership that arise as a result of independent organising.

Our UCU branch has been very supportive so far. They have accepted to financially support our campaign with little interference, they have listened to us during the passing of motions, which means that anti-casualisation appears strongly as a general campaigning aim from our branch, and our committee meetings tend to be free of antagonism: in short, we feel quite listened to! Our branch also unanimously voted to support FACE and pledged a donation towards the conference. Since becoming part of the committee, UCU is also helping us campaign for the hourly teaching rates, which have stagnated since 2009, to go up as they should have alongside the pay increases for permanent staff.

However, we know that the national UCU anti-casualisation campaign has not always been seen to be doing enough (although this might change with the new appointments made at the UCU anti-casualisation day on the 13/02). Overall, as has been outlined by others, we maintain the importance of a ‘one foot in, one foot out’ approach, as grassroots campaigns by peers (and allies) always feel more dynamic, and can exert pressure from within and outside of the unions. Despite the good relationship we have with our UCU branch, we also understand that the way in which unions function, even when sympathetic to these crucial issues, can appear bureaucratic, slow and stifled by jargon. Some of the procedures can also feel frustrating and overly time consuming. In that sense, whilst there are significant benefits in maintaining solidarity and influence through having anti-casualisation UCU reps, it is also important that the diversity of strategies is always maintained. For example, if we were to organise an event, stunt, march, or performative intervention of some sort, it may not be appropriate to achieve this through UCU. However, if industrial action was on the cards, we understand that UCU’s support and solidarity is vital.

Quite a few (if not all) of our School of Humanities and Social Sciences departments are also sympathetic to our efforts, and we have had permanent lecturers pushing for getting hourly-paid TA representatives in every department in our faculty (this was implemented in the School of English and Drama in the first instance). This is not strictly ‘union work’ but is due to staff (both casual and permanent) being actively engaged and aware of the issues at stake, as well as being members of our generally leftist union branch. The support of permanent members of staff is becoming increasingly important, as the changing landscape and further neoliberalisation of higher education holds ramifications for both students and staff at every level.

We are a fledgling campaign, so let’s see how this all develops, but all in all we remain pretty positive at the moment.

Notes for people who want to get more anti-casualisation reps in their local UCU branch. How does this work?

Every local branch should have at least one anti-casualisation rep, although we would advise to push at least for three. The reasons for this are:

  • Three reps can mean one representative for every type of casualised contract: Hourly paid, fractional and fixed term (we have not achieved this diversity of representation at QM as of yet but are hoping to in the future, hopefully as a result of our grassroots organising).
  • It’s also very simply a question of representation: as the amount of casualised labour grows (roughly 1 in 3 as a proportion of staff at Queen Mary), so should its union representation.
  • Casualised workers struggle to keep on top of a growing set of demands on their time, and furthermore, may not always be on campus if they have numerous roles in different institutions. Having more casualisation reps means that you can share the workload in a way that is manageable.

In order to get more anti-casualisation representatives, the first step is to attend the AGM at which yearly positions are decided. Attending local branch meetings beforehand is also advisable (you can email your branch committee to enquire about this if you have only just joined). Communicate with your local branch reps on how to raise issues and pass motions at the meetings. Try and gather a group of supporters to be present at the meeting and already have candidates in mind. Really push for three representatives for casualised staff. Each candidate will have to be seconded by a UCU member, so also make sure you are all UCU members beforehand.

Anti-casualisation UCU reps should get paid facilities time. Committee members who are also permanent staff get designated time and pay (sometimes a day a week) to do union work. This situation is obviously different for hourly-paid staff, and so at Queen Mary our branch negotiated that we would get paid our hourly rate for each hour of union work.

(NB: the actual terms of this are a bit up in the air, and our branch is still seeking clarification with HR. We don’t yet know if the hourly rate will be our full inclusive teaching rate, or the office hour or other administrative rate).

To get UCU to listen to your grassroots campaign and take it seriously, argue that:

  • Local surveys are more efficient than the general (UCU) national ones and that your grassroots campaign is already doing that.
  • Use the example of FACE and the networking happening between grassroots campaign as central to getting a proper picture of casualisation and its effects nationally.
  • Union membership goes up with grassroots campaigns. This is something they like to hear.
  • Please feel free to use QM’s example of a productive relationship between grassroots campaigning and the UCU branch.
  • UCU might also be useful to make contact with other casualised members of staff (see this model letter) as they have more leverage with HR and management as the recognised negotiating body. However, we know that some managements refuse to comply with the letter quoting ‘data protection’, so this might not always work (UCU model letter)
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