Defending post-16 education in the Coronavirus era

The impact of the Coronavirus on society is immense. Every aspect of our lives has been touched by the virus. Our working lives, home lives and how we relate to one another, physically and socially has been shaped by COVID-19.

A popular movement involving health workers, educationalists and scientists forced the government to lockdown the UK. In reality the government is still carrying out its preferred method of dealing with the virus the so called ‘herd immunity’ to deal with the crisis.  Boris Johnson’s government has utterly failed to protect the population. The World Health Organisation’s recommendation to combine lockdown with testing and PPE for frontline workers has not been implemented by the government.

As the death rate reaches the highest level within Europe (even before deaths in care are accounted for), there is a growing concern about the government’s handling on the virus. Millions participated in the International Workers Day memorial event in commemoration of frontline workers who have died.

The death toll is disproportionally hitting workers from BAME backgrounds and those with ‘underlying health conditions’ meaning people with disabilities.

Those colleges and university UCU branches who threatened to refuse to go to work if management did not close down their institutions were right to do so. Their actions in all likelihood saved lives.

There is a battle taking place in society between priorities of lives or profit. The attempt to question the validity of lockdown by some scientists is given significant airtime and press coverage: this represents a deliberate campaign to push back against the WHO-recommended strategy, in the same way as ‘climate denial’ was used to justify inaction for decades. We can most clearly see this being played out with the Trump-led ‘break the lockdown’ protests in the US.

Inside the colleges and universities, UCU members have risen magnificently to the challenge of supporting our students and communities. Some employers are working with UCU branches, especially where management have accepted we are working on a goodwill basis. Unfortunately, many employers are not. There is a drive in many institutions to get staff to work on a ‘business as usual’ approach, leading to great stress and anxiety for many of our members as they grapple to work from home and look after families. In Higher Education it is research staff who are likely to be among the first group coerced unnecessarily back to work.

In all sectors employers are positioning themselves for a post-coronavirus world. The government have forecasted a 35% drop in economic growth with the possibility of unemployment rising to 2 million.

Higher Education is facing the biggest crisis in its history, as the tuition fee market bubble is expected to burst, leaving a £2.5bn ‘black hole’. The employers are lining up for a full-frontal assault on the sector, using bankruptcy and closure to make thousands of redundancies. We can expect them to break up pay national bargaining and try to extract cuts in pay.

This crisis is wholly due to the fees-and-loans funding model. The Financial Times notes that universities elsewhere in the world that are not subject to tuition fee markets are not at risk.

Proposals from Universities UK for a government bailout are intended to entrench privilege within the sector and preserve the very market competition that led to this crisis. It is a recipe for a continuing crisis, especially if Coronavirus impacts on student recruitment, especially overseas student recruitment, for years to come. The move to teach online risks becoming permanent – the new Normal.

Maintaining and building branch organisation

Despite living and working in lockdown, the potential to build and grow union organisation is real – and essential. Many branches have met using different online platforms. But many have not.

We suggest that UCU should:

  • Launch a series of regional briefings on how to organise a branch in the lockdown.
  • Launch an online recruitment campaign.
  • Organise a series of sector-specific virtual meetings for members and officers to discuss how to prevent employers carrying out a ‘business as usual’ approach, support safe working at home, etc.
  • Organise a series of national online protests around key issues. For example, health and safety, equality and casualisation.
  • Demand campuses remain closed until national agreements are made on safe distancing, testing and tracing are all guaranteed.

Fighting for a post-16 education sector in a post-coronavirus world

UCU must position itself to be able to deal with the fallout during and following the lockdown. We should do so by rejecting any pessimism that our employers share about the lack of funding for the sectors. Never again should we accept that there is no money for education. The COVID-19 crisis has shown there is indeed a ‘magic money tree’.

Both sectors are going to be vital to the reconstruction of the post-coronavirus world. UCU must demand government underwrite the costs of maintaining and expanding post-16 education in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

UK post-16 sectors’ vulnerabilities are a direct consequence of following market dogma and speculating on global education.

We must start now to argue for a different model of further and higher education. A model that places knowledge, research, planning and collaboration at its centre instead of the market and competition. UCU has excellent policy in all these areas and has produced convincing manifestos and charters that outline a progressive model of how post-16 education could be run.

We suggest that UCU:

  • Organise a series of national virtual meetings on different aspects of our alternative vision for post-16 education.
  • Launch a campaign over funding for mental health support.
  • Publicly campaign against the UUK bailout plan, making the case for publicly funded and accountable Higher Education accessible to all who can attend
  • Campaigns for the expansion of provision for those young and older workers unable to gain employment following any post COVID recession.
  • Campaigns for an end to tuition fees and to reintroduce student maintenance grants.
  • Campaigns for the government to financially underpin all post-16 institutions that are suffering financial hardship due to the Covid-19 crisis, defend on-going educational provision, and preserve jobs and terms and conditions.

Webinar: Homeworking & Managerialism – Beyond the Exam Factory

A UCU Left Hosted Webinar

View here

Exam webinar landscape 5

Chair: Bee Hughes, LJMU Branch Committee.

