The battle for secure work: the heart of our fight for the education sector

Media attention is constantly focused on the kinds of jobs and opportunities students can hope to get when they leave college and university. As their teachers and staff, we want secure, decent work for all of them. We want it for ourselves, too, for their benefit and ours: fairly paid professionals with the security to plan for the future are better equipped to teach and support learning and research.

When we say our working conditions are students’ learning conditions, let’s be clear on what we mean by that – and what we don’t mean. We are not saying that casualised workers are substandard. We are saying that casualised workers are stressed, exploited, underpaid, and often pushed to the brink by senior management teams relying on goodwill and a culture of fear.

It is the very professionalism and integrity of casualised staff which is exploited by management. Casualised staff members’ love of learning is weaponised in order to keep the bottom line cheap, while senior management and vice chancellors’ pay soars. A tutor shouldn’t have to scratch down the back of the sofa for their bus fare to work, or be plagued with anxiety because their institution has failed to pay them on time. I know how that feels. I’ve been there.

Casualised staff participated in the USS strikes last year in unprecedented numbers, in solidarity over a pension scheme many of them don’t yet qualify for. It is only fair, and vital to long-term success, that their permanent colleagues support them in turn. At a time when management processes rely more than ever on divide-and-rule tactics, emphasising the divisions between artificially imposed categories of staff, it’s crucial above all to listen, and to open up spaces for listening.

For casualised staff, this begins with knowing and affirming that you deserve to be heard, to be treated with respect, and to enjoy decent working conditions. The structure of “the academy” makes it easy to forget that. It’s intentional. Fearful workers are more likely to be compliant, less likely to raise concerns: contractual conditions slip even further into the bin. It’s frightening to stick your head over that parapet, so what we need is a culture of meaningful solidarity that is tangibly felt, not just spoken (or tweeted).

Union members who are secure in their positions should do all they can to support junior and casualised staff in navigating the structures of the Union, and amplifying their voices within the Union and within the wider academy. Tell your casualised colleagues you’re in the Union, put anticas posters in offices and shared spaces, ask them if they are members. It makes a difference when casuals know secure colleagues are proud Union members who have their backs.

Make sure you push for anyone doing work for you or in your area to get paid, and properly. Do not make excuses for those late payments to hourly paid staff as “slip-ups”. Listen to casualised staff, and educate yourself to recognise that nobody should be grateful for being given unpaid or underpaid work. Don’t let yourself be complicit in our employers’ spin.

Be clear-eyed about the fact that our universities are not bastions of diversity, and never will be while they reproduce and intensify structural discrimination already present in the academy. Remember that “meritocracy” is a myth. Remind casualised and junior colleagues of this when they’re beating themselves up for not being “perfect enough”: like you, and like all of us, they can’t spend every waking minute juggling multiple dodgy contracts and marking gigs with their own research, and they need to sleep some time.

Say these things out loud: in the corridor, at lunch, at staff meetings. It matters that we make these open challenges to the steady erosion of our quality of life. It also matters that we review our practices and assumptions, in our own organising as well as our work lives, to make sure we are not reinforcing exclusionary and belittling employment practices.

Solidarity needs to be omni-directional, vertical as well as horizontal. I hope that naming vertical solidarity inspires people to show practical solidarity through their actions, in advocating and agitating for decent conditions of work for everyone. It’s also something we must remember to expect. Collective voices speaking out on casualisation have great power in articulating those expectations and demands for respect, furthering the anticas cause while reducing individuals’ fears of doing so. The beauty of vertical solidarity is how actions of meaningful solidarity highlight the issues and advocate for their solution at the same time.

For solidarity to be felt and to precipitate change it has to be real – taking actions that recognise exploitation, and which agitate for change. Not one of us should be grateful for our own exploitation or that of others. Only together we will secure change.

Get involved!

There are ways to join the fight at branch, region, and/or national level, as an activist and/or rep. Any casualised UCU member can apply to self-nominate to attend the Annual Meeting for Staff on Casualised Contracts, and branches can also delegate 2 casualised members to go. This year it’s on Friday 1 March, and registration/committee nominations close on 15 February. Get your branch to agree and send motions if you can (deadline is 8 February).

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