Many casualised staff have felt increasingly let down by the University and College Union (UCU) over the last year. Casualised staff – that is, staff on zero-hours, fixed-term insecure contracts – made up 33% of academic staff in 2021/22. In December, general secretary Jo Grady leaked the indefinite strike action plan via Twitter. This alarmed members and gathered support for her alternative plan of scattered days of action throughout Spring.
In January, a winter marking and assessment boycott was called off at the last minute. Then, in February, members heard on a Friday evening that strike action beginning on the following Monday was cancelled. As the Canary reported at the time, many members were left scrambling over the weekend to prepare their classes.
Many students had been supportive of UCU and the strikes. However, for those students who arrived in my classrooms that week in February, I couldn’t explain to them what was happening and why.
Those that didn’t attend the reinstated classes told me that they couldn’t rearrange childcare, they couldn’t come to classes unprepared because of disabilities, and they couldn’t afford last-minute travel costs. These are the same reasons that staff couldn’t manage a last-minute pause of strikes.
Bosses at the universities and the union enjoyed two weeks of ‘calm’. Meanwhile, anxious members desperately needed progress on the pay and conditions dispute, but saw none. The issue wasn’t just the chaotic strategy, but the framing of a proposal that offered next to nothing to casualised members as a ‘win’.
Is union membership worth it?
On top of this, UCU membership fees are high. Perhaps that’s fair: a permanent lecturer earning £58,000p.a. might easily afford the £27.75 per month UCU charges. But is a temporary lecturer at the bottom of the same pay bracket in the same boat?
Don’t get me wrong, £40,000 is a high salary, but a temporary lecturer earning that could take home about £2,200 per month for a few months, and then be unemployed again. They may be justifiably bitter about paying the same £27.75 per month as a permanent staff member, especially when it’s paid to a union which has failed to protect them from their impending unemployment.
Further down the payscale, the trade-off looks similarly miserable. A member earning a salary of only £22,000 (before tax) will be paying UCU nearly £20 (£19.91) per month. For contrast, Unite ask for £9.32 from members earning £21,500 (after tax), and £14.95 for members earning more.
Last week, UCU announced that their fighting fund would be increased by £750,000, from £250,000. This week, on May 23, they expanded eligibility for the fund. Previously, only those facing 100% pay cuts for participating in the marking and assessment boycott could claim. Now, this applies those facing 50+% pay cuts.
UCU’s leadership celebrated the difference this will make for members:
There are 145 universities participating in the pay and conditions dispute. So, there is a question around how far £750,000 can actually go towards supporting all those staff.
How far does the fund stretch?
Let’s look at one example to see the scale of the problem. The University of Sheffield is imposing 100% pay deductions from 19th June – 7th July. Any staff member who has boycotted marking and assessment work, regardless of the other work they do, will be paid nothing between those dates. A full-time staff member participating in the boycott is likely to lose over £1000.
If UCU’s fund covered all of that lost pay, then they’d run out of money after reimbursing fewer than 1000 staff. There are over 120,000 UCU members in total, and nearly 2000 at Sheffield alone. Not all members will have marking assigned, but if more than 0.01% of UCU’s total members participate, the fund cannot fully support them.
Now, UCU are not offering to cover all lost pay. Members can claim up to £50 per day, or £75 if they earn under £30,000p.a., for up to 20 days of action since November. Staff have already had 15 days of strikes, and could previously claim for 11. As such, they might get nine days of new lost pay reimbursed from the fund. Ultimately, this cap means that more members could receive this partial support, but it would still be a tiny proportion of said members.
Throughout March, UCU exhausted members with endless e-ballots (sometimes on decisions that had already been made). Division escalated when it asked members if they supported:
voting on the proposals that have been negotiated in both disputes, and pausing strike action.
Many members wanted to get a vote on the proposals without pausing strike action or abandoning one of the disputes:
This was the moment myself and my colleagues felt the balance had shifted among casualised members. They moved from broad support of the union, to widespread anger and distrust. Members of colour and disabled members have long been critical of UCU’s lack of support of the members who need a union the most, but in February to March 2023 masses of their colleagues realised that faith in UCU was misguided.
Members were particularly unhappy about celebrations of pension wins, without mention of the pay and conditions dispute:
Where are we now?
Three months after the chaos in February and promises of “significant progress”, members have yet to see progress on zero-hour contracts, casualisation, workload, pay cuts, or race, gender, and disability pay gaps. The blame lies with university bosses (the Universities and Colleges Employers Association) but members also feel sold out by their union painting small wins on pensions as ‘job done’.
Fortunately, UCU hasn’t given up the dispute yet, and the boycott is having an impact. However, the union needs to promise more than a £750,000 fighting fund if they’re hoping to win back the support of their casualised members.
UCU has a reputation as a union for permanent lecturers. The last few months have done little to shift that perception, and when UCU leadership say ‘we have your backs,’ it’s very difficult for the rest of us to find a reason to believe them.
The author is a UCU member and member of staff at a UK University on a fixed-term contract.
Featured image via YouTube screenshot/UCU – University and Colleges Union