Strike action in higher education

Stamp out casual contracts

Squeezing the employers on casualisation in HE

3 December 2018 | last updated: 4 December 2018

Anyone interested in casualisation in the university sector and watching the offers issuing from UCEA, the national employers' organisation will very quickly draw an important conclusion.

University employers are offering nothing of any substance. For some years now, repeated calls for jointly agreed action to reduce precarious work in higher education have been met with a complete refusal to offer anything meaningful. Instead, national employers' representatives have confined themselves to warm words about interminable working groups aimed at producing joint research or 'gaining a better understanding'. Anything but taking action. When pressed they will throw up their hands and gesture towards their mandate.

Every year, UCEA are given a mandate by their subscribers and every year this extends to offering the smallest possible amount in headline pay rises, consistently below inflation, together with an offer of nothing on casualisation. No university employer wants this to be resolved through action that they don't control, so they simply don't provide a mandate to negotiate on casualisation. Even if they did, any solutions developed would still require our branches to negotiate their application to the specific circumstances in each employer.

This is why UCU has to take the fight to local employers.

Employers are saying casualisation is a local issue. Of course, that's a one-sided view, and it is obviously true that national policy changes made by a government that wanted to provide better jobs in the sector could completely transform the situation. But in the meantime, we don't have to, nor should we wait for that to happen. As a union, we can and must take action now. 

In addition to which, of course, UCU is recognised and organised locally and can take significant action to hurt the employer's reputation locally. Hence UCU's national strategy must be to try to win change at national level but also help our branches to drive it from the bottom upwards where necessary. This helps explain the resources that we're putting into encouraging and supporting branches to table local claims. 

However, simply tabling claims and expecting the employer to engage was never going to be enough, which is why UCU's national and regional officials have been working with a group of our branches to develop local plans to exert growing pressure, build organisation and exercise strategic leverage over employers.

The underpinning of these local plans is a strategy day. At these strategy days, the branch reviews the key issues for casualised staff, studies the employer's perspective, maps the employer's power and looks at how to build the branch's own power through membership and the critical alliance with students. In the final session, the branch examines the points of maximum leverage over the course of a year and develops a campaign plan to support its claim.

The take up of this approach has been impressive.

Strategy days have been held at the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham, Swansea and Leeds. Claims worked up through these strategy days and supporting campaigns have been lodged at Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham, Cambridge, Swansea and Bristol and negotiations have begun in five of these seven branches. At Durham we expect a claim to be lodged this month.

At Bristol, the branch launched their campaign with a public meeting aimed at casualised staff.

The University of Manchester UCU launched a petition which appears to have annoyed their management, while Cambridge coordinated the submission of their claim with the publication of a new report into casualisation.

At Nottingham, where the management have yet to show any will to negotiate, around 50 professors signed an open letter to the management calling for a change of direction, students have begun to contact the vice-chancellor calling for talks and the branch and Students' Union have called a local demonstration for 12 December.

Similarly, at Edinburgh University, where talks have stalled, the branch and students will be lobbying the university Court on 3 December.

Where employers fail to engage or move, the pressure will be ratcheted up, all with national support and all with the supporting aim of building organisation and engagement among casualised staff.

The key to this approach is combining claims for negotiations with planned and coordinated campaigning and negotiation, supported by resources from the national union. It is through this approach that, whatever the shortcomings of the national bargaining machinery, the union can build on other major local successes in recent years, from the ending or radical reduction in zero hours and casual worker contracts at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex and Sheffield universities, to the movement of hourly paid staff onto fractional contracts at Anglia Ruskin, Bournemouth and Portsmouth universities.

These are not seismic changes in themselves, but they are creating movement and momentum and it is absolutely certain that they would not have happened without the union.

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