UCU NEC Election Position: Corona Contract

There was one last solicitation for a pledge in exchange for endorsement from Corona Contract, one of the several overlapping groups organising around anti-casualisation.

Casualisation and precarity have been a core feature of many education systems and, of course, has been increasing in employment everywhere. In the US, a large majority of teaching academic staff are casualised (either “adjuncts” or PhD students) i.e., essentially on zero-hour contracts.

It’s heartening to me that the UCU has aggressively gone after casualisation both in the 4 Fights and in the PGRs as Employees campaigns. I’m not at all sure that these are the best ways to go at it, but they are bold moves and a bold vision. It’s a tough tough fight given general trends, the current Government, how deeply current employment structures are embedded in the sector, and the recent lesson of the pandemic. (A lot of Senior Leadership Teams are reflecting how much “flexibility” casualised staff afford them.) But just because the scope of change is ambitious doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. It’s closer to a social movement fight than a “normal” employment dispute. Which suggests it’ll be a long haul.

I’m extremely fortunate to have won (after a long period in the weeks) the job lottery and recognise how much luck has to do with it. While I have personal experience of being a casualised member of staff for a loooong time, it has been 14 years since I got my current position. Hence, I owe a great deal of listening and deference to people actually in the current hot seat.

However, I don’t feel I can sign the current Corona Contract pledge:

In my capacity as an elected leader of our union, I pledge to help build a strong industrial strategy on casualisation in our union by advocating for

  • a national ballot for strike action this year on casualisation / the “Four Fights”.
  • a fighting approach to industrial action: encouraging members at risk to use s44, aiding local ballots for action, and considering maximally disruptive tactics such as indefinite strike action and targeting assessment periods. Putting a stop to UCU imposing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers on local branches facing urgent disputes, such as lengthy consultative balloting.

We know we need to do much more than this. But if coordinated workplace disruption is not the baseline, there will be nothing left to fight for.

I don’t like to make pledges that I might have good reason to break and I don’t like to make pledges where what it means to keep it isn’t clear. The pledge only asks that we “advocate”, but I trust that merely saying “We should work toward a national ballot for strike action this year” while voting against any motions to have a ballot wouldn’t count.

Thus, I have to ask whether I can commit to voting for “a national ballot for strike action this year on casualisation / the “Four Fights””. The problem is that I cannot commit to that on simple governance grounds. For example, if the fighting fund won’t support the proposed strike actions, I wouldn’t vote to go on strike. (Cf the levy debacle.) If it seems unlikely that a ballot would reach the participation threshold or get enough wins then I wouldn’t vote to hold that ballot. If there weren’t a clearer, more plausible strategy with multiple acceptable exits than total victory, i.e., unless there are plausible gains to be had even if we don’t get everything this round, I’m going to be reluctant to support a strike.

Indeed, a major reason I’m running for NEC is that I though the last rounds of action, though generally very admirable in their goals (esp the 4 Fights) were extremely poorly planned and executed. If the strategy is “carry on as we did there”, I won’t vote for it.

Similarly, the second bullet is…odd. I’m glad someone finally put some content to the slogan “a fighting approach to industrial action”, but the examples are not encouraging, at least at my current level of understanding. I mean, “encouraging members at risk to use s44” is legally dubious at best while “aiding local ballots for action” seems to be done already. While I’m happy to consider various strike actions for efficacy and I really think targeting assessment, esp exams, is a smart move, I don’t know how indefinite strike action is supposed to work and how to get enough members to participate.

I think it’s fundamental that to enact any widespread, hugely (and appropriately!) disruptive  change, we need a correspondingly widespread mobilisation. Intensity of action tends to shrink the pool of participants.

Finally, “Putting a stop to UCU imposing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers on local branches facing urgent disputes, such as lengthy consultative balloting.” is odd. I believe in appropriate consultative balloting. Democracy requires breath and depth. Consulting can be a powerful mobilising tool as well. So, I’m not convinced that there is even a problem with the UCU imposing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers. With recent redundancy fights, branches seem to have mobilised with all haste.

Now, this pledge (and my response) isn’t a high bandwidth discussion. It may be the case that, should I be elected, that I would support many or most of these things. But I can’t pledge to do so and really don’t think anyone can while being committed to proper governance and sensible strategy.

That being said, should I be elected, I do hope to work with the various groups working on this to try to advance matters. Societies can change surprisingly quickly and often it is people with radical visions pushing for change in spite of it seeming impossible that get that change started.

So, unlike the UCU for Very Specific Academic Freedom folks, who seem wholly disingenuous and have goals I do not at all share (including a commitment to academic freedom), I suspect my disagreement with Corona Contract is more on strategy. I hope, given share goals, we can provide constructive discussion which makes for better plans and, I hope, a set of victories.