Manchester University is one of the biggest research intensive universities in the UK, employing more than 1,700 research staff. With such a large body of researchers, the use of casualised fixed-term contracts has long been a big issue at the university, which is one reason why the local UCU branch has made it a long-term strategic objective to win greater security and continuity of employment and fairer treatment for these staff. What’s notable and interesting about Manchester UCU’s approach is how long they have persevered, combined organising, campaigning and long-term negotiations to win comprehensive local agreements that cover their casualised staff. As we’ll see, problems remain, which make it necessary to organise, campaign and negotiate constantly to police how these agreements are implemented. But the lessons are there, nonetheless.
Greater security for fixed-term staff
When the fixed-term regulations came into force in 2006, like lots of other branches, Manchester’s used it as an opportunity to press their HR department to transfer large numbers of fixed-term staff. As it became apparent that this wasn’t happening, they sought to press management for a local policy and started to campaign and organise among fixed-term staff to create pressure from below. Under joint union pressure, a university working group was convened in 2006 and by May 2007 it was discussing an initial draft policy.
It wasn’t till December 2010 that the branch was finally able to win agreement on a progressive policy covering fixed-term contract staff. This included the crucial policy commitment to ‘seek to employ people on permanent contracts where possible’. The agreement also included a tight and narrow definition of the circumstances under which it was appropriate to use a fixed-term contract.
Perhaps most importantly, the university made a commitment to end the use of ‘hybrid’ open-ended contracts with a stipulated end date. Instead, Manchester agreed to recognise only two kinds of contract: fixed-term and permanent. This meant that research staff whose employment depended on external funding won important new protections. They were contractually no different from other permanent employees and won equal rights to other permanent staff when the term to their funding placed them at risk of redundancy, including being properly consulted with a view to avoiding redundancy, being placed on the redeployment register and getting redundancy pay. In addition, individuals made redundant via this route would continue to be paid employees, on the redeployment register for three months after their funding ceased. Finally, the termination of fixed-term contracts, the threat of redundancy among externally funded research staff and the general policing of the policy were to be monitored by a fixed-term contracts committee. The agreement would, the university said, give the ‘opportunity to enhance the quality of employment’, while ‘working toward a balance between flexibility and efficient and fair working practices’.
The branch continue to use the new machinery established under the agreement to ensure that the policy is implemented properly, which needs constant vigilance. There continue to be plenty of examples where the policy is not followed, so it needs constant monitoring through the bargaining machinery established through the agreement. But the agreement is a major improvement for research staff at Manchester and the branch continue to organise around it to ensure that researchers know their rights and they included it in their recent recruitment work.
More rights for Graduate Teaching Assistants and no Zero-Hours contracts
In 2010, as the research contracts policy was being signed off, the branch also began to organise and campaign around the need for a similar policy to cover its Graduate Teaching Assistant population, mainly, but not solely comprised of PhD students. Meetings of GTAs were organised to find out the extent of the problems and build support for an agreement during June and November 2010.
In April 2011, the university agreed to set up a teaching assistant review group and the branch sought to ensure that GTAs were able to feed into these group meetings. Consultation meetings on early draft policies were organised with GTAs and other hourly paid staff. Then, late in 2012, the branch signed off a final GTA agreement.
Under the final policy, the university agreed to ensure that GTAs all received one of a family of formalised job descriptions referenced against the nationally agreed academic role profiles and all received a formal contract of employment. Under the agreement, all GTAs were assimilated to the National Pay spine and those who had worked up four years service had incremental progression.
A key win under the policy was the general policy commitment to ensure that teaching assistants ‘should not be treated as casual’. This commitment is delivered on via a range for mechanisms including the transfer of staff after four years of fixed-term contracts and can include the use of pro-rata contracts.
Another critical achievement was the commitment to eradicate zero hours contracts. Zero hours contracts had been widely used in some faculties but the branch scored a major success in winning management to the idea that there was benefit in moving all these staff on a‘defined hours’ contract with a few retained on ‘minimal hours contract’ to allow for specific flexibilities. The branch were able to convince management that such defined hours contracts ‘would give greater stability and reliability in the use of teaching assistants.’
Again, of course, there remain problems with implementing the agreement, yet despite this its mere existence gives local reps the opportunity to hold management to account.
What’s most impressive about Manchester UCU’s achievement is the fact that as far back as 2004, the branch identified casualised staff as a strategic priority. Having done so, they made a long-term commitment to the issue and to combining campaigning, organising and collective bargaining over the long-haul. It’s not perfect and like any policy, it needs to be constantly policed which requires the branch to keep organising and talking to management. But there’s no doubt that these agreements have paid off in the form of real improvements for many vulnerable staff.