Working to Contract

The British Universities and College Union is in dispute with employers over pensions (USS), and hasn’t managed to get anywhere through its attempts at negotiation. A ballot was held that voted for industrial action. (I voted yes, by the way.) Rather than largely symbolic strikes, or an assessment boycott (which was tried before for different matters, and union ineptitude basically ruined that campaign), the aim is to ‘work to contract’. This begins 10 October 2011. From the email of the General Secretary, Sally Hunt:

Working to contract is the first stage of our industrial action. As a UCU member, this means that from 10 October you should:

  1. work no more than your contracted hours where those hours are expressly stated, and in any event not to exceed the maximum  number of hours per week stipulated in the Working Time Regulations;
  2. perform no additional voluntary duties, such as out of hours cover, or covering for colleagues (unless such cover is contractually required);
  3. undertake no duties in breach of health and safety policies or other significant employer’s policies;
  4. set and mark no work beyond that work which you are contractually obliged to set and/or mark;
  5. attend no meetings where such attendance is voluntary.

You can find detailed guidance and answers to frequently asked questions about this action here:

Our legal advice is that because you are performing your minimum normal duties, your employer has no legal right to deduct pay from you for participating in the working to contract action.

The plan is that if this doesn’t work, then rolling strike action will begin, and further actions, possibly including a boycott of the Research Excellence Framework (the replacement for the Research Assessment Exercise).

But on this first stage – a little over a week away. It might appear fair enough and easy to action. But I just think that is completely misunderstands how academics actually work. Some of it is clear – we continue to give lectures, facilitate seminars, hold office hours, set and mark work which is contractually obliged. But so much of what academics do cannot be rigidly put into those categories. We prepare lectures, and if our work is current, then that draws upon what we read in newspapers and on blogs, or see on the tv or hear on the radio. We read books and journal articles to keep up on our field. And we write our own work, travel to present it, engage in discussions online and so on. This is why most people in positions such as me have ‘hours and days’ as necessary contracts. Here, from the UCU site, is the Durham line:

Nominal 35 hours a week: Staff in Grades 7 to 9 (and identified Trainee Management, Professional, and Research roles) have a nominal working week of 35 hours per week. The hours and days are not strictly defined as it is expected that staff on these grades will manage their own time to ensure that all duties and responsibilities are fully completed. Where this involves additional time, either at work or away from the workplace, no enhanced rates of pay will apply.

I’m not quite sure what Grade 10 staff (Professors) fit, but let’s assume it’s similar. That’s going to be difficult to work out. 35 hours a week, except that I need to manage my time so that ‘all duties and responsibilities are fully completed’. This may include ‘additional time’, and usually does. Usually much more. So what part of ‘working to contract’ will actually change my work? It could, of course, affect the work that makes this worthwhile – my own writing, reading, answering emails that are not strictly part of my contract with Durham (say a PhD student in another institution contacts me with a question), giving talks, attending conferences, reviewing papers, book proposals or manuscripts or the huge task of editing a journal… But how much of not doing that or reducing the time spent on it is actually going to affect my employer? Presumably the point of this kind of action is that it affects your employer, so that they feel a pressure to open negotiations, or ask their collective representation to do that.

In short, I am unsure what this will achieve, apart from perhaps damaging academics’ own careers. Does my employer suffer if I don’t give a visiting seminar I had previously agreed to do, because the time preparing, travelling to and giving the talk will take me over the hours that week, or do I? It feels like another ill-thought through plan by a singularly ineffective union. Sally Hunt, the General Secretary, has a long background in union work, but as far as I can tell (follow the first link on her blog) has never actually worked in a university, much less as an academic trying to balance teaching, administration and research. And that’s the key to the problem: research, by its very nature, does not fit fixed hours, and if you’ve not done it you don’t understand it.

I will try to keep to this union policy, and it will be interesting to see how it pans out. But I hold out little hope for it. The second and third stages could be interesting.

[update: interesting comment from Kyle Grayson below. Thanks Kyle]

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3 Responses to Working to Contract

  1. Kyle Grayson says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment.

    What I really resent about actions short of strike is that the UCU is operating within exactly the same mode of governing as our employers. This version of actions short of strike is nothing more than an additional externally imposed mode of workplace governance that seeks to act on upon our behavior. For it to be effective requires that yet another form of policing of the self and others must be implemented by staff. Thus, as you suggest, like the other myriad forms of policing within UK academia, all of the costs of actions short of strike end up being borne by us, not by management. How is that supposed to mobilize the support of members? It’s almost like the UCU is deliberately trying to fail miserably here…

    What I’d like to see is a campaign run around reinvigorating the principle of workplace autonomy and the kind of academic freedom enjoyed by colleagues elsewhere by targeting our employers where it would hurt: refusing to participate in admin, monitoring exercises, or other auditing regimes. It’s dead easy to implement. The actual impact on students would be minimal. Research could continue with the caveat that members should refuse to provide anything other than copies of their outputs for the REF. Even if staff pay were to be docked, given how administrative components are grossly under-calculated in workload models, it would be a financial cost that colleagues might be more willing to absorb given the unpopularity of most admin tasks. And by stemming the flow of information necessary to govern, it would completely disrupt the neo-managerial juggernaut that rules through the constant collection of data to construct meaningless indicators which it then uses against those it claims do not measure up.

  2. Pingback: UCU = useless crap union?? | Paul Simpson Geography

  3. Pingback: Research and the UCU action – an infrequently asked question? | Progressive Geographies

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