Last week, I wrote about the absolutely central role that anti-casualisation work must take in UCU activism and campaigning. So how do we take a stand against the current culture of exploitation to build a truly progressive, inclusive community of learning and teaching? What changes must we demand from our employer, and how can we change our union democratic structures to support casualised colleagues? Anti-casualisation and equality must run through every campaigning objective in UCU like a stick of rock.
While the issue of casualisation has traditionally received sympathy and support from many members, until recent years UCU lacked formal representation for casualised staff in all its structures, and knowledge of how to act on the issue was patchy, varying across branches and regions. My predecessors on the UCU’s Anti-Casualisation Committee (ACC) and its earlier incarnations routinely had to remind colleagues that casualised members should be remembered or considered. When I became chair of ACC in 2012 I knew that we would have to work hard to expose the conditions of exploitation and the impact upon our members’ health. That we needed to protect the voices of casualised staff then seems almost unthinkable now, but in 2013 I found myself fighting alongside other ACC members at Congress to defend the very existence of the committee, and again in 2014 where proposed new model structures would have put them at risk.
The ACC and our supporters have worked relentlessly to expose the harm caused by zero hours flexploitation, not only to UCU’s own membership, but to the wider public consciousness. I was delighted to succeed in hounding Owen Jones into speaking at our Annual Meeting of Staff on Casualised Contracts in 2014 – we packed the place out. Owen energised the room, but the really important thing was that grassroots casualised members came together to share experiences and to direct our campaigning in discussions and workshops. Motions passed by casualised members at this annual meeting are pulled together into campaigning priorities for the ACC the following year, and directly influence what the ACC sends to Congress and the two annual sector conferences. This meeting is a crucial opportunity to keep raising the profile of our campaigns within and externally to the union. In 2015 we invited Labour’s John McDonnell to speak to us about zero hours and the Zero Hours Bill. John was unwell, so we arranged for the then lesser-known Jeremy Corbyn to replace him.
Turning energy and attention into action
At a UK level, we must make collective demands, grounding our claims in evidence, presenting facts and figures on the negative outcomes of casualisation. This is why I have argued consistently and strongly for better data to inform our campaigns and claims in UCU. In my first year as a Congress delegate, I moved a motion from the Anti-Casualisation Committee (ACC) demanding that UCEA undertake proper research on the use of zero hours contracts in HE. In the event that UCEA refused (which it did), this motion asked UCU to undertake its own research. We put a similar motion to the FE conference, as FE workforce data relies on a voluntary survey of “Staff Individualised Records” (SIRs), and which has traditionally not collected or published figures for zero-hours contracts.
As a result, in Autumn 2013, UCU published a damning report on the use of zero hours contracts in further and higher education, based on extensive Freedom of Information requests sent to 162 HE institutions across the UK and 275 FE colleges across the UK. This report was a landmark for UCU, and we used it to amplify our existing anti-casualisation campaign. We asked members to put pressure on MPs by writing to them and tweeting them extensively about #ZeroHoursContracts. UCU contributed evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee and worked with Labour Party politicians who put forward the Zero Hours Bill 2014-15. Although the bill didn’t make it into legislation, it did mark a shift in Labour policy and in wider acknowledgement of the issues it raised (including exposing the widespread under-estimation of how many people suffer on zero hours contracts by the Office for National Statistics).
PR sensitivity in our sector is a key weapon in securing negotiations over casualisation and equality. UCU now compiles regular snapshots of casualised contract use in both FE and HE, using FOIs in FE owing to the continuing absence of centralised data collection in the sector. Universities were keen to talk down and evade criticism following the Guardian expose and article series on casualisation but the reputational damage done by this kind of coverage is a foothold for securing proper negotiations at local and UK level. The embarrassment caused by campaigns I described above led to institutions like Edinburgh University pledging to cease using zero hours contracts, and in a darkly amusing turn, the Association of Colleges (AoC) embarrassed itself further by putting out a call for positive zero hours stories to try to redress the avalanche of bad press.
But! — employers tend to look for ways to renege when unattended! We need to force UCEA and the AoC to address casualisation in tangible terms beyond toothless working groups or flimsy recommendations. The current ballot in HE is key to this fight with UCEA, as are the recent and upcoming waves of strikes across a growing number of colleges in FE. Branches lodging and winning local claims in FE and HE represent progress in their own right, and also add enormous pressure on our employers to actually engage with us at national and UK level.
As VP, my priorities for challenging casualised labour centre on elevating and collectivising the voices of our most precariously employed members across every type of casualised contract. I will work tirelessly alongside casualised members, and commit to do all I can to make our union and its structures and meetings more accessible and democratic at every level. This work has begun via the Democracy Commission, and must continue. I support the expansion of networks of casualised members and campaigns, and the facilitation of an expanded Anticas Roadshow which aims to break UCU away from London-centric models of campaigning. This will further support and drive local negotiations and learning from each other, which will reinforce pressure we put on our employers at UK level.
I will fight to support more rank and file activism from members at all levels, to help us build the size and solidity of the union, and signal clearly that we are willing to take action to fight the escalating precarity of employment in post-16 education, which all members must understand ultimately threatens us all. I will also push hard for increased support for branches to negotiate facilities time for casualised branch officers (as I have done at my own branch at Leeds) and will never to give up the fight for a more progressive subs structure in UCU. As I have recently tweeted, we have made some progress on subs for lower paid and precariously employed members, but much more needs to be done. There is a consultation open at the moment which I urge all members reading this to participate in.
We absolutely must protect UK-wide bargaining where we have it (in higher education) and we must fight to regain it where we have lost it. We can hope the pressure we apply via a connected strategy of (local and national) campaigning and negotiation will produce meaningful bargaining on casualisation, but for a genuinely member-led approach, UCU needs to (1) vastly improve communications to members about the bargaining machinery and timescales we are signed up to, and (2) proactively facilitate ways members can get involved beyond simply taking part in consultations/surveys.
Most importantly, we have work to do among our own ranks, in debunking myths about “rites of passage” and assumptions often made about the “inevitability” of insecure work. The arguments which employers use to justify reliance on casualised contracts are flimsy, and fly in the face of data on healthy working and learning environments for staff and students.
Every one of us deserves decent, secure work. Every one of us (casualised and permanent) can make a meaningful difference through practical solidarity and connected campaigning. If we agitate for real change together, we can win.
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).