Panel:
Daniel Kebede
, NEU Senior Vice president Elect
Matt O’Leary, Professor of Education
Sean Vernell, NEC
Marian Mayer, UCU National Negotiator.
Jordan Osserman, Update on the #CoronaContract
Sarah Elton, Durham UCU

Click here to register

 Monday 7.30pm 20 April

When we return from the Easter break the issues of homeworking and grading of  students will become central questions for all who who work in post-16 education.

 
Exams have been cancelled. Teachers will be asked to rank all their students from top to bottom. Rather than award grades based on what students have learnt, they will be asked to predict ‘how they would have done if they sat an exam.’ Many have of us have questioned a logic that puts exam performance above students’ real abilities. Why were we not consulted? What are the implications for our students? Isn’t this policy discriminatory, unfair and divisive? If exams can be cancelled, is now the time to move beyond the exam factory and introduce less competitive forms of education 
 
Many employers have recognised the fact that during the lockdown they are completely dependent on staff goodwill rather than contractual obligation for our efforts to support students from home.  UCU members are demonstrating that they are the guardians of education. They are doing everything they can to continue to teach our students.
 
However, some employers are trying to impose ‘business as usual’ regimes without any regard for mental or physical health or equality.  Some see this crisis as a golden opportunity to implement a new model of online learning. How we can we collectively resist attempts to monitor and manage us in our own homes? Is the demand to keep classes going during the crisis just adding to stress and anxiety for students and staff?
 
You may find these articles and comments useful prior to joining the webinar:
This is part of a series of webinar’s hosted by UCU Left during the Corona crisis. 

To view past webinar recordings click here:

Fighting for Education in the Time of Coronavirus

Academic Gig Economy: Defending Casualised Workers Under The Lockdown

Visit www.uculeft.org for updates, articles, to join us and for news of forthcoming events.

Join the Fight for a #CoronaContract

Please find below a mailing from the #CoronaContract campaign. Please share this widely and join their webinar this Thursday 9 April at 7pm.

CoronaContract image

Dear colleagues and comrades,

Apologies for this mass email. My name is Jordan, I’m a fixed-term postdoctoral researcher at Birkbeck, UCU member and one of the organisers of the #CoronaContract campaign to secure the livelihoods of precarious university staff during this crisis.

Will you please consider sharing this email with your members and relevant lists?

Our open letter has gathered over 1000 signatures and counting, and we were recently featured in a Guardian article calling out universities’ shameful treatment of casualised workers.

This Thursday at 7pm we will be hosting a #CoronaContract webinar, featuring UCU President Elect Vicky Blake and a host of inspiring anti-casualisation organisers. We’ll discuss the background to our campaign and the practical ways we’re going to exert pressure on our universities, unions, and the wider public in order to secure our livelihoods during this crisis and beyond. Please join us by registering here: (https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_oZweKJXkTFGI-YD_CS0Bgw)

In order for our campaign to succeed we need to get the word out as much as possible. Please join us on the webinar, follow and RT us on Twitter @CoronaContract, and sign our open letter.

In solidarity,
Jordan

The Academic Gig Economy: Defending Casualised Workers in the Lockdown

The Academic Gig Economy: Defending Casualised Workers in the Lockdown

View video here

The jobs massacre has started, fightback now!

  • Welcome: Mark Abel,UCU Left Secretary, Brighton University UCU
  • Chair: Bee Hughes Sessional lecturer LJMU & UCU Branch Committee

Panelists

  • Richard Burgon MP
  • #Coronacontract petition organisers:  Jordan Osserman, fixed-term Postdoctoral researcher, Birkbeck & Aimee Le, Fixed-term Lecturer Exeter
  • Elaine White, UCU Rep Bradford College, Chair of the UCU Anti-casualisation Committee & NEC
  • Lesley Kane, UCU Secretary Open University & NEC
  • Jordi López, IWGB Organiser and Caseworker

Click here to register
Join the national webinar
7.30pm Monday 6 April.
Hosted by UCU Left

We want to host as many campaigns and branches as possible.

 

Join the webinar and raise your hand to let everyone know what is happening.
Broadcast live on UCU Left Facebook

Organising resistance to attacks on casualised workers’ rights and jobs under Corona is urgent.   

The HE strikes brought to the fore collective resistance to the scandal of short-term and insecure employment in our colleges and universities. But with the coronavirus crisis casualised education workers are under additional threat. Bristol, Sussex and Newcastle universities are laying off thousands of lecturers, researchers and support staff. More than 50% of our universities and colleges are staffed by insecure contracts. Many hourly paid staff have had teaching cancelled as colleges and universities have shut down. Staff on agency, short-term, and fixed term contracts are threatened with unemployment during the lockdown. Outsourced migrant workers and agency staff working in catering, cleaning, security, pastoral and academic support, many of them low paid, face an even more hostile environment.

This UCU Left webinar will discuss how we can collectively defend casualised workers during this crisis and organise networks of resistance now. What lessons can we learn from efforts to fight gig economy in other sectors? What demands should UCU branches be making of our managements? How can we force employers not to lay off any staff while the pandemic lasts? What are the pitfalls of colleges and universities furloughing staff under the government’s job retention scheme? And what are the implications for permanent staff if casualised staff are attacked? What does this mean for the for fights, the pay gaps and equality?

The task to defend casualised workers is urgent. Please join the webinar and share the invitation widely.

