Bristol UCU launched its Humans. Not Resources campaign with a launch event IN November last year, a campaign in support of Bristol UCU’s current 20-point Anti-Casualisation Claim.
Around 40 people attended, sharing and discussing their experiences of working on casual, precarious contracts. They came from across the University, representing many of its Schools, Departments and Divisions.
The event kicked off with some mingling, some drinks and a few nibbles, as well as some anti-casualisation ‘jenga’, designed and ably administered by Paul Hurley, UWE and University of Bristol Artist-in-Residence.
Vicky Blake, UCU’s Vice President for Higher Education, opened the session with a vibrant and empowering talk. She reminded us that staff solidarity is the key point, a solidarity which is vertical as well as horizontal:
The power of communal actions and speaking out about casualisation is that it can articulate our demands for the cause of anti-casualisation while reducing the fear of doing so. It makes it easier for us to speak out about what is really happening and to name it as being unfair
Nick Varney, UCU’s South West Regional UCU official, pointed out that Bristol UCU is one of the first few union branches to make a local institutional claim. As the sixth biggest UCU branch (in terms of membership), Bristol UCU now has the power to negotiate with our employer to effect serious change. Nick also congratulated the Gender Pay Gap Claim negotiating team, currently negotiating Bristol UCU’s second institutional claim:
Thanks for educating our employer that we negotiate now, we just don’t sit and listen. We fight for this, we put a claim, this is our claim and we expect a positive outcome for these negotiations
Steve Parfitt, a casualised member of staff at the University of Nottingham and author of the International Labor and Working-Class History article ‘Academic Casualization in the UK’, shared his own experience as an HPT and fixed-term, 9-month teaching staff member. He hoped that Bristol’s local claim would be springboard for other local branch claims.
A number of speakers from the University of Bristol shared their experiences. A professor from the Social Sciences and Law Faculty acknowledged and apologised for his initial obliviousness to the issue. Until he started talking with casualised staff of his own School during the 2018 USS strike, he was unaware of the scale of the issue. He encouraged fellow members of staff to show solidarity with colleagues in precarious positions, by listening, learning and taking action at their own intra-school level.
Post-docs on short-term research contracts shared their experience of being casualised: the daily burden of financial insecurity, depression, anxiety, insomnia, self-depreciation, loneliness, hoping from country to country, from Universities to University, a general sense of managerial coercion:
The universities, and not only Bristol, keeps the bottleneck of employment artificially narrow, and I say artificially because they have a financial interest at doing so. And the cost is paid by us. Materially and non-materially, with high mental health issues and so on
When I look at post doc and fellows in my department, I think we all have the same experience across all schools. I think casualisation has a catastrophic effect on mental health of people. A recent study that came out last year found that 44% of academics have a major or minor mental health issue, which is just over twice the average percentage in the global population, and over four times what it was 45 years ago. Insomnia, depression, anxiety… It doesn’t make our department any different than anywhere else, and no one wants to say they have a problem, and everyone thinks they are alone. Casualisation means that there is a lack of support
Another contributor talked about the difficulties involved in teaching on a casualised contract:
There is also an impact on the implication you want to have on building courses, as you don’t know for how long you will be there. At the end of the year, you have ideas of what you would do differently next year, but obviously you are not sure you will be there, and you don’t have any structural support to put that in place. In the same way, as people get employed at the beginning of September, they have only one or two weeks to prepare all their teaching before the students arrives, and there is no time to changes, improve, get a better quality over the year. And this is not because of we are not good at our job, but because of the structural uncertainty of the contracts
The contributor embraced Vicky Blake’s call for vertical solidarity, from staff and on the part of students:
One of the other big things about this, is the vertically solidarity that should run along the students too. They are in a context where they brought a lot of money to the university for their studies, and they are not aware of how much of their teaching and face to face time is done by people on casual contracts…Making the students aware of these issues, can be a powerful part of the campaign, we need this vertical solidarity also coming from them
Many of the casualised workers present were, candidly, afraid to talk. Speaking about their working conditions was for PhD students and part-time staff a risky business:
I don’t want to look ungrateful
I feel insecure not being in a stable position. So much, at least for PhD students, futures reside on references, network etc, that you don’t want to be blacklisted
The treatment of casualised staff as shared by contributors is an all too familiar one: unpaid hours, late payments, unpaid training, going to conferences on your own money and time, an ever-expanding workload, the expectation that unfair working conditions are ‘expected’ of junior staff.
Other testimonies drew attention to the cost of casualisation. One speaker attested to a career based on casual contracts, leading to serious mental and physical health issues. Another speaker spoke of ‘surfing the ride of uncertainty’ for nearly 10 years, unable to build a career from what scant opportunities existed.
If Humans. Not Resources. showed anything, it showed that ‘we’ are not alone. This is not an individual’s problem; it is a problem of casualisation, of the system we are caught up in.
One speaker brought up Naomi Klein’s argument in No Logo:
Companies see themselves as organisers of collections of contractors as opposed as employment organisations
Coming out of the meeting, it was clear that we needed to ensure that our University does not become a place of (further) social injustice and despair. So said the collective voices of PhD students, fellows, post-docs, temporary staff, hourly paid teachers, fixed-term workers represented at our event. Voices of highly educated people, smart, generous, dedicated to their jobs, proud of their research, passionate. People who love their jobs and want to do it well. Who need security and fairness. Who need solidarity from colleagues and students.
And who need change:
Everything I am building my life around is temporary and disposable. And that’s how the university views you. And the job feels great; but not knowing what’s going to happen is hard, relationships, mortgage, house, family, it affects everything
For more information:
- The Bristol UCU Anti-Casualisation Claim:
- ‘Fighting the gig economy – of academics not students’, The Bristol Cable, 27th November 2018:
- ‘University of Bristol lecturers ‘in precarious employment’ call time on hourly contracts’, Bristol Post, 16th November 2018:
- ‘New UCU campaign to reduce casual contracts for University staff’, Epigram, 14th November 2018:
- ‘Tackling Precarious Contracts at the University of Bristol: Bristol UCU Update on Our Anti-Casualisation Claim’, bristolucu blog, 13th June 2019: