With less than three weeks to go till UCU’s ‘Stamp Out Casualisation’ day of action, more and more branches are reporting in what they will be doing on the day. Many branches are taking the opportunity to organise and recruit new members on casual contracts, organising ‘drop in sessions’, surgeries and social meetings as a way of highlighting what UCU can do for them. Here’s a brief roundup of just some of the action on the day, so far, together with some suggestions for how you can get involved at the bottom…
The University of Aberdeen branch report that they are holding a drop-in clinic for any member on a fixed term or zero hours contract who has concerns about their contract, followed up with one-to-one casework support if required. The University of Central Lancashire branch report that they are leafleting in the run up to the day to promote an open meeting for hourly-paid staff (members and non-members) followed by a members-only advice session. The University of the West of England branch are organising three similar meetings, one on each campus, with a video link between the three sites where they will be sharing “10 top tips” for those on fixed term and part-time/occasional contracts. The University of Leeds branch are holding a series of meetings for GTAs and staff on Fixed-term Contracts, including a social event, afternoon tea, sharing testimony about life on casual contracts and the launch of a survey. Northumbria University branch are holding two meetings for non-members among the Associate Lecturers, asking them what their issues are and showing how UCU can help and a similar meeting is being organised at Birmingham City University for their Visiting Tutors and postgraduate students. Cambridge University branch are holding a stall at an induction event where they will be focusing on casualised staff.
Lunchtime stalls and meetings are being held at the University of Middlesex, Coleg Menai in Wales, Queen’s University Belfast and Oxford Brookes University.
Other branches are using the day of action to directly support their campaigning and negotiating on collective issues for casual staff. Sheffield Hallam University branch are launching a report based on their survey of staff on zero hours contracts as part of their campaign to persuade the university to abandon this form of contract. The branches at Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores are holding a joint mass meeting as part of their ongoing campaign to win agreements against zero hours contracts. London Metropolitan University branch are holding a social event to which hourly paid non-members will be invited to highlight the branch’s campaign against zero hours contracts, while Goldsmiths branch will be holding a meeting to promote their success in winning a progressive agreement on hourly paid staff and Graduate Teaching Tutors.
UPDATE: 24 October:
We’re getting more reports in of branches organising events for the day of action, including some really imaginative initiatives:
Falmouth University branch are organising a free lunch for all hourly paid members in the main canteen on campus, supported by the local student union, and leafleting all staff with management responsibility with UCU guidance on supporting hourly-paid staff.
Bradford College UCU are using the UCU template to survey hourly paid staff, requesting data on numbers of hourly paid staff, writing to their local MP and recording a series of podcasts – talking about hourly paid work.
Oxford University UCU are leafleting their science area, where there are high concentrations of members on casualised contracts.
Stockport College UCU are organising a lunchtime meeting including a surgery for hourly paid staff.
Sunderland University UCU are planning an open meeting on – including non-members – on hourly or fixed term contracts as well as printing UCU anti-casualisation posters to display in all main buildings.
Blackpool and the Fylde College UCU are requesting a list of all casual staff from their employer and posting UCU leaflets to them, as well as having a stall at one of the sites for casually employed staff. They’re also challenging their employer to remove exclusivity clause from the zero hours contracts.
Keep the reports coming in as it’s shaping up to be a big day!
How you can support the day of action as an individual member:
If you don’t know what your branch is organising them, contact them to find out. If your branch is organising something and it hasn’t been reported in yet, let us know by emailing email@example.com.
The day of action isn’t just going to be organised at branch level. Nationally, the union will be doing its best to give the action as much profile as possible on the web and in social media, so watch your twitter feed in particular.
In addition to branches organising and campaigning, nationally, the union is using the day of action as an opportunity to put more pressure on the political parties to deal properly with the scandal of zero hours contracts.
We’ll be organising a mass letter-writing exercise targeted at MPs on the issue of eradicating zero hours contracts and the exploitation of hourly paid staff, so watch your email inbox for more details very soon.
And finally, if you want to help us boost our social media impact on the day, download our ever-popular poster “I support SECURE employment for ALL staff” and take a photo of yourself holding it and post it on twitter or email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can tweet it on the day.
Watch this space for more and check the Stamp Out Casual Contracts web page.
If casualisation is endemic in post-secondary education, it’s fairly rampant in Adult and Community Learning. In some urban areas, like the West Midlands, UCU has agreements that govern the use of casual contracts, ruling out zero hours contracts entirely, for example and ensuring that staff are employed on fractional or limited variable hours contracts. In many rural areas in the South however, highly exploitative zero hours contracts are rife. Targeting employers who maintain large numbers of their teaching staff on zero hours contracts is a priority for UCU and the union is looking at Adult Education services as well as colleges and universities.
On a related issue, the importance of collective union strength was demonstrated again recently as UCU scored a win for casual staff employed by an Adult and Community Learning Centre in North Lincolnshire and successfully fought off attempts to make detrimental changes to the way tutors were paid. Part-time variable hours tutors at the service are given a core hours contract for the year and until recently, were also paid extra in their monthly salary on an overtime basis for any extra hours they perform during the pay period, over and above the scheduled core hours.