Please sign and share these petitions:

#CoronaContract: Casualised staff demand universities guarantee two years’ work

Stop Sussex from Sacking their Staff! Covid-19

Open Letter – Covid-19 demands a rethink of Higher Education Funding

Please get in contact to add your petition or campaign.

The next webinar will focus on the new managerialism, homeworking and protecting our digital content rights.   

 

Open letter – Covid-19 demands a rethink of Higher Education funding

End tuition fees and market competition

This open letter was launched 31 March 2020 for immediate publication on the HE Convention website. You can add your name on this Google Form.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the whole of society.

Higher Education faces an existential financial crisis just as university researchers bend every effort to defeat Covid-19.

The benefits of HE are not just limited to research. Mass education from secondary to university created a scientifically-literate population. They drove the shutdown, demanding Boris Johnson and his Government acted.

But Higher Education itself has been undermined by a combination of Government policy, high tuition fees and management greed.

In 2010, the ‘ConDem’ Government raised home student undergraduate tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year, and (mostly) abolished block grants. Within three years, mature and part-time student numbers had almost completely collapsed.

Undergraduate numbers were controlled until 2014 when (with the exception of Medicine) the Government removed limits on student recruitment.

This lit the touch paper on a conflagration. For a £9,000 fee, university managers could make easy money out of undergraduate teaching. With no limit on the number of students universities could recruit, many expanded rapidly and built new campuses. But others, mainly post-92 universities, found their student numbers squeezed by intense competition for places in so-called ‘top’ universities. Brand name, not teaching quality, dominated. Undergraduate expansion encouraged further recruitment of overseas students and taught postgraduate courses, where fees could be even higher. Scottish Universities, not permitted to charge high fees, pursued overseas student recruitment in particular.

Before Covid-19, this system was already teetering on the brink. Universities were reportedly indebted by over £10 billion, and the total UK student loan debt had reached £121 billion by March 2019. Undergraduate student numbers were falling and several universities were rumoured close to bankruptcy.

Covid-19 changes the economic equation. Universities in the UK can now expect a sharp fall in total student numbers in September. Many students will delay applications for a year or two rather than apply for online courses. Some universities are contemplating delaying the start of term until January. It may be several years before the overseas student market recovers.

Already there is talk about bringing back the ‘cap’ on student numbers, even temporarily. But more drastic action is required to save Higher Education. Unless the Government acts now, the UK will see mass redundancies of university staff.

We the undersigned believe now is the time for a new deal for UK HE.

It is time to end the disastrous market experiment.

It is currently unthinkable that the Conservatives will privatise the NHS. Schools and further education know that their funding for next year is guaranteed. But Higher Education is uniquely vulnerable to a short-term fall in student recruitment.

  • We need emergency measures to stop universities going bankrupt. If unemployment rises as a result of a downturn, universities have an essential role to play in re-skilling mature students.
  • We need to return to the principle that Higher Education should be available to all who can benefit.

We call on the Government to:

  1. Abolish the current tuition fee system and underwrite the sector. Bring back the block grant.
  2. Work with university managements to safely exit expensive building projects and long-term loans.
  3. Agree that in the meantime there should be no redundancies, and staff on fixed term or other casual contracts should be paid as normal and not dismissed.

