Below is the text of the second of four emails which I am entitled to send to all members of UCU as one of the candidates in the General Secretary election. It is scheduled to be sent on Sunday 5 May. To read the first email, click here.
If I am elected General Secretary, my first priority will be to achieve a binding national agreement on job security in Higher Education. As staff in HE, we know intuitively why job security matters. A steady income and guarantee of long-term employment frees us to develop our skills and focus on our work and our students. The high level of job security we used to enjoy in UK universities was what made them, pound-for-pound, the best in the world. But that security will soon be a thing of the past. Even our wealthiest and most prestigious institutions have been building their business models on casual labour.
Precarity is not a transitional state or a rite of passage. Well over 50% of university staff are now on casual contracts. Under UCU’s watch, our profession has become a casualised one. Life is qualitatively different for precarious workers today, at a time when house prices have skyrocketed and even permanently employed staff, including me, are forced to rent. We cannot forget that we are currently training the first generation of PhD students and Post-Graduate Teaching Assistants who are already laden with the debt arising from £9000 tuition fees.
This is a national problem and it needs national solutions, but UCU has not been taking the issue seriously enough on a national level. As I have said in my manifesto, our casualised members cannot be blamed for doubting whether they really are a priority for the union. The formal anti-casualisation demands which UCU makes in its annual negotiations with employers are limited and uninspiring. They contain no special provisions for women, BME, and academic-related/professional services staff, who suffer disproportionately from job insecurity. Worse still, the union has given up hope of achieving them. But I have not. Other tertiary education unions (for instance, in the Netherlands) have won national agreements on job security. So can we.
The first thing we need to do is formulate strong, credible demands which will inspire our members and promise immediate improvements to their conditions. No more waiting for employers to give us vague expressions of commitment, ‘strategies’, ‘timescales’, ‘reviews’ or ‘action plans’ to reduce casual labour: it’s time to demand that employers reduce casual labour. My manifesto promises to create a new post for a national branch coordinator who will help to convert our branches’ local efforts into the meaningful national claims we need.
The same principles apply to equality. At present, UCU asks for little and expects even less of employers in this area. This year, the union is not even asking employers for a national agreement on paid parental leave. Again, I have called for branches to have a coordinated input into our national claims.
At the same time, we need to give a real voice to those affected by casualisation and inequality, by empowering UCU’s national equalities committees and the committees for casualised and academic-related/professional services members. At present, these bodies have limited access to data about the members they are supposed to represent, and they are denied opportunities to communicate directly with them. I will allow these committees to talk regularly to their constituencies. You won’t just hear from your General Secretary: UCU will become an open, vibrant democracy where a range of voices can be heard.
It’s time for UCU to develop a serious agenda for dealing with casualisation now. It’s time for UCU to communicate openly about that agenda with the whole membership. If you vote for me, you will only be asked to take industrial action for something that matters, and you will be able to make an informed decision about it.
Finally, and most importantly, you will be able to take action as a casualised member without making overwhelming financial sacrifices. In my next email, I will talk more about my proposals to build the union around casualised members, through comprehensive subscription reform and a dramatic overhaul of the UCU strike fund.
In the meantime, please email me, visit my website, and come to one of the hustings events. For a list of important FAQs about the election, click here. Thousands of people visited my website on the first day of this ballot, and my campaign video has been viewed 45000 times. Please get involved, vote, and help me build the union we deserve.
Dr Jo Grady