Recently, the employer announced that the system for overtime payments was to be stopped and in the future no overtime payments would be made until the Tutor had achieved their annual contracted hours. That meant that tutors could be doing regular overtime and incurring work related travel and child care costs for example, while not being paid for this work for many months, once the annual core contractual hours had been fulfilled. For tutors who are often low paid and relied on regular overtime payments this could have a big impact on their income and standard of living.
Fortunately, the UCU branch had some new reps, one of whom was a part-time variable hours tutor and who took this up as a collective issue with the services’s management. The result was that management agreed to revert to the previous system of making regular payments in the same month as the work was performed. Collective strength expressed in collective bargaining and campaigning, made the difference for these precarious and low paid workers.
UCU has been saying for years that casualised contracts affect the quality of education. We’ve argued that employers with highly casualised workforces often struggle to ensure that there are guaranteed staff for who areas of provision and that employers struggle to recruit and retain staff, leading to high turnover and neglect of professional development.
For students and learners, this means their lessons may not have enough staff, they may not know from term to term who is teaching them, and that it is impossible to build up proper educational relationships with a fast-changing workforce. For staff on casual contracts, it means the endless anxiety of worrying whether you’ll be employed again and the frustration of working for an employer who shows no commitment to you but expects you to deliver ‘excellence’ day in day out. That’s why UCU argues constantly for transferring casualised staff onto secure contracts. It’s in everyone’s interests.
Well, it seems that at least some Ofsted inspectors may be starting to agree with us. UCU, like other teaching unions, is highly critical of Ofsted, but it does seem that inspection teams in the South-West may have combined, if unintentionally, with UCU campaigning to persuade two colleges to reduce the casualisation of their workforces. City of Bristol College and Wiltshire College both received critical Ofsted reports over the course of 2013 and 2014 and in both cases, the quality of teaching was under the spotlight.
City of Bristol College is a significant employer of staff on zero hours contracts, while Wiltshire College employed some staff on zero hours contracts and over 30% of its teaching was delivered by agency workers. In the case of Wiltshire College, Ofsted, which shies away from contractual matters, seemed to come close to addressing casualisation directly. In its report from March 2014, Ofsted notes that ‘over recent years, the lack of stability in a number of teaching teams due to staff turnover and some inadequate cover arrangements has contributed to students’ below average achievement’. Similarly, in its October 2013 report into City of Bristol College, Ofsted noted that there was ‘significant variation in the quality of teaching within and between faculties and subject areas’, together with insufficient attention to planning to meet the needs of individual learners, while assessment and feedback to students was poor.
Both colleges have put in place plans to overhaul their teaching since and interestingly, both have responded positively to UCU calls to address casualisation. City of Bristol has reached an agreement with UCU to end entirely the use of zero hours contracts and to replace them with fractional established contracts. Wiltshire College has similarly agreed to end its use of agency staff and reduce the number of staff on part-time and variable hours contracts.
What’s the ‘learning point’ here? In one sense, it’s simple and obvious. We are right about the connection between casualisation and the threat to quality and other people are only just beginning to cotton on. Professional, committed staff who are put onto casualised contracts are often not given the resources or the time that they need. That’s why this is the time for UCU and its branches to turn up the heat on our employers.
Since 2013 I’ve been fortunate enough to be on a permanent contract as a lecturer, with teaching and research in my workload. But for the past two years after finishing my PhD, this was a much different situation, as I was on casualised teaching-only contracts. Don’t get me wrong; there were many valuable things about working at these jobs: they allowed me to pay the rent (which I desperately needed at the time) and, while the pay was significantly less than what I am earning now, it was at least enough to survive on (which is not the case for many casualised jobs, such as hourly paid teaching). I have met some fantastic colleagues, and in one of the institutions where I worked, was given some very helpful mentoring. I was able to get some important teaching experience and now have a better understanding of how things work in different institutions.
However, because these contracts were teaching-only, they did not include the time or resources to do research. And it’s very difficult to do research when you’re doing it on your own time and it’s not officially part of your job. Temporary teaching-only contracts often have quite heavy teaching loads, in part because research is not included. I know this sounds unfair (because it is!), but my teaching load was actually heavier when I was working on part-time contracts than it is now on a full-time contract (which is why I’m now able to be much more productive), and the temporary nature of the post meant continually having to apply for the next job, which took a lot of time that could have been spent on research.
And—here’s the catch-22—in HE, research is the only way to escape casualised employment. In other words, no time to publish=no publishing=no permanent job. That’s the reality of today’s job situation in HE, particularly because October 2013 was the cut-off point for including staff in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) census. I should point out that if I did not have publications for the REF, I probably would not have my current job today.
