Below are the main activities we’re involved in as a branch, what each activity involves and how you can contribute.
Like most trade unions in Britain, the bulk of our time taken is taken up advising, representing and defending individual members who are facing problems at work: threatened with redundancy, being bullied by their line manager or another colleague, under pressure to move to another (usually inferior) contract, for example. Some case workers (but not all) receive ‘facility time’ (i.e. time off from work allocated by their line manager) – and even those who do have reduced institutional workloads typically spend far longer defending UCU members than the facility time they receive. So the more people we have, the more we can share the work!
We are always looking for new case workers. If you think you could help us with this essential work, please get in touch and one of us can chat to you about what’s involved. But be reassured: you would first receive some training and you would then ‘shadow’ a number of cases before taking on responsibility for one yourself. You would always have recourse to a more experienced case-worker to talk through problems. We would never assign you a case before first consulting you and you would always be able to decline – say if you had a particularly heavy teaching load at the time, were approaching a research deadline or for any other work-related or personal reason. Just agreeing to take on say a single case each year could make a big difference. (Each case varies in its complexity and duration: some cases are resolved in a single meeting, others may go on for months or even years. For longer-term cases, we ensure more that there is more than one UCU case-worker offering support, to allow for holidays, sickness, etc.) Case work can be challenging: you will need to be able grasp detail, you might need a cool head in negotiations with managers – and a colleague’s career and/or health might be at stake. But it can also be enormously rewarding: you might well end up saving a colleague’s livelihood!
Members of the Leicester UCU committee meet regularly with University Leadership Team and other senior managers – and there is a group of five or six who rotate their attendance at these meetings. The Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee (JNCC) meets every two months, and the purpose of this meeting is to facilitate ‘common-cause’ or ‘working together’. This team also takes the lead in negotiations around disputes. At the end of our 14 days of USS strike action in early 2018, for example, they secured the agreement with ULT that pay would be deducted over seven months; they also negotiated the (successful) resolution of our local dispute over ULT’s attempt to make compulsory redundancies in the summer of 2018.
Employers should – and this is a legal requirement – consult with employees (or employees’ representatives, i.e. trade unions) over all changes that might result in significant changes to working conditions. As we know, one feature of UK higher education (for at least the past few decades) is almost incessant reorganisation. (The contemporary history of universities seems to be one damned strategic plan after another.) All these plans and ‘innovations’ necessitate an equivalent number of working groups and Leicester UCU should be represented. One recent group looked at the new institution-wide workload model – although this was apparently agreed in 2017, it is yet to be implemented except in a handful of departments. Another group – constituted in 2018 and still ongoing – is exploring ‘dignity at work’.
It is important that our union is involved in these groups. And for anyone interested in the way university managers think and the way organisations create and implement ‘policy’, participation can yield fascinating insights. If you’re interested in representing LUCU in this way, get in touch.
What’s going on at University of Leicester – and how does this relate to the wider context? Each year our employer publishes many reports. We receive numerous emails from ‘Communications’ and from many of our institution’s ‘leaders’, including the (president and) vice-chancellor. Colleagues pick up information from meetings and from one-on-one conversations. Events take place. Press releases are published. Of course, the ‘leadership team’ has its own vision for our university and this is reflected in the official narrative. But scepticism is a hallmark of good scholarship and we think it useful to subject these words to more critical scrutiny and to offer our own perspective on events: knowledge is power, after all. In the past year, for instance, we have published on our webpage, a report of a diversifying the curriculum event, an incisive critique of the institution’s attendance management system, a reaction to the Gender Pay Gap report, commentary on the institution’s finances and other aspects of its structure, an update on USS and, of course, our reflections on the Boyle years. Sometimes Leicester UCU’s analysis has considerable impact (pro-VC Research, if you’re reading, perhaps this could be a ‘case’ in the impact statement accompanying REF2021 documentation): our demonstration that the University Leadership Team had manufactured a ‘financial crisis’ in 2016 in order to justify compulsory redundancies contributed to our success in preventing most of those redundancies.
