Yes to the pay campaign, but more importantly, yes to a proper fight against casualisation!

If you are a member of the University and College Union (UCU) and work in Higher Education, over the past couple of weeks you will almost certainly have been bombarded with emails, adverts and messages exhorting you to vote YES to strike action over this year’s pay offer. You will also have received a ballot through the post giving you the opportunity to vote for a strike or to vote for action short of a strike.

There are, as there usually is during our national pay negotiations, plenty of reasons to vote for a strike. As the UCU points out there’s the sustained decline in our real wages (14.5% since 2010), the ongoing pay gap between men and women (£6,103 a year), the number of teachers and researchers in Higher Education on fixed term and casual contracts, including the 21,000 teaching staff on zero-hour contracts. For those reasons, we at FACE give a resounding YES to national strike action this Autumn and we’re happy that the union has raised casualisation in the sector as one of their demands.

However… We are, like many people in Higher Education, wary about what exactly a YES vote will mean. We’re wary that what it will mean is HE workers being marched to the top of the hill for a single 2-day strike, staying there for a brief, half-hearted marking ban, before being marched back down again when the employers offer us another fraction of a percent. We’re wary that little effort will be made to energise branches and improve union organisation in Higher Education. We’re wary that activists will be wound up to fight, but that the official union will be looking to de-escalate as quickly as possible. We’re wary of being told that the dispute is about a long list of things but that, in the end, a pay increase will be all that really matters.

And we’re wary because to a great extent that is exactly what happened in 2013-14. Back then the joint pay demand put forward by the UCU, UNISON and Unite contained a whole bunch of lovely goodies. There was an end to low pay, action on the gender pay gap, a cap on Vice-Chancellor pay, an increase in London Weighting, an end to zero-hour contracts, fractional salaries with time for admin and prep for all hourly-paid staff, new agreements on disability leave, and agreements on limiting workloads. But what was the actual substance of the fight our unions waged? How often did the union talk about anything other than the headline percentage figure? How much progress has been made on those issues, given that they’ve been raised in almost the exact same format two years later?

Our experiences of the UCU’s priorities in previous fights have made us wary of our union’s priorities. We worry that these issues will be treated as marginal, when to the people our unions are seeking to represent, they’re really not. For casualised workers in Higher Education, pieceing together fixed-term, hourly or zero-hour contracts, being paid for a fraction of the time they actually spend working, an extra 0.5% doesn’t mean very much. 0.5% on a casual contract is 0.5% of whatever we can cobble together and 0.5% of whatever arbitrary number of hours our employer decides we are working. We worry that any progress the UCU makes on the gender pay gap will inevitably be partial, and slanted towards senior permanent faculty, if the casualisation which disproportionately affects women and people of colour is once again sidelined.

Moreover, we worry that with the rise of temp agencies like Unitemps and the now dead (and unmourned) TeachHigher, as well as the point blank refusal of universities to consider taking low-paid catering, security and cleaning staff, back in house, there will still be many thousands working in HE for whom national action on pay will bring not even the meagre benefit in-house casualised staff will get.

We worry, but we have hope. We have hope that this time YES will mean something more. Not just YES to a fight over a percentage point on our hourly rate, but YES to a real fight over what employment in Higher Education really means. YES to a real end to zero-hour contracts across the sector. YES to an end to gender pay discrimination. YES to realistic job descriptions that pay for every hour worked. YES to an end to contracting out exploitation to unscrupulous employment agencies. YES to really, genuinely dismantling discrimination in Higher Education. YES to mobilising casualised staff and permanent staff to fight against all forms of exploitation in Higher Education.

YES to all these, and YES to making them central not marginal to our fight in 2016.

Photo: ‘UCU’, by Simarchy.

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Job losses and Privatisation at the University of Manchester

Currently in Manchester the three campus Unions, UCU, Unite and Unison, are mobilising to take action against management over the announcement of hundreds of potential compulsory redundancies. After a huge cross-union meeting on Tuesday the 11th of August, this is the situation as it currently stands.

A basic summary

The University of Manchester is in the process of making a growing number of staff redundant – over 250 workers have been told that they are ‘at risk’ of compulsory redundancy, on statutory terms. At the same time, the University is attempting unilaterally to push through a change in the Redeployment Policy (the system whereby eligible staff, whose jobs are being altered, can apply for vacancies elsewhere in the university) so that in future people will no longer be able to remain on the Register until an alternative position can be found for them. Instead anyone who has been on the Register for three months will face compulsory redundancy.

The situation in Manchester has several complicated factors, including questions of trade union procedure and quality impact assessments, with the disproportionate effect of the changes on BME and disabled members of staff being of particular concern. It also has some interesting implications for the prospects of increased out-sourcing and the casualisation of academic work. The aggressive erosion of job security that the restructuring plan represents will make it much easier for the University to get rid of unwanted members of staff whenever such cost-saving initiatives demand it.

Is there a Dispute?

Bizarrely, despite UCU’s insistence and several huge cross-union meetings, the University itself is refusing to recognise this as an official dispute, on the basis that any redundancy made would be ‘in line with existing University policies and processes’. The University has even announced that the consultation process is now concluded, while UCU has released a statement that it does not consider any meaningful consultation to have taken place.