Initial signatories include

Carlo Morelli, UCU Scotland President, University of Dundee
Sean Wallis, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University College London
Julie Hearn, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, Lancaster University
Lesley Kane, UCU NEC, Open University
Deepa Govindarajan Driver, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University of Reading
Mark Abel, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University of Brighton
Marian Mayer, UCU Branch Co-chair, Chair South Region UCU, National Negotiator, Bournemouth University
Sue Abbott, UCU NEC, Chair Equality Committee and Women Members standing Committee, Newcastle University
Pura Ariza, UCU Branch Equality Officer and UCU NEC, Manchester Metropolitan University
Cecily Blyther, UCU NEC, Petroc
Steve Lui, UCU NEC, University of Huddersfield
Lesley McGorrigan, UCU NEC, University of Leeds
Margot Hill, UCU London Region Secretary and UCU NEC, Croydon College
Lauren Heyes-mullan, FE lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
David Whyte, UCU Branch Vice President, University of Liverpool
Bob Jeffery, UCU Anti-Casualisation Officer, Sheffield Hallam University
Annie Jones, UCU Branch Officer, Sheffield Hallam University
Malcolm James, UCU Branch Treasurer, Head of Department of Accounting, Economics & Finance, Cardiff Metropolitan University
Chris Collier, Associate Lecturer, Anglia Ruskin University
Kathryn Dutton. UCU Yorkshire and Humber Region Chair (HE), York St John
Brian O’Sullivan, UCU West Midlands Region Chair, Bournville College
Sunil Banga, UCU Branch Vice President, Lancaster University
Peter Dwyer, University of Warwick
M Yasacan, PhD candidate, University of Keele
Stefanie Doebler, Lancaster University
Leon Sealey-Huggins, Lecturer, UCU Branch Committee member, University of Warwick
Katucha Bento, University of Leeds
Fatima Rajina, Lecturer
Shirin Housee, Course leader in Sociology, University of Wolverhampton
Johanna Loock, University of Leeds
Erik Jellyman, Research Associate, Lancaster University
Joss Winn, Senior Lecturer, UCU Branch Secretary, University of Lincoln
Roddy Slorach, UCU branch organiser, Imperial College London
Richard Mcewan, UCU Branch Sec, UCU NEC Elect, New City College THC Poplar
Michael Rees, Lecturer in Sociology, UCU Rep, University of Wolverhampton
Benjamin Vincent, University of Dundee
Thomas Gallagher-Mitchell, Lecturer, Liverpool Hope University
Rhiannon Lockley, UCU Branch Secretary, Birmingham City University
Samantha Wilson, Student/EAP Tutor, University of Leeds
George Lovell, Lecturer, Abertay University
Yvette Russell, University of Bristol
Ronald Mendel, Associate Lecturer, University of Northampton
Graham Smith, Deputy Subject Leader for Psychology, University of Northampton
David Saunders, Deputy Subject Leader, University of Northampton
Richard Dixon-Payne, Retired HE lecturer,
Nils Markusson, UCU Branch Treasurer, Lancaster University
Sonya Andermahr, Reader in English, UCU Equality Rep, University of Northampton
Mark Baxendale, UCU Branch Committee member, Queen Mary University of London
David Swanson, UCU Branch President, University of Manchester
Georg von Graevenitz, Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London
Mike Orr, UCU Branch Committee member, Edinburgh University
Shirin Hirsch, UCU History co-rep, Manchester Metropolitan University
Eamonn Leddy, UCU Branch Secretary, Capital City College Group (Centre for Lifelong Learning)
Nina Doran, UCU H & S rep, City of Liverpool College
Naomi Waltham-Smith, Associate Professor, University of Warwick
Grant Buttars, UCU Branch President, UCU Scotland Executive member, University of Edinburgh
Katie Nicoll Baines, Project Manager, University of Edinburgh
Anne Alexander, UCU Branch Committee member, University of Cambridge
Linda Jorgensen, Lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
Claudia Campbell
Megan Hunt, Teaching Fellow, University of Edinburgh
Nadia Edmond, UCU Branch Chair, Falmer, University of Brighton
Verity Bambury, Lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
Tucker MacNeill, UCU H&S Rep, Falmer, University of Brighton
Penny Hope, Lecturer, City of Liverpool College
Cheryl King, Lecturer, City of Liverpool College
Julie Brennan, Leader of KS 4 provision, City of Liverpool College
Carol Cody, Liaison Secretary, City of Liverpool College
Tony Sullivan, London College of Fashion (UAL) Branch Secretary , University of The Arts London
Ümit Yıldız, UCU Black Members Standing Committee, Manchester University
Andrea Genovese, University of Sheffield
Richard Smith, Reader, University of Warwick
Prof Gargi Bhattacharyya, University of East London
Anna Robinson, University of East London
Richard Smith, Reader, University of Warwick

Fighting for Education in the Time of Coronavirus

Join the UCU Left to discuss the crisis, its impact on our jobs and how we should organise as trade unionists to fight for the future of education.

Click here to view video.

Panel updates! Jo McNeill is unwell but will join us for future meetings.

Panel: John McDonnell MP; Mark Abel, co-vice chair of UCU HEC; Marian Mayer, UCU national pay negotiator; Peter Evans, Chair FE Sector London Region.

New Panelists: Angus McNelly, Queen Mary UCU Branch Comms Officer; Bee Hughes, Sessional Lecturer – Liverpool John Moores University & LJMU UCU Branch Committee member; Kyle Litchmore, Branch Chair Croydon college and LSA.

UCU Left Webinar with John McDonnell

The global crisis is deepening by the day, throwing every aspect of society which used to be taken for granted into a state of uncertainty. In universities and colleges, a battle has begun over both our present situation and what will ensue in the future. In the here and now, UCU members are already involved in a serious struggle over what homeworking and remote teaching looks like and who controls it – the staff or the management.

But the bigger battle will be about what post-16 education will look like once the pandemic is over. Can the university sector’s marketised funding model survive the collapse in domestic and overseas students which the pandemic is likely to produce? Will Further Education workers continue to have to combat underfunding and corporate managerialism to provide working class students with the education they deserve?

 

How do we respond to the Coronavirus crisis?

Coronavirus drawingWe have been plunged into a crisis on a scale which exceeds the experience of any of us. At one level, it is a crisis which affects the whole of society, across the whole of the world, as every one of us can be affected by the virus.

On another level, the pandemic is exposing the fault lines of society, highlighting the inadequacies of capitalism in terms of its health systems, the fragility of its economy and its deep inequalities.

Boris Johnson’s response has staggered from callously complacent to shambolic. Initially unwilling to take any serious measures against the spread of the virus, he warned us to get used to our loved ones dying and concentrated on trying to keep profits flowing. It has only been pressure from below, combined with the horrendous news from Italy and elsewhere and the scale of the economic meltdown, that has forced his government to begin to shift towards the kinds of action necessary.

Problems

But there are still major problems. Health experts agree that mass testing is necessary, but so far even front-line health workers are not being tested in any systematic way. The financial support for the millions of people threatened with losing their livelihoods is a start but because it goes via employers it misses out many of the most vulnerable workers. And Johnson’s instincts are clearly to use the police and the army to enforce social control, threatening civil liberties, rights of assembly and increasing racist stop-and-search measures and powers to detain on grounds of mental illness. We need more testing, not more policing.