In retrospect, the only way I was able to publish was through literally sacrificing any amount of free time I had: I would write on evenings, weekends, on the train (because these temporary contracts were not really long enough to make it worth relocating, I had to commute). In retrospect, I don’t know how I kept my sanity. I don’t have children or caring responsibilities and have a sympathetic and supportive partner, which made this possible. Otherwise it would have been much more difficult.
Also, I got to know others employed on similar contracts working at the same institution (as we shared the office) and noticed that they were mostly 1) early career academics and 2) younger women (although the HESA statistics do not show a gender disparity in terms of staff employed on temporary, teaching-only contracts). I don’t know how representative these experiences are, but it does make me wonder if the generation of academics is being stuck in these sorts of temporary, teaching only posts to free up time for more established academics (or at least those on teaching-and-research contracts like I am now) to produce publications for the REF, a trap that it is very difficult to escape.
According to the latest HESA statistics, teaching-only contracts are more likely to be temporary and part-time than teaching-and-research contracts. And now, more disturbingly, almost half of teaching-only contracts are now zero-hours. While my previous contracts were temporary, at least I had the certainty of knowing how many hours a week I would be working, and that I would be earning enough to support myself financially. Can you imagine doing research when you have no idea when you will be working, or if you will be earning enough money to live on? How are you supposed to plan time, or have the peace of mind to write?
These contracts are often defended in terms of employers’ needs for flexibility. I also hear arguments about how “some people like teaching and don’t want to do research”—but there’s often an implicit assumption that some people don’t want job security either. I also wonder how many people in these posts actually “don’t want to do research” and how many of these people actually do want to do research but are stuck in teaching-only posts, and furthermore, how many are actually early career academics who are struggling to build a profile when they are having to write and publish on their own time, in some cases with little acknowledgment that they are carrying out research. This is why we need to pay more attention to this issue as UCU activists, particularly as more institutions plan to expand the use of teaching-only contracts and as the next REF approaches. It’s particularly important for us to campaign for time, resources and support for casualised staff to carry out research and build academic profiles.
Zero hours contracts have continued to feature in the news, exposing some tensions within the UK Coalition government. In May, Tory Employment minister Esther McVey outlined plans to enable JobCentre staff to ‘mandate’ unemployed people to accept zero hours contracts with the sanction of removal of benefits. On the other hand, in June Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable attempted to deflect some of the public attention on this issue by announcing that the government would legislate to make exclusivity clauses unenforceable as part of the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill.
As the authors of a new Institute of Employment Rights pamphlet have pointed out the proposed legislation will have almost no impact, partly because exclusivity clauses are probably already unenforceable and partly because this misses the essential feature – and unfairness – of the zero hours contract: the fact that the employer is under no obligation to provide work.
The ongoing political furore over the use of Zero Hours Contracts is an opportunity for unions to press for a proper solution by building political support for legislation that provides a right to continuity of employment. However, we also have a duty to work now to use our collective bargaining strength to win tangible improvements for staff on these contracts. That’s why UCU is working to target major employers using zero hours contracts, making use of their high profile and controversial status.
The advantage of this kind of targeted approach is very visible in the case of the campaign at Gower Collegein Wales. UCU’s FOI revealed that Gower College was the biggest user of zero hours contracts in the Welsh Further Education sector, employing almost 80 staff on such contracts. The UCU Wales regional office and branch agreed to target this employer for a sustained campaign against casualization, beginning by proposing a protocol for fractionalising staff on zero hours contracts.
The college, in common with many FE colleges, pleaded funding constraints and an early agreement seemed unlikely, so the branch and region moved into organising and campaigning mode. Part-time teachers formed a focus-group and from this a part-timers rep came forward for the branch. The college seems to have smelled trouble as it offered some members of the group fractional contracts, but no agreement. UCU continued to press for a comprehensive agreement and began to target Welsh politicians, making good use of the high profile issue, raising it in political circles and maximising bad publicity for the college. A high-profile lobby of the Welsh assembly followed, including part-time staff and the UCU Wales regional official, after which several politicians wrote to the college asking them to explain why they used zero hours contracts and employed so many staff as hourly paid.
In September last year, under growing pressure, the college agreed to set up a working party to look at an agreement. In May 2014, following hard negotiations, an agreement was finally signed. Under the terms of the new protocol for using hourly paid contracts, the college recognises the need to ‘ensure that all staff feel secure and are appropriately supported throughout their employment’ and are ‘committed to appointing staff on contracts of employment that are ‘fair and equitable’, within funding constraints. Concretely, the college have agreed that those staff with four years’ service at above 418 annual teaching hours (including remission) can apply for conversion to a fractional post. The college has maintained that conversion should be subject to any ‘legitimate factors’ that might place provision at risk, but has also agreed to review the policy with a commitment to looking at reducing the threshold of eligibility where possible.
UCU Wales are not sanguine about this deal. It’s not ideal, but it’s a major improvement, a big step forward and a launch pad for further campaigning and bargaining. And it was achieved for vulnerable precarious staff by combining organising, campaigning and negotiation while maximising the opportunity provided by the current political context.
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.