7 June 2018

Another Education is Possible, Spring 2018: The casualised – at the heart of the union

The Casualised – at the heart of the Union.

Christina Paine

UCU is in transformation through grassroots organisation for the USS and FE strikes. We saw an unprecedented mobilisation of precariously employed workers on those snow-bound picket lines, leading teach-outs and debates about democracy and representation through tweets and Facebook posts. Most of these hourly paid lecturers, researchers or GTA’s have little pension to depend on or fight for. They risk losing teaching next year simply for taking strike action or holding union office.

Yet, in 2018 these workers, following several years of sustained activism and publicity by activists in UCU, were fighting for something bigger. The USS dispute – where the younger workers clearly have the most to lose – has mobilised a new generation buoyed up by collective fights against the rampant marketization of the sector, the TEF and REF and the contempt shown for academic and related staff through the systemic devaluing of pensions and job security.

Why have the voices of the casualised become louder on UCU committees and picket lines? Have casualised staff only just gained consciousness of their exploitation? Do they only feel now they can have a voice that can be meaningfully exercised? Has UCU only recently started to recognise the mechanisms which enforce the two-tier system in our institutions, significantly propped up by the oppression of the young and female and black workers on low pay and precarious conditions? All these reasons are somewhat accurate. But what has changed is that the UCU membership has realised anew that our strength is always in our capacity for collective action. An important tide has turned in UCU. Now, more than ever, casualised workers say they want to see a collective fight over their working conditions by all UCU members; a fight for decent secure jobs and pensions for all.

The problem

54% of HE academic staff and 30% of FE staff are employed on insecure contracts. Fixed-term contracts are the predominant form of employment for early to mid-career staff in higher education. The increase in precarious work drives down pay and conditions for all staff. No wonder UCEA, the national negotiating body for employers in HE, refuses to commit to action on the precariat. Remedying the conditions of these workers would require fundamental overhaul of the system, one maintained on inequality and exploitation, poverty and worsening mental health. But, worse than poor working conditions is the reality of broken careers and lives. Many highly qualified lecturers struggle to stay in their chosen profession while others leave and seek alternative careers. Being casualised can make you feel undeserving and worthless. After all we ask – why can’t I get that career break that everyone else gets?

Providing casualised work is a political choice and cannot be divorced from other detriments to workers under capitalism. Invisible labour, such as marking, preparation, meetings and pastoral work exacerbates exploitation. Central too is the heavy concentration of women and black workers in the lower quartiles of pay and on casualised contracts. This exacerbates the gender pay gap and affects choices about whether to have children. It also fuels the silence over the high incidence of sexual harassment in our institutions as casualised women fear losing work for speaking out.

UCU in Transformation

UCU cannot go back to what it was. With 24,000 new members, many of them young PhD students, new questions are being asked about our democratic processes, representation of members and the accountability of the NEC.

Following the USS strike action, what can we do to support newer casualised members to take a full role in the union? Clearly, we need all members to work together to step up the fight. The voices of the casualised must be heard and acted upon.

It is about equality and fairness. Casualised reps are calling for a more progressive subs system where those who earn more pay more, thus decreasing the burden on lower paid members. Lack of facility time is a massive issue. It impedes self-determined representation of casualised staff.  We call for decent facility time for all reps.

Language matters. Casualised workers need to be central to the struggle to reframe our colleges and universities. Language should include us:  Indeed even the term ‘casualisation’ does not really describe the multiple kinds of workers propping up our colleges and universities rather ‘precarious workers’ best describes the multiple forms of worker involved in post 16 education. It is also essential that we involve all university workers in disputes and make adjustments of hardship finances so they can do so without poverty and losing their future work. We need to build solidarity between all university workers, including cleaners and security guards, and we need to be more inclusive in our publicity and conferences and give all members a representative voice in our campaigns.

Communication mechanisms should allow NEC casualised reps to communicate with their specific constituencies. Training and mentorship for new reps built from successful local campaigns can help to overcome some of the inherent difficulties precarious staff face often through simply not being included in departmental activities or in the structures of our Union. Claims for fractional contracts need to be tabled in all branches and led by casualised workers and we need to build strong local action in branches to galvanise a national dispute on pay and conditions of work.

The time is now! We can use open days to publicise the impact of casualisation on our students. We can shame institutions in the press. We can table anti-casualisation claims in our institutions. But, above all we need to galvanize members to take industrial action supported by our permanent colleagues. We need a national strike to challenge the scandal of precarious labour. As we move into the new HE pay claim landscape, we must use the momentum and militancy we have built in recent disputes, to create strong branches and local campaigns which will feed into the national pay dispute. We want permanent staff to put their significant weight behind their casualised brothers and sisters collectively to take industrial action to end casualisation.

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