Sunday, 5 May 2013

News from UCU: Anti-Casualisation Conference

Guest Post by Sarah Brown

There are many pressing issues facing UCU (and other union) members at the moment – pay, pensions, stress, job insecurity for example. All of these are likely to weigh still more heavily if you are one of the increasing number of ‘casualised’ workers in the sector. On 4 May the UCU held an anti-casualisation conference which sought to share information and experiences, and discuss practical ways in which branches can organize to tackle the problem.

Hourly paid lecturers (HPLs) – many on zero hours contracts – are less likely to join unions than those on open ended contracts. There are several possible reasons for this. They may be too busy juggling the logistics of travelling between different workplaces, or they may be put off by the fees. Unfortunately they may also sometimes feel that unions aren’t interested in helping them.

We heard about the various ways in which workers are being let down – employers don’t always make an effort to redeploy temporary staff facing redundancy, and HPLs don’t always get the redundancy and holiday pay to which they are entitled. In the current climate all workers are likely to feel insecure, but those on temporary, casual contracts will feel particularly pressurized to be seen to perform well – which probably means putting in far more hours than one is paid for. And such workers aren’t going to want to rock the boat by making demands. That’s why it’s much better for unions to try to gather information from these colleagues, and negotiate on behalf of a group, rather than leave it up to individuals.

More than one delegate emphasized the importance of not getting overwhelmed by the size of the problem, focusing instead on achievable goals. Small gains such as ensuring all workers get an annual appraisal or their own desk do make a difference. Many people made concrete suggestions for branches to consider – for example, exploring whether teacher training courses offered to postgraduate students could include a reminder that they are eligible to join the UCU.

One delegate articulated exasperation at leftier-than-thou senior colleagues who ‘feel your pain’ but don’t actually do anything to support casualised colleagues. This is not the kind of glamorous, eye-catching issue which attracts the extreme far left – but it’s the kind of area where work can be done which will both help colleagues and strengthen the union by making people see that it is engaging with issues which are of concern to ordinary members – and potential members.

It’s important to remember that organization and campaigning really can make a difference – Northumberland College, Northumbria University and UCL have all seen improvements in the conditions of HPLs, with many offered fractional lecturing contracts.

Here’s a link to a toolkit to help trade unionists build their own anti-casualisation campaign.

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