‘Jobs First’ – a dangerous strategy


Many UCU members are looking for ways to protect jobs including offering management pay cuts to do so. UCU’s official ‘Jobs first’ campaign appears to support the view that we must protect jobs above all else.

Two articles below argue that the ‘Jobs first’ approach is a dangerous one and will neither protects jobs nor pay.

  • The first article – Jobs first – by Sean Vernell, UCU NEC member, looks at the history of the trade union movement’s attempts to apply a similar strategy of offering pay for job protection.
  • The second article – Cut pay to save jobs? – by Camilla from King’s College looks at how the ‘jobs first’ strategy is being applied in the Universities today with potentially disastrous consequences.

‘Jobs first’: A dangerous strategy – ‘Give them your pay and they will take your jobs too’

by Sean Vernell NEC

UCU’s ‘Job first ’strategy is a dangerous one. It clearly implies that the protection of jobs must come before anything else. Pay will have to wait. It is understandable that some staff working in the post 16 education sector feel that they should take a pay cut to help their institution keep those on lower wages in employment. Unfortunately, it won’t. There is an old saying within the trade union movement, that if you give them your wages, they will take your jobs too.

In Further Education over the past five years wages have been cut by 27% in real terms and 24,000 jobs have been lost from the sector.

As we head into then Autumn and the Furlough scheme is lifted and with it 2 million workers thrown on the dole, the pressure to succumb to the Job’s first approach will become greater.

It is something that the UCU and the trade union movement as a whole must resist.

Lessons from the past

The history of the British trade union movement is littered with examples of trade union leaders going along with wage freezes to protect jobs. One of the most disastrous was the Social Contract of the 1970s’s. This is where the trade union leaders entered an agreement with the then Labour Government to support a wage freeze to maintain employment levels. It was led by the ‘terrible twins’ as the press like to call them, Huge Scanlon, of the AEU (Engineers union) and Jack Jones of the TGWU (UNITE today) – two of the most left-wing General Secretaries of their day.

Of course, it was not sold at the time as simply a wage freeze. It was posed as levelling up. The high paid worker (not coincidentally the best organised) would have their wages frozen and the money saved would cascade down to the lower paid. This redistribution would even out the wage levels between workers.

The reality was of course it did not raise wages nor save jobs. The Social Contract was implemented across industries, successfully from the mid- 1970s. By the onset of the close of the 70s’s mass unemployment had reached 3 million and Margaret Thatcher was elected.

But it was not just that the Social Contract adopted by trade union leaders and the Labour government led to driving down wages and the rise of mass unemployment. To do so the government and the employers needed to weaken the power of the unions within the workplace. It is this that the Social Contract did very successfully.

In the early 1970s there was a growth of powerful rank and file movements which were successful at winning important increases in wages for their members and better working conditions. This was a significant breakthrough for working class organisation and struggle. All worker’s wages went up and their conditions were improved in the 60s and early 70s and

unemployment remained low because the most organised sections fought for higher wages and better conditions. Their victories allowed all workers’ wages and conditions to rise, including the less well organised.

As the economic crisis of the mid 1970’s emerged pressure was placed on the trade union leaders to restrain those shop floor militants that had successfully led the fight for better wages and conditions. After a meeting of the National Economic Development Council in 1975 which explained the depth of the crisis, Scanlon said, ‘I have looked into the abyss… ’ and what he had seen ‘frightened him to death’.

The signing of the Social Contract froze the wages of the most powerful groups of workers and prevented them creating the benchmark for the rest of the working class. Predictably all wages came down and with it the rise of mass unemployment. The organisations of the working class had been so weakened at the shop floor level and taken over by a huge increase of full-time officials that the organised working class was in no position to defend itself.

Before anyone is tempted to remind me that we are not engineers and we are in 2020 not 1970, I do understand this. But the lessons from this moment in British trade union history are important ones for us today.

We know our employers in both sectors are trying to use the public health crisis to drive down wages, push through redundancies and restructures which they have wanted to do for some time. They will argue that their hands are tied due to government and other financial constraints and will call upon us, ‘in these very unique circumstances’, to tighten our belts and accept pay cuts to save jobs now.

If UCU adopts a ‘Jobs first’ strategy then in practice we are accepting that the money is not there for higher wages. If we accept that we are also accepting that we need to tighten our belts. And if we accept this then we also accept the need to lose jobs. Our officers are then led into the negotiating chamber not to oppose cuts of any type but instead discuss where cuts can do the least damage. And this is not a good place for our union officers to be in.

The universities are awash with money. The A level fiasco has meant that there are plenty of students needing university places. There is over £42 billion in reserves. The government have shown that when it comes to saving their system, they can find billions to do so.

The funding is there to allow free education for all, decent wages and secure contracts for those who work in post 16 education and to do so where it is safe.