In higher education, the Covid-19 crisis began to really bite just as UCU members returned to work after 14 days on strike. University bosses have moved from determinedly resisting our challenge to the marketised model of education to following Johnson’s dithering approach on Covid-19. UCU branches have led the way in pushing educational establishments to accept their social responsibility to tackle the spread of the virus by first removing students and now shutting down entirely. From vilifying us for disrupting our students’ education (even though most students supported us) HE bosses now find they need our help. They know they need our cooperation and flexibility in order to keep even a depleted form of education up and running.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that many UCU members have put their feelings of anger about the direction of higher education on hold. There seem to be more important things to worry about in the short-term than pension contribution rates and pay inequalities. This has led a number of the branches scheduled to take strike action last week taking the decision to call it off.

It is regrettable, however, that the General Secretary and others intervened to amplify some voices rather than others in these debates and advocated overriding normal decision-making processes. We have a deficit of democracy that must be corrected.

Battle-lines

It may be the case that for the moment the battle-lines within higher education have softened and the appetite for the fight has been overtaken by events. But this is likely to be only a temporary respite. The very crisis which has overwhelmed the contours of our disputes with its scale and impact also carries within it the seeds of new threats and new attacks. The first victims of the situation are existing casualised staff as managements prepare to use the ending of face-to-face teaching to justify mass layoffs. Even where institutions are guaranteeing existing contracts there are likely to be far fewer such jobs in the autumn, swelling the numbers of those without an income as a result of the crisis.

UCU branches are already rightly concerned that managements will adopt the maxim ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’ and take advantage of the new working arrangements to make swingeing cuts and erode our pay and conditions further. Already, managers are busy devising new ways to impose their control on us at home. We have to insist that our willingness to work flexibly around our personal circumstances and parental and caring responsibilities is conditional on autonomy from management demands. There can be no question of management imposing ‘quality control’ and productivity regimes on us in our own homes.

Online education

We also have to resist the tendency to turn the situation into the ‘new normal’. If we can make remote teaching work reasonably well during a global pandemic, why not switch to it permanently if it allows the shedding of staff and valuable estate? If staff are prepared to teach from their own homes and provide their own heating and broadband facilities, why not do what many local authorities have done and get rid of offices and desks by supplying staff with a laptop and a rucksack? How far universities can go in this direction will vary, but the stratified HE market may well allow space for an expanded segment of online providers staffed by a gig economy of casualised workers.

Socialised response

On the other hand, the pandemic is also producing a social response which cuts against the free market. Whatever the limitations so far, a right-wing Tory government has shown itself prepared to use the power of the state to enforce stringent health measures and to intervene in the economy. Engineering firms are being directed to shift their production to ventilators. Brewing companies and perfume manufacturers are choosing to make hand sanitiser. The national marshalling of resources on the model of wartime has been put on the agenda, raising the possibility of a planned economy and society once the crisis is over. If government is going to guarantee the rents of private tenants who have been laid off because of Coronavirus, they might as well socialise housing. The return to an integrated and funded post-16 education system with secure contracts and decent pensions for staff would be simple by comparison.

These two tendencies coexist for the moment. The outcome will be determined by the struggles which are bound to emerge before long. UCU may have had to delay its reballots but it was right not to shelve its disputes and it was right for UCU Left members to try to maintain the last of the strike action last week. The postal workers union will hopefully not bin their 95% ballot result for action but bank it for future use. In the meantime, networks are forming or re-purposing themselves to help the most vulnerable survive, and history demonstrates that bonds of solidarity formed in adversity can feed into hopes for a better future and demands for a different kind of society.

New ways of organising

We need to prepare for the struggles to reignite. This is not the time to put the issues we have been fighting over on the back burner for the sake of the national interest. We are not all in it together. We need to find new ways of organising and holding union meetings online. We have to ensure that the new homeworking arrangements are on our terms, not management’s. We need to insist that there are no lay-offs, no redundancies and that hourly-paid staff are fully remunerated. We also need to find ways for our union to be part of grassroots community efforts to build solidarity between different groups to alleviate the effects of the crisis on ordinary people.

We must also be vigilant about the defence of democratic rights.  Any emergency powers legislation must be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and renewal every six months.  We must protect democratic rights to protest and engage in political activity.  Changes to regulations should not lead to worse standards of social care for the elderly and vulnerable.  Quarantine should not be imposed without proper safeguards and rights of appeal.  We must oppose any arbitrary increase in police powers or use of detention.  We must oppose any racist stereotyping of nationalities or ethnic groups as carriers of the virus.

Movement from below

And on a more general level, we have to be part of a trade union and social movement from below that pushes for a socialist response to the crisis, not a response on the bosses’ terms. That means demanding a huge increase in resources for the NHS, a mass testing programme, full compensation of wages to workers laid off because of the crisis, guarantees that mortgages and rents will be paid, intervention to ensure the continuity and fair distribution of essential supplies of groceries. We also need to be demanding that the economy that emerges after the pandemic is a green economy.

Coronavirus has shown that things cannot go on in the old way. We need to organise and build the Left and be part of a movement that solves the crisis on our terms, channelling demands for social and economic justice, both in our educational institutions and in society as a whole.

 

Report on NEC/HEC 13 March

 

Brighton picket: Bring on the reballot!

UCU’s NEC met last Friday in the context of a global Coronavirus pandemic. It was followed by a short emergency HEC, called in response to requests by members of UCU Left, to address the two disputes the union is currently waging in higher education.

