We Cannot Pause in a Pandemic — Response to Rocha and Marris

Casualised members are a source of strength and not weakness: we won't settle for a 'foot in the door'.

5 min read

Neoliberal discourse of TINA (there is no alternative) has restrained trade union vision about what is possible for long enough. Strike action reveals multiple futures are possible. Why accept employers’ narrow constraints now? UCU General Secretary Dr Jo Grady, 30 March 2018

We write as members of the grassroots #CoronaContract campaign fighting to secure contract extensions for precarious staff during the pandemic. We want to strongly argue against the ideas advanced in the recent Tribune article by Leon Rocha and Claire Marris. We feel it is important to quickly and specifically address this article, as it is currently being circulated amongst UCU branches in order to campaign for an inadequate offer on our ‘Four Fights’ dispute (pay, workload, casualisation, and gender and ethnic pay gaps) at a time when precariously employed staff are on the brink of economic ruin. The offer they are promoting would severely demobilise workers and needs to be rejected.

We have no interest in the factionalism encouraged by the authors’ focus on absolving the “union bureaucracy” and the General Secretary of culpability in what is portrayed as an unsuccessful dispute—an approach that is factually inaccurate as well as inconsistent. The authors demeaningly portray casualised members as “desperate enough to lose 22 days’ pay if somebody tells them that change is around the corner”. On the contrary, our willingness to organise and participate wholeheartedly in recent strikes represents our commitment to longer-term militant action, even at greater immediate cost, due to our positioning at the sharpest end of worker exploitation. It is particularly concerning to see this condescending assessment of casualised staff’s ability to act in our own best interest from an incoming NEC member.

Bizarrely, the Tribune piece barely addresses the fact that we are currently experiencing a global pandemic which has killed over 35,000 people nationally, may bankrupt universities, and which is already leading to extreme overreach by employers (although there is a fightback underway of which #CoronaContract has formed one part). It is dangerous to imply that, because the dispute has not yet resulted in a strong offer, there is no further space for industrial action in the next several months, given the changed context. On the contrary, the decision to concede and stop further action is what will retroactively frame the 22 days of strikes by thousands of members as a failure and will make us vulnerable to the depredation of our employers. We need to ramp action up, not wind it down.

The authors state: “the offer on the table is underwhelming, but the union has little choice other than to accept it and bank the gains it does provide. The alternative would be to reballot branches for industrial action during the summer vacation.” This is untrue. We can reject the offer, and keep the dispute live, without an immediate reballot. We can choose to reballot in the autumn when we think it is realistically possible to achieve a strike mandate, while building capacity in the meantime and fighting back against our employers’ escalating attacks on our workloads and on our jobs. This is a simple tactical point that the authors seem not to understand: there is another option that is neither accepting the subpar offer, nor an immediate reballot. In terms of “bank[ing] the gains it does provide”, as the authors recommend, the offer does not provide any concrete gains that would go into immediate effect—these would all have to be negotiated by individual branches.

While we should debate about the strategy and timing of the recent strikes, and while it is clear that we have struggled to build rank-and-file power evenly across every branch in UCU, it is short-sighted in the extreme to expect to win immediately on casualisation, against employers who have a strong incentive to keep us casualised. That the employers have tabled an offer—however inadequate—on issues like casualisation, workload, and equality, which they previously had refused to discuss, indicates that there is room to negotiate further on a national basis if we can back up our demands with serious collective action, including work stoppages.

An additional factor throughout the strikes, we would argue, was that UCU strategy and messaging failed to plan an appropriate escalation towards further actions, such as the proposed marking boycott. The idea, frequently touted (and seemingly based on an inaccurate assessment of the lessons of the 2018 strikes), that strikes are a “last resort” which will inevitably “force employers to the table”, sets an inappropriate and sentimental horizon for labour struggles based on personal sacrifice rather than accurately rallying our forces in opposition to employers whose interests are antagonistic to our own. It leads to downplaying the weapons we have in our arsenal, and makes it clear we are insufficiently committed and serious. It sets an expectation of a friendly and collegial negotiating process that can dangerously demoralise members when those expectations do not materialise.

Similarly, it is unrealistic to suggest that a vague, non-binding offer would give any kind of “foot in the door” (as the authors suggest) for us to win actual concessions from our university management, particularly when counterposed to the potential threat of a live dispute and a future reballot for industrial action in a time when universities are desperately reliant on our labour.

The authors cite union organiser Jane McAlevey to criticise a perceived “fetish for rapid, superficial campaigns”. Their misuse of her work is bitterly ironic given that McAlevey uses as a textbook example of a shallow “mobilising” approach the fact that such an approach will “routinely ‘win’ victories that are actually quite porous, for example, a policy change with no enforcement provisions” (such as in the proposed offer). MacAlevey counterposes this to effective organising in groups that “prioritise understanding power analysis” and for whom “direct action inside and outside of workplaces is likely”.

We were able to add 14 more universities to our dispute in 2020 from the 60 that we began with in 2019. The fact that we did so is a testament to the exact kind of “organising” that the authors suggest needs to be done. It also suggests that rank-and-file organising is far more likely to take off in an atmosphere of collective militancy with common goals (such as joining an active dispute).

It is worth reiterating that, as casualised members, we are not merely suggesting strikes alone, but are working to organise grassroots action and bring new members into the union, as well as extending action to include, for example, postgraduate research students without teaching contracts. Although Rocha and Marris speak derisively of the impatience of casualised workers, the reality is that, as we have said elsewhere, many casualised UCU members will be unemployed by the autumn, and so we are not merely invested in a Four Fights reballot. We need to build immediate, creative methods of pushing back against employers, including walkouts/sick outs, refusing voluntary labour such as giving talks or examining PhDs, permanent staff refusing to take on the workload of casualised staff who are set to be fired, naming and shaming employers, and forcing basic compliance with the furlough scheme.

Ironically, we have more power than ever to change the conditions of our employment because of the heightened vulnerability of our employers, as well as ourselves. In the context of the pandemic there is everything to play for—and everything to lose if we do not act. Even while we acknowledge the crucial importance of strategy and timing when it comes to a potential reballot, we cannot take our strongest weapon—a live, national dispute—out of our arsenal.


Corona Contract (@CoronaContract)

Corona Contract is a rank and file union group fighting for the rights of casualised university and college staff during the pandemic and beyond.