Higher Education workers will strike again on Wednesday 3 December in a fight against a 1% pay deal.
Many HE workers also face battles over zero-hours contracts and casualisation. Here, a UCU activist reports on the campaign against precarious working.
Contract-researchers are employed precariously by universities to fulfil short-term projects.
We may be employed on temporary contracts of various kinds, some of which are termed “occasional” or “exceptional”. Each species of contract carries its own set of terms and conditions, and these may differ significantly. Essentially, all such fixed-term contracts, even the least-bad, formalise casual labour.
A handful of colleagues and I were employed on a recent project, but the nature of the contract we were offered seemed to us markedly inferior to other contracts we had been given before to carry out work of a similar kind. Our union, UCU, took up the case and challenged the employer.
The upshot was that although the employer did not formally accept our contention that the initial contract represented an intensification of casualisation, we secured a less-bad, more run-of-the-mill contract for the work.
One of our aims had been to turn the individual grievance into a collective issue highlighting the extent of the university’s deployment of casual contracts, and their variety. The UCU branch, after some lobbying, organised for the UCU’s national official responsible for tackling casualisation to address members. The picture she painted of the situation nationally, and at my university, was shocking. Over 500 people were employed to teach at the university on zero hours contracts. Of all those employed by the university only to teach (rather than to teach and also to research) 82% are on fixed-term contracts. The national average for the sector is 50%, itself a startling figure.
The decision by universities to use the variety of casual contracts at their disposal is largely a political one. Some universities such as UCL and Aberdeen don’t use any fixed-term contracts. UCU is pressing for changes to the legislative framework governing employment in the sector, and its public stance is to build collective action to negotiate better policies at local level.
I’d like to be able to say that this has been evident at my university.
But despite the positive outcome of the specific grievance I was involved in, it seems as if the issue is still tagged as casework, rather than as a springboard to build collectively, and in the process to recruit to the union.
Recent joint strike-action by all campus unions over pay has understandably shifted the focus of attention. I would like to see the union locally being more proactive in its drive to gather information about the range of casual contracts being deployed on campus, and the extent to which staff are subject to casual contracts of various kinds.
Then the aim would be to take concerted local action to limit, and over time eradicate, the use of such contracts.