The most important business of the NEC was the union’s position on the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on post-19 education. A series of emergency motions were passed which committed UCU to calling for an end to face-to-face teaching in colleges and universities to avoid contributing to the transmission of the virus, and to support a switch to home working where possible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 09.58.08

Managements should act in collaboration with the campus trade unions and guarantee that:

  • staff, especially those on casualised contracts, should suffer no detriment in terms of pay as a result of either self-isolation or the cancellation of teaching;
  • no workers with caring responsibilities or other personal circumstances preventing them from working at home should face loss of pay or other detriment;
  • expenses incurred through working at home should be met by the employers.

Motions called for guidance from the union on homeworking and for the union to be involved in wider community responses to the crisis. We need this guidance and the calls for closures to go out immediately from the union.

Since the NEC, UCU branches have been able to give a clear lead on the ground in forcing institutions to take a socially responsible stance and end face-to-face teaching. Emboldened by public demands from branch committees, UCU members in many colleges and universities have acted unilaterally and against the policy of their managements to cancel teaching and refuse to attend face to face meetings which compromise safe practices.

Where managements have been prepared to put lives at risk in the interests of avoiding reputational damage, it is UCU and other unions which have stood up for the health and safety of staff, students and the wider public.

Disputes

In the emergency HEC meeting which followed NEC, the situation in the HE disputes was discussed. In both disputes the employers’ position had hardened in the previous week as our ballot mandate began to run out and their focus shifted towards the looming effects of Covid-19 on the sector.

Reballots had been planned to open on 17th March, but with the intensification of the coronavirus crisis and the closure of universities it was felt that that timetable was no longer possible. The debate polarised around two motions. One called for the timetable for reballots to be left in the hands of HEC officers and the General Secretary. The other, from the HEC officers themselves, (Vicky Blake, Chair, Jo McNeill and Mark Abel, Vice Chairs) proposed a defined, but delayed timetable.

The majority on the HEC were determined that a timetable should be set to prevent the employers using the Covid-19 crisis to bully the union to call off its fight over casualisation, equality, workloads, pensions and pay. These disputes are not over and the delay to reballots is a tactical decision to ensure the best chance of overcoming the hurdles set by the anti-union laws.

That is why it is unfortunate that the General Secretary’s report on the decisions declared that the union would not escalate the dispute during the crisis. There was no specific discussion of escalation, but HEC did not take the position that there would be no resumption of action until the coronavirus crisis was over. In fact, when reballots take place, it will involve all HE branches, not merely the 74 which have taken action in these disputes so far.

The issues behind our disputes have not gone away as a result of Covid-19. If anything, questions of the insecurity of casualised staff and overwork are exacerbated by the pandemic. The marketised HE system encourages managements not only to ignore health and safety in their responses to the crisis as they strive to avoid reputational damage, but also to continue their attacks on their staff. HEC’s decision to maintain the disputes is an important signal that the union will continue to fight for a higher education system which priorities the interests of staff and students.

 

Covid-19: People before Profit: control the lock-down

Why we must act now!

On Thursday 12 March, Boris Johnson spoke to the UK press flanked by his scientific advisors. Live on air he told Britain “your loved ones will die”, and that the Government had moved from ‘containment’ to ‘delay’.

He stopped short of closing schools, colleges and universities, but it was too late. LSE, Durham, Nottingham, Bristol all announced an end to teaching. By Friday, many more had followed suit. Johnson declined to stop ‘mass gatherings’, primarily large-scale sporting events. By Saturday, Premier League matches and rugby internationals were being cancelled. Johnson is not in control of events.

Across Britain a major debate is furiously raging. Is the Government doing enough? The Irish Government shut schools, why not the British? The Tories say they are relying on ‘herd immunity’ rather than lock-downs. Will this work, or is it a grim gamble at our expense? The footage of Italian sufferers treated in camp beds in sports halls and tents show what we have in store if Johnson’s gamble fails. The NHS will be overwhelmed.

Alongside the scientific debate, Johnson is discrediting himself. His behaviour is clearly motivated by business continuity rather than saving lives. A shutdown is on its way – it is just a question of when rather than if. We should argue to put life before profit and shut down now.

Meanwhile we are all learning ‘social distancing’ and washing our hands regularly. This crisis is a practical challenge to trade unionists and how we organise at work.

Control the lock-down

UCU’s NEC on Friday voted to demand the government close all colleges and universities. A range of motions were passed that outlined how to deal with issues that will emerge due to the coronavirus.  All branches should arrange branch meetings as soon as possible to discuss how best to ensure that your college/university management put the interests of staff and students first.

Trade unions are the independent staff voice for health and safety at work, and the defenders of basic rights at work. The rights we enjoy on a daily basis were not granted by generous employers in the past! Rights to rest breaks, annual leave, maternity and sick leave, the right to say no and stop work in the face of unsafe practices, and the right to manage personal risks were all fought for by trade unions in the teeth of employer opposition.

Not everyone can work from home, and many jobs require workplace attendance throughout the Covid-19 emergency. Medical staff and medical researchers in universities will need to continue to work in labs and hospitals. Researchers in other disciplines, such as artificial intelligence and statistics are volunteering. And student doctors and nurses may be hastily drafted in. And none of this can happen without cleaning staff, security and transport.

