On strike again, and why you should join a union

"Freedom for the University of Tooting!"

“Freedom for the University of Tooting!”

Last time I took strike action was almost two years ago, and I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. Nevertheless, then  (as now) I think strike action is justified, and that if you’re not already in a union, then you really ought to be.  It’s in your own narrow personal interest, and it’s in the general interest.

I think the facts are pretty well established. University staff have had a pay cut in real terms of 13% since October 2008, and what’s on offer – 1% – is still well below the rate of inflation. While I’m sure it’s accurate to point to the large surpluses that many universities have been generating, I suspect that their existence is largely due to understandable caution in what has been a period of tremendous change – undergraduate fees, real terms reductions in research income, the new REF, fluctuations in overseas student numbers etc.  It would be weird if institutions hadn’t built up something of a financial buffer as an insurance policy.  But they can surely do better than 1%, especially now that we (apparently) in economic recovery and many of the recent changes are starting to bed in.

I hesitate to complain about my own pay. I regard it as a privilege to work where I do, and to do the job I do.  When I go to bed on a Sunday night, I don’t do so dreading Monday morning.  And the fact that I don’t dread Monday morning means I’m probably better off than the majority of people who either do dread it or who have no job to go to.  My salary is more than adequate for my relatively modest needs, especially with no dependants.  A 13% pay cut in real terms isn’t – I think – particularly unusual in the current climate, and
I’m sure other sectors could tell a similar story.  Another reason I hesitate to complain about my own pay is that the kind of society I’d like to live in is one that would be more equal – more Rawlsian – and I suspect that a more equal society is one in which I’d probably be less well off in brute financial terms, but would be better off in all kinds of other ways.

But inequality in higher education is getting worse.  While there’s apparently no money for pay rises at the rate of inflation for everyone else, there is apparently money for pay rises for those off the official salary scales – vice chancellors, and other senior professors.  I understand that the REF has distorted labour markets with big names attracting big bucks.  I know that it’s not the case that not paying the best paid even more will save sufficient money to pay everyone else better, but if there is money to spare, it should surely be targeted – in these times of austerity – at those in our sector who are the least well paid.

So although I can’t back a below inflation offer of 1% all round, I would be personally be prepared to vote to accept below-inflation at my grade for a short while longer if it meant above inflation for the least well paid.  At inflation to keep pace with soaring living costs, above inflation to claw back some of the lost ground.  I don’t have the details to hand, but I believe similar deals have been struck before, and this might be a sensible thing to look at.  If the employers were interested in negotiating.  Which they don’t appear to be.

However, even for the better paid there’s only so long we can accept below inflation pay rises.  A point often made is that academic staff (and many academic related staff) are often late starters in terms of pensions and mortgages.  Graduates at 21, Masters graduates at 22, PhD graduates at 25 or 26, permanent employment at 26 or 27.  Although in many disciplines the norm is several years of post-doc fixed term contracts first.  So five or six extra years as a student, during which time it’s very unlikely that any pension contributions will be made or much saving done for a mortgage deposit.

So why should you join a union? Because if you don’t, and you work in the HE sector, and you went to work today, what you are is a free rider.  You didn’t lose a day’s pay, but if and when (I suspect when), we get a better pay settlement, you’ll get it too.  Union members don’t get that money back, or get any extra.  When the unions negotiate on your behalf about various local issues (from parking to disciplinary procedures), you benefit too. I guess one response to this is to congratulate yourself on your cleverness in getting the benefits without any of the responsibilities, but personally I’d be embarrassed and ashamed to be in that position. I accept that some may have principled objections to a particular union (and I agree that UCU did not cover itself in glory over discussions about an academic boycott of Israel) or have negative experiences in the past, but in general terms I think the onus is on those not in a union to explain why not.

But even if your moral compass is orientated in such a way that you don’t see any problem with being a free rider, it’s still fairly clear that it’s in your own best interests to be in a union. Because my experience at least one institution (not where I work at the moment) and what I hear and read about many other places is that there’s a de facto two tier system in place in terms of how people are treated.  Put simply, if you in a union and have union representation, or if you’re fortunate enough to have a friend/colleague who you can take to meetings to help you fight your corner who can be similarly effective, you will be treated better than if you go without union or equivalent representation.  I’ve seen it myself when asked to accompany friends who weren’t in the union to meetings.  I’ve seen attempts to pull stunts that break internal procedures, very probably employment law, and very definitely the principles of natural justice.  They don’t do it to union members, or those who have equivalent representation.  Maybe not all institutions are like that, but everything I’ve heard indicates that we should all assume that ours is exactly like that unless we have strong evidence to the contrary.

You may think that you’ll never need the union’s help, never need union representation.  But if you’re in an academic-related or administrative/technical/managerial role, then the fact is that restructures and change and cost savings are a fact of life.  I’ve worked in Higher Education for twelve years now, and on average there’s been a restructure that’s affected me every four years.  In the first two, my job either disappeared or would ultimately disappear.  The third passed me by, and arguably left me in a stronger position, but was a worrying time.  In neither of the first two cases did the restructures have anything to do with me or my performance in my role – it was just a case of someone looking at an organogram, looking at costs, and deciding they wanted to make their mark by moving the pieces around a bit.  Anyone in the way was collateral damage.

You might also think that if you behave yourself, keep your head down, and do a good job, you’ll never end up needing union support in a dispute with your employer or with a senior colleague.  Again, I think that’s naive.  My own experience was doing my job too well, and having the temerity to apply to have my job regraded, only to find that a shadow system was being used that bore little relation to the published criteria.  It’s tremendously stressful to be in dispute with your employer and/or colleagues, and having union support gives you someone to rant at, someone to advise you, to set your expectations, and to speak up for you at meetings which can end up – by accident or design – being very intimidating.

Ultimately, union membership won’t save you if you’re in the way of a restructure, or if management wants you out for whatever reason.  But what they will do is make sure that the rules are followed, that your rights are respected, and that you have access to sensible and timely advice about the situation you’re in.  Maybe you’re the kind of person who would back yourself to do all this for yourself, but my advice would be not to underestimate just how stressful these situations can be, and how useful having someone from the union in your corner can be, even if you conduct most of the meeting yourself.

So… back to work tomorrow, and back to dealing with the work left undone today.  As we’re now withdrawing goodwill and working to contract, I’ve got less time than normal to get everything done….

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