The power of the simple word ‘No’ cannot be over-estimated when it represents the collective will of organised workers (whether ‘by hand’ or ‘by brain’).
For the last two years, management at Liverpool John Moores University have been developing massive changes to working practices under the heading Consistency and Transparency in the Academic Contract (CATAC). Central to this was a Workload Allocation Model (WAM), which went through a meandering evolution from something just unacceptable, to something outrageously bad. In our view, their proposals fundamentally undermined the post-92 Contract; de-professionalised academics, significantly increased workload (we identified 40% potential increases in some staff), and were aimed we felt at sorting research intensive ‘goats’, from teaching only ‘sheep’, as a response to the ‘changing landscape of HE’.
Initially, we felt there was room for negotiation. Early proposals were not so extreme that they couldn’t potentially form the basis of a negotiated settlement, and management seemed prepared to engage with us. However, over time and with changes of senior management personnel, their attitude hardened and they were clearly ‘going for it’. Despite repeated public claims that they had no intention of breaking the post-92 contract, in management documents it was described as ‘no longer fully relevant nor a real concern.’ and it was stated that ‘the maximum 550 hours of contact highlighted in the Academic Contract can be exceeded’. Our branch negotiators, turning up as we understood it to begin detailed negotiation on management’s finalised proposals, were told ‘There has been a consultation, this is now completed, there will be no negotiation on this issue and we [management] will be rolling out the new system across the institution.’
Our response was to advise members not to engage with the new system, to insist on their pre-existing systems of workload allocation, and refuse to sign off, accept or comment on allocation under the new system. We provided members with a ‘form of words’ to use when discussing workload with their line managers and made it clear that any members facing pressure or bullying would be supported by the branch. We organised a series of extra-ordinary branch meetings, and site-based meetings of members, engaged in leafletting and door knocking campaigns across all the university campuses and main buildings. According to management’s own figures, with great courage under the circumstances, 76% of academic staff followed this advice and guidance. We registered ‘failure to agree’ and invoked our recognition agreement Status Quo clause, which management observed, however reluctantly, through recognition of the simple reality of their situation.
Management tactics then turned to spinning out ‘meaningful consultation’, we feel attempting to manoeuvre us into unfavourable ground for ballots and action over the summer break, and imposition at the start of the coming academic year.
Our response was renewed activity taking the message out to members, a resolution (carried unanimously at a quorate branch meeting, without abstention) giving us authority to move to a indicative and then statutory ballot for action, if management didn’t move, and more site meetings to keep the members informed and solid as a collective. We began the indicative e-ballot process.
At the next Failure to Agree meeting, management, through gritted teeth, informed us that the CATAC proposals were unilaterally withdrawn, and as such our dispute was resolved. We know that management have other ‘fish to fry’ (a week previously they had announced the need for massive savings and the threat of compulsory redundancies), but we know just as well that if they thought they could get away with imposition, they would have rolled right over us. They didn’t, because the members (and a significant proportion of non-members), in overwhelming numbers, followed the strong lead that we as a collective branch leadership had given them.
Our branch is stronger for it. Since the beginning of this campaign, the branch has seen a net increase in membership of over 20%, we have significantly increased the number of active reps, and massively increased the number of active members, and branch committee members. We are better organised, have a wider ‘reach’ within the institution, have established better and more regular communications, and have increased attendance at the branch ordinary meetings over successive meetings. We have, well brought up activists that we are, thanked management for their contribution to this at our JCNC.
The lessons of this dispute are clear – with clear and determined leadership, patiently explaining our case and trusting in the members, we CAN resist the tide of neo-liberal ‘reform’ in HE, we CAN mobilise members to defend their conditions of service and the post-92 contract, we CAN win.
Liverpool John Moores University