Campus unions should make sure that they play a central part of the decision-making at the university and college to identify which staff should stay. Staff working in labs to improve treatment or even find a cure for Covid-19 will of course need to stay working. We should support them and ensure they have safe working conditions to do so.

But it would be untenable for employers to keep other staff at work whilst students have been sent home. Our health is at risk too.

We must be alert to emergency measures becoming long-term and permanent. We have to control the lock-down. Where staff work from home, the home (or part of it) becomes part of the workplace. Suddenly, and without consultation, we are expected to work in a workplace:

  • where we pay for rent, heat, light, equipment, broadband, etc,
  • which is usually not insured for this purpose,
  • which may be unsafe (the equipment/office/space is not evaluated for health and safety),
  • which may be shared by other members of the employee’s family, including children (especially if they are also sent home), and older relatives.

Any change of this kind tends to fall more severely on women, who frequently carry the additional burden of caring responsibilities on top of working. There are major (in)equalities implications for staff.

Working from home also allows the employers to minimise costs to themselves if staff are expected to self-isolate (as distinct from being physically unable to work).

Some workers will welcome working at home. Many have long been denied the right to work from home by ‘presenteeist’ managers who presume their staff are slacking if they are not physically in offices! But many, especially in London, already live in overcrowded home conditions.

But precisely because working from home involves a major change in contract, a change in workplace and a change in legal obligations, no employee should feel compelled to accept such a change. And even if a change is accepted at one point in time, staff must have a right to change their mind. Many employers have work-life balance policies that staff and reps can use to push back. (Go to this website: Cardinus – Health, Safety and Risk Management Specialists to find out health and safety regulations for home working.)

Defend the frontiers of control

Universities and colleges like to think of themselves as the guardians and transmitters of knowledge. But market competition for high fee paying students has turned many into teaching factories. Casualisation and workloads have skyrocketed. Getting staff to teach from home offers the prospect of a wholesale change in work practices managers can exploit. It seems certain student numbers will fall next year. We can expect managers to pass cuts on as redundancies.

Some managers will see this crisis as an opportunity to persuade staff to take their teaching on-line.  Already universities are using platforms like Moodle and Blackboard to distribute classroom content to students and collect student submissions. They imagine on-line teaching that could be delivered internationally with fewer staff. The fact that to do so and make a profit is extremely difficult will not stop them from trying.

They also imagine collating a reservoir of recorded teaching content that could be used to break strikes. In many universities there have been big battles over recording lectures. Employers initially wanted to insist that Lecturecast was an opt-out system, but it was only when branches pushed back that they accepted it should be ‘opt in’. Crucially, many universities have agreements that state that recordings are archived after a year and deleted after two. Reps must continue to be vigilant.

A public crisis demands publicly-accountable science. Trade unionists should defend the necessary prioritisation of work aimed at saving lives. But we must insist that the results of research must be shared – whether these be to inform public opinion and democratic decision-making, or to ensure best medical practice to save lives.

In Italy workers have stuck to attempt to control the lock-down.  Workers at the Fiat car plant in Pomigliano, near Naples, successfully took action to force their employers to shut down production. Other workers followed suit and the FIAT employers have had to shut down a number of plants.

UCU members have demonstrated over the last 14 days that we have the power through our collective strength to fight to defend our pay and conditions. We now need to use this collective power to protect our communities, families and loved ones.

As history has shown, we cannot rely on the likes of Johnson and the establishment to put working people’s interests first. Only we can do that.

Resources

For a useful overview of world trade union response to the Covid-19 virus, see LabourStart.

See Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now for an excellent detailed account about the virus and why we must act now. It has had 28 million views so far and is regarded by many scientists as the best account so far about the reach and impact of Covid-19.

Coronavirus, capitalism and class

1280px-COVID-19_Outbreak_World_Map

The outbreak of the Coronavirus COVID-19, has created panic across the globe.  The Italian government has just placed 16 million people under quarantine. Schools, universities, gyms, museums and nightclubs have been closed across the whole country. In total across the globe 100,686 people had been confirmed as having been infected as of Friday evening. Of those, 3,411 have died.

Global markets continue to fall as the virus spreads across the world. It appears the UK government is on the verge of making an announcement that could include the shutting of schools, colleges and universities before the Easter break. Department of health and social care figures showed 163 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the UK, an increase of 47 from the day before.

Clearly it is serious and we need to ensure we do all we can to stem the spread of the virus through our own personal hygiene habits. But the real barrier to stopping the spread is the government, the pharmaceutical companies and the marketised system that has caused the virus and allowed it to spread. It is they who we will need to fight if we are going to ensure that working people, once again, are not made to pay the price of a dysfunctional system that puts profit before peoples’ lives.

The 1980s saw over half a million people die in the US alone from the HIV virus.  The Reagan and Thatcher government not only dragged their feet over the issue they propagated a vile homophobic campaign. This was taken up by the press dubbing AIDS as the ‘Gay plague’. This campaign of hate culminated in the implementation of Clause 28.

Governments opposed safe sex campaigns, an important response to prevent the spread of AIDs. Instead they preferred moralising about abstinence. It took campaigners like Larry Kramer to set up organisations such as ACT-UP, eventually changing government policy. The campaign eventually succeeded, but hundreds of thousands of gay men died needlessly before changes were brought about.

The racist Johnson will not miss an opportunity to use COVID-19 as an excuse to whip up even more hysteria over migrants and toughen immigration laws to stop people coming into ‘our’ country spreading disease, spurred on by the Sun and Daily Mail. The appalling rise of attacks on Chinese and South East Asian people since the spread of the Coronavirus is growing. We need to ensure that we show solidarity with these communities by demonstrating our support for them every time an attack takes place.

We should not allow the government to use COVID-19 to close down public protest. In Madrid tens of thousands marched to celebrate International Women’s Day despite growing fears about the spread of the virus.

Owen Jones points out that:

‘More than 3,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone – just one aspect of our central planetary crisis – kills seven million people every year.’

and argues that government should show the same urgency in dealing with climate change as they do dealing with the spread of COVID-19.

Disease and death are endemic to a failing system

The outbreak of the COVID-19 has shaken the establishment. They recognise that their system simply does not have the infrastructure to deal with such an outbreak. Of course, they don’t and won’t draw the necessary conclusion from this – to reverse all the cuts to the NHS and the welfare state they have made in the last decade.

Writing in the The Guardian Polly Toynbee rightly argues:

‘…there is no way of keeping politics out of this. If this epidemic is only half as bad as the official worst-case scenario, the pressure on every aspect of public services will be tested to breaking point. The full effect of a decade of austerity is about to be brutally exposed.’

In fact it is not just the last decade in which the system has been at fault, but the way that Capitalism as an economic system based on exploitation to maximise profit, is not able to keep safe the population and the planet that we inhabit.

In the 19th century, the birth of Britain as the ‘workshop of the world’ brought with it disease and death. As millions of people moved from the countryside to the cities mass slums were created. Water-borne diseases like cholera killed thousands of working men, women and children. Frederick Engels describes powerfully in The Conditions of the English Working Class what life for working people was like living in Manchester and working in the ‘dark satanic mills’.

The outbreak of Covid-19 began in China, a country which has experienced the fastest and biggest levels of industrialisation ever seen in history, much of this in order to provide cheap manufactured products to the West and to enable it to compete with the US. What took Britain a hundred years to do in the 19th century China has managed in 35 with the same consequences for working people.

After the First World War, brought about by competing imperial rivalries, the biggest ever flu epidemic in history occurred. As Europe emerged from the rubble of that war, disease spread rapidly through the European populations and is estimated to have killed between 20 and 50 million people.

The spread of deadly viruses and the development of an economic system that brings wars, climate change and the deregulation of production has gone hand in hand.

The pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness

A central part of the inability of our society to deal with these crises is the deregulation of the pharmaceutical and food industries. There appears to be progress being made towards creating a vaccine for the virus. But why is it so difficult to find a cure for viruses that kills so many people?

Pharmaceuticals are a multi-billion-dollar business. This means that there is little or no collaboration between the multinationals, each wanting to be the first to find a cure so that they can make a fortune. It is accepted by most now that the anti-viral drugs that have allowed AIDS sufferers not to die could have been found many years before, saving millions of lives, if there had been a sharing of research.

Stephen Buranyi, writing in The Guardian quotes a UK Ebola expert saying:

‘Unless there’s a big market it’s not worth the while of a mega-company … There was no business case to make an Ebola vaccine for the people who needed it most.’

Buranyi carries on to argue that:

‘Even if research begins during a pandemic, the unpredictable nature of outbreaks means work is often shelved if the crisis dies down, and so progress halts until the next time a similar infection flares up.’

In short there is no planning by the pharmaceutical companies. Their only response is to gamble on the best place to direct resources to create new vaccines that will bring the biggest profit.

A lot has been made about the origins of COVID-19 being from a market in the Wuhan province of China. Its racist overtones are difficult to miss. That it was the behaviour of the ‘uncivilised’ people of the region, selling and eating wild animals that allowed the virus to jump from animals to humans.

Whilst it is true most viruses are spread from animals to humans, hence the names we give them (eg bird flu and swine flu), it isn’t because of ‘barbaric’ people eating wild and exotic animals. It is the unregulated agribusiness that has made the spread of disease more prolific. The industrialisation of pig, cattle and chicken farms on a scale never seen before in history has allowed new strains of flu to develop and combine which morph into killer diseases.

We will need to fight for our protection

Whilst we wash our hands more frequently, and for at least for 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice (!), we will need, once again, to campaign for government to put in real measures that protect working people from the diseases their system has created.

This must start with ensuring if workers are laid off that those on casualised contracts are being paid sick pay from day one. No doubt the employers in the HE sector will try and use COVID-19 as an excuse not to address our demands and will threaten great reprisals if we don’t end our dispute and accept any derisory offer they make.  It would be insulting to everyone working in the sector if the employers look to us to increase workload or face job loses to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 rather meet our demands.

It is the employers’ marketised model with its reliance on charging huge fees to overseas students and zero hours contracts that have created a crisis in the sector. Why would more of the same help to deal with COVID-19?

We must also be alert to any attempt by government to use the virus to bring in laws that make it easier for them to divide the working class. But above all we must put pressure on government to regulate the pharmaceutical companies and the agribusiness and demand that they reverse the austerity-driven cuts in the NHS and the welfare state.

Sean Vernell, NEC

Map data derived from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York Times, CNBC – 27 February 2020