Across HE, many of our precarious members have only just received their contracts for this coming semester/term, including those still working on PhDs, newly graduated PDRs, and staff who have experienced firing and rehiring every summer for years. Many of these precarious teaching staff have been told they will have to carry out frequent face-to-face seminars for their modules and units, which means being enclosed in small rooms with up to 15 students at a time – this is what the University of Liverpool, for example, considers to be a “small group”. Many institutions are “strongly advising” staff and students to wear face coverings, but they refuse to make this mandatory, even in small rooms, and those without adequate ventilation. These seminars are timetabled for periods of an hour or more, several times a week.
Spending time with people in this way directly contravenes government and WHO advice about being indoors with others.
Permanent staff are, quite rightly, objecting to having to carry out face to face teaching, and have been fairly vocal about their opposition to these plans during staff meetings. Staff on temporary contracts, however, are not always invited to these meetings, and are often not treated in the same way as permanent staff. Precarious members do not get the sense of support and solidarity that is generated amongst staff who have worked together for years. They have told me that they feel “left out in the cold”, and that their most significant working relationship is with their Head of Department, not their colleagues, which makes them more vulnerable to pressure, and to exploitation.
We all know that precarious academics take jobs with temporary contracts in the hope that this will both enrich their CVs, and demonstrate to their Heads of Department that they would be “good candidates” for the next permanent contract that comes along. What we also know is that this is often not just unspoken, but spoken out loud as an incentive and a means to, at some point, procure secure work. This means that precarious colleagues feel that they must make themselves “useful”, doing the less popular administrative work, never saying no to requests to cover classes at short notice or take on extra marking, volunteering for open days or public events, and so on. It also means not taking time off when they get ill, in case it looks bad, and of course often they are not paid.
The continued sector wide abuse of casualised contracts, whereby countless staff are employed on year-on-year precarious terms, in many cases for more than 4 years is a shocking indictment of our union’s failure to address the terms and conditions of so many members. UCU must take legal action, for example supporting unfair dismissal claims so that staff whose fixed term contracts have been allowed to expire – for example where they’ve worked for more than 2 years on successive contracts with a gap of between no more than one week or have a significant history of fixed term contracts – should be supported to make legal claims. Our union also needs to look at indirect discrimination and the possibility of bringing cases for fixed term contracts have been allowed to end when they are primarily fulfilled by staff of a particular sex gender age race or ethnic origin. There is a lot more that our union can be doing, and we should not accept the contention that we cannot afford to do this work.
Members have told me that their own experiences are that if they want their Head of Department to support their grant application or pass little bits of paid work their way, they have to be willing to put in extra hours and take on work outside of their contract. Staff in this position cannot say no when asked to take on an unfair share of face to face teaching.
UCU reps supporting casualised precarious staff are worried that in the coming academic year, those members will not feel, or be, sufficiently supported to say no when asked by Heads of Department to conduct face to face teaching. This means travelling to their campus more often, using public transport more often to get there, spending time with groups of people in small rooms without the authority to enforce social distancing, hand washing, or the use of face masks, and probably working from shared offices, since temporary staff rarely get an office of their own. All of these factors increase their risk of exposure to infection, compared with permanent staff.
What is even more worrying, is that BAME staff are more vulnerable to Covid-19, and they are more likely to have precarious contracts than white staff. At a time when they need to take the most precautions against infection, their precarious contracts mean they will feel obliged to work in ways which increase their risks.
Here is the thing:
We, as members of UCU, cannot allow universities to sacrifice precarious staff or BAME staff, for the sake of their hybrid/blended teaching plans, which are in actuality about maximising student halls revenue, not about providing the best teaching methods for student learning. Our employers already sacrificed hundreds of precarious jobs this summer, in order to make financial savings. Rehiring precarious staff this autumn, but expecting them to risk their health, or indeed their lives, for the university’s financial gain, is a sacrifice they should not be expected to make, and we should not tolerate.
On a related note, so many times I have been told by precarious members that they do not need to hear from their securely employed colleagues that they too once worked on a casualised contract. The career ladder that you climbed up, from temporary work to a permanent contract, no longer exists, its rungs are broken. Precarity is no longer a rite of passage, and we should not be complicit in normalising the exploitation of people, or the abuse of part-time, hourly paid and fixed term contracts, in the way that universities are currently doing. Is this not why we took industrial action in the Four Fights dispute?
This is something that our union, at a local and national level, needs to address as a matter of urgency. The way we do this, as I have said time and time again in hustings, in meetings, on social media and my blog, is to coordinate nationally a campaign to defend our casualised, precarious colleagues. Such a campaign should include the call from @Coronacontract to pass this model motion in branches. https://coronacontract.org/mbm/