This position ignores the fact that the willingness to use compulsory redundancies and the proposed changes to Redeployment represent a dramatic change in the University’s approach. In the past Manchester has always ruled out compulsory redundancies in an effort to reduce costs or achieve organisational change, even when the University has been going through significant financial challenges or large-scale restructuring such as the merger with UMIST in 2004. Such a measure has always been regarded inappropriate to a University setting, on the basis that the resulting atmosphere would damage the culture of a higher education institution; in particular, collegiality, academic freedom and job security.

So far the University has not shown any willingness to consult or negotiate meaningfully with the Trade Unions. In fact in several instances UMUCU was only informed of major decisions affecting their members after they had been made. In one particularly telling incident Union reps were only given 38 minutes notice of a major change of circumstances prior to an “informal” meeting with management. Before the meeting, due to take place at 11am, Trade Unions received notification at 10.22am, that 219 IT staff were now at risk (with 68 redundancies ultimately being sought), and were informed that the scheduled “informal” meeting would in fact mark the start of formal collective consultations. They were also informed that the announcement would be made to IT staff at a meeting later the same day at 3pm.

UCU thus holds that this rapid escalation of the dispute constitutes a breach of the Recognition and Procedure agreements between the Union and the University, amounting in essence to the de facto de-recognition of the campus Trade Unions. No doubt this unprecedented level of hostility is linked to the general threat to Trade Union activity, proposed by Sajid Javid’s Trade Union Bill. As campaigns such at The ‘Right to Strike’ have been highlighting, such a climate has created a situation in which the power of union activity seems almost inevitably diminished. In Manchester, the timing of the threat seems to further prompt cynicism as to the university’s motives.

Re-structuring and the threat of encroaching casualisation

Such moves also represent a risk to academic workers, with the increased threat of out-sourcing. In the past, when Schools have been closed or restructured, academic staff have been accommodated into new structures and have generally been allowed to pursue their research interests. In future, re-structuring schemes such as the model currently being imposed in IT could be applied to academic departments, with the same result of compulsory redundancies. As in the case of Trade Union disputes, such a prospect is made more likely by the current political climate. Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson’s, proposed TEF (Teaching in Excellence Framework) and its accompanying metrics of graduate earnings makes the threat to certain departments seem all the more imminent. Just like in some cases following the assessment of the REF (Research in Excellence framework) management may target staff whose research is not within arbitrary ‘priority’ areas, or which is currently unfashionable, or, in the case of the TEF, whose students simply do not go on to high-earning careers. These changes make a move in that direction both more feasible and more likely.

Another potential threat is the increased and very likely use of out-sourcing in the case of re-structures like this one. In a cross-union meeting this week, staff from other areas of the University explained how the end result of similar re-shuffles had been the increasing use of agency staff to plug the gaps where staff, now made redundant, would have been working. This seems a very likely outcome in the case of IT, where 68 redundancies is the stated target, without sign of a significant reduce in work-load. Moreover, the disproportionate targeting of mid-career, middle-aged staff, suggests an increasing separation between senior posts and agency-covered work.

This is the sort of work-force pattern that schemes like Warwick’s Teach Higher out-sourcing model proposed, which separated permanent staff and researchers for agency employed teaching staff, on a much lower wage. Thus, although not necessarily apparent at first, such changes do represent a considerable threat to early-career researchers and teachers. Unlike staff employed on a permanent or ‘core-funding’ basis, those on fixed term contracts or contracts based on fixed-term funding are already in a precarious position. In that sense these changes may not immediately threaten them. However, this is also precisely the group aspiring to attain those mid-career posts that are currently being erased. These sorts of changes are aimed at undermining long-term job-security and in effect threaten all those ‘more secure’ permanent positions with the University that already casualised workers are demanding.

What’s going to happen next?

The cross-union meeting concluded that it was now time for staff and students to collectively put pressure on the University to take the dispute and the need for negotiation seriously. There will be several days of action, both leading up to and during Welcome week. The Unions are also currently conducting a survey to test the appetite for industrial action, with the likelihood of calling for action short of a strike, unless management significantly changes its stance.

Grass-roots organisations, such as FACE have been quick to notice the wider ramifications of such changes, hence the effective response of the local campaign group ‘hourly paid at Warwick’ against Teach Higher. Recent developments at Manchester, however, demonstrate how this fight is far from over. Those concerned with the marketisation of Higher Education and its damaging effects on the labour force, ought to watch the developments at this Russell-group university closely. There is increasing evidence that similar things are happening in different ways across different campuses. It is, therefore, essential that we are able to view these various attacks as inter-connected. By linking activists across the country we can go some way to achieving this.

In our next meeting at Birmingham we will be discussing developments in the Midlands.

You can receive regular updates from UMUCU on their website and twitter feed. It is also worth considering getting your local union branch to pass a motion in support of the Right to Strike campaign (The campaign has supplied a model motion here).

(This log post was contributed by Jess Patterson, who’s on the UMUCU exec and is also a FACE activist)