There’s lots more we can do here – and it involves what we think should be bread-and-butter work for most research-active academics. (If you’re not an academic, don’t be put off!) Read documents. ‘Deconstruct’ a narrative. Look for substantiating or contradictory evidence. Construct an alternative – though it might be complementary – narrative. Write up the results in a way that engages your audience. As well as such ‘analytical’ commentary – which will usually reflect the branch position, more or less, we also publish more personal opinion pieces. If you want to help with this work, if you have something to say, get in touch!
Over the past two or three years we have been busy with local campaigns against mass compulsory redundancies (aka ‘institutional transformation‘) in 2016, against the institution’s heavy-handed attempts to force lecture capture on us, also in 2016, and again against compulsory redundancies in 2018 – our success in this latter campaign was recognised by Midlands TUC. We also participate in national campaigns, notably the USS pensions strike of Feb–March 2018 and encouraging members to take strike action in support of pay, gender equality, casualised colleagues and sustainable workloads. We would like to develop local campaigns on at least some of these issues – gender (in)equality and the casualisation are most pressing, we think. We also hope to develop a campaign to make the University of Leicester’s governance structures more open and democratic – we believe there should be either union or elected staff representation at all levels of governance. Again, get in touch if you want to be part of this!
Branch communications support most other aspects of Leicester UCU’s activities. In January 2018 we launched a new website hosted independently of the University of Leicester. (Taking our site off our employer’s servers brought several advantages. 1. Our new site has better functionality and is more user-friendly – anyone familiar with Plone will know what we mean! 2. We are no longer forced to display University of Leicester branding. 3. Our site is more secure.) Most of our analysis and commentary is published on this site, along with campaign materials, information about meetings and other events and so on. During the USS strikes we published daily picket-line reports and we also publish opinion pieces. (Again, if you have something to say, an opinion you want to share, get in touch!) As well as the website we use social media – Facebook and Twitter – promoting not only our own activities, but also sharing posts from elsewhere that we think might interest members.
We all have the right to a safe workplace. Health and safety is often mistaken for basics, i.e. fire and electrical hazards, slips and trips. However, occupational safety and health (OSH) also involves psycho-social wellness and wellbeing, which are under threat with workload increases, discrimination, harassment and bullying. No-one should be injured or made ill because of our work and our employer should aim to ensure that work is a positive experience that keeps us healthy. According to H&S legislation, our employer must consult the campus trade unions’ safety representatives on any issue or change in working practices that may affect health and safety in our workplace. Our H&S Officers attend regular meetings of the University’s H&S committees and sub-groups dealing with particular areas of concern, to ensure that members’ interests are protected and that Leicester UCU’s points of view are put forward. There are also regular meetings with the University’s Safety Services Office. Leicester UCU’s H&S work also includes: representing members who have raised concerns about their working conditions; investigating complaints; spotting possible hazards and dangerous incidents; ensuring that regular inspections and audits of our workplace are carried out; and, taking part in workplace risk assessments.
Our union is only as strong as its members. That’s us – but it’s also you. It’s not hard to contribute to what we’re doing and it requires a relatively small time commitment. (And we would rather be part of a branch in which 200 members each contribute 10 hours a year than one in which 10 members each contribute 200 hours.) You could spend a few hours writing an article for the website. You could volunteer to become a departmental rep (the role can be shared – many departments have more than one rep). Commit to taking on a case every year. If you’re already an active Facebook and/or Twitter user, you could also post/tweet on behalf of Leicester UCU. If there’s something we’re not doing – and you think we should – get in touch and offer to take a lead.
A number of members have contacted us recently asking what we’re doing to support EU citizens in Brexit Britain. Not much, unfortunately. But when we’ve replied explaining our time limitations and inviting the member to get involved we’ve received no response – nothing, not even a oh-I’m-sorry-I’d-like-to-but-I’m-too-busy reply. We recount this example not in an attempt to shame members who perhaps take us for granted, but to stress that we do not subscribe to the service-union model. We think UCU should be led by its members – but this means members taking on the work of organising as well as ‘choosing leaders’. The context is very different, of course, but nevertheless the words of Frederick Douglass are apt: ‘We look not to the captain… but to the crew.’