The old marketised model has shown that it is incapable of providing this kind of a post 16 education sector. Fighting for a planned and properly funded one is not a luxury it is necessity. Our rallying cry as we go into battle must be:

No return to unsafe workplaces: Defend pay, Defend jobs, Defend Education.

Cut pay to save jobs?

by Camilla from King’s College London

As universities across the UK look to cut staff budgets, a debate has arisen among staff at some institutions around whether permanent staff should accept a pay cut to defend the jobs of casualised staff. At the LSE, around 160 permanent staff signed a statement expressing their solidarity with their casualised colleagues, including the wording “we are also willing to take temporary and voluntary pay-cuts, tiered based on current salary and beginning with the most highly paid staff, used solely to support precarious staff”. Anecdotally, the feeling among permanent staff that they would voluntarily take a small pay cut, or simply allow management to push through a pay freeze, in order to defend jobs elsewhere is quite widespread.The UCU nationally is also pushing for a “jobs first response to the crisis” with an emphasis on job security for casualised staff. But the campaign pack produced by the union says nothing about pay, pensions, promotions, workloads, holidays or other workplace conditions. It implies that these are secondary issues or that we won’t be able to fight to defend these too.

Many universities haven’t seen the drop in student numbers they predicted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet workers on casual contracts are still being treated as expendable. GTAs at the University of Birmingham still haven’t been told, two weeks before the start of term, whether they will have work this year. At King’s College London there are around 1100 staff on fixed term contracts that are due to end in August, around 1 in 7 of all staff. The union branch says that Senior management have refused outright their proposal to extend these contracts until December.

Casual work is not just a way of providing work experience for PhD students. Staff on casual and fixed term contracts do a huge amount of the teaching and student-facing work in universities and for many it is their main source of income. These workers are also more likely to be black, female or from other underrepresented groups than permanently employed staff.

The solidarity towards casual staff from other union members during the past few months is very welcome. It demonstrates that permanent staff recognise not just the much lower pay and precarity that people face but also the active role that casualised staff play within the union, including by taking part in strikes and picketing.

But should permanent staff offer to take a pay cut to protect these workers? Permanent staff do tend to earn more than casualised staff. But in our view going into a negotiation with management on the basis that you are willing to take a pay cut is a disastrous strategy. Hypothetically it might make sense to say: “I’d take a pay cut if this would help my colleague keep their job”. But this is not what institutions are offering. What is to stop them cutting pay and jobs and then proposing more cuts in the future if they think they can? The complete lack of engagement with the union at places such as King’s means we cannot trust them to use any money saved on pay to rehire casual staff.

There is evidence from the 2009 recession that when employers cut or freeze pay it doesn’t halt the tide of job losses. Jaguar Land Rover implemented a pay freeze in 2009. Unions were told that if they could agree on £70 million worth of savings, there would be no need for compulsory redundancies. Nevertheless, they still also cut the jobs of 1,000 agency staff and went on to use a voluntary redundancy scheme to cut more jobs among those directly employed.

Workers at Honda in Swindon agreed to a 3% pay cut in 2009 and 1,300 of them took voluntary redundancy. Nevertheless, a further 800 jobs were lost in 2013 and the whole factory is due to close next year.

Also, in 2009, the BBC froze all staff bonuses as well as freezing pay for those earning over £60,000. Although this saved some jobs, there were still 850 job losses, with 27 percent of those saved again through redeployment. The remaining staff had to work harder and their stress levels went up.

It is very unlikely that the UCU’s “jobs first” deal would or could include a commitment to rehire casualised staff or ban the use of voluntary severance schemes. The only potential protection such a deal could offer would be to not make redundancies and universities do not see refusing to rehire a staff member on a fixed term or casual contract as a redundancy. So protections would only apply to permanent staff and would be flimsy and unenforceable.

More fundamentally, taking a pay cut would mean accepting the employers’ argument that the money is not there. Instead we need a more assertive political campaign to defend funding for higher education, one that opposes marketisation and puts the blame for the crisis on management and their poor spending decisions.

If permanent staff want to show their support, they should refuse to work extra hours to replace the work done by casualised colleagues. Workloads were already dangerously high and will inevitably increase without teaching assistants, especially given the need to shift to online learning.

Queen Mary UCU has produced a series of four questions that permanent staff can use to ask their line manager about cuts to casual staff. They point out that cutting casual staff and asking permanent staff to carry out the work is “unsafe, unequal, undeliverable, and potentially in breach of contract”.

Permanent and casualised staff can support the Corona Contract campaign and sign the permanent staff pledge, which includes supporting any industrial action that gets called in defence of casualised staff. There is also a model corona contract motion for branches.

Members have rightly voted to reject the Four Fights “offer” from UUK. This offer delivered nothing concrete on casualisation, merely placing expectations on individual institutions. We should continue to take action over these issues that many of us took weeks of strike action over.

No to Jobs First. Yes to Four Fights.

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