Which side are you on? Self-interest versus solidarity in higher education union organising

15 min read

Workplace nursery and childcare provision in the University of Cambridge falls well short of the demand for places. In recent decades in the UK nursery provision, which used to be run by councils, has been privatised. In the privatised system supply has not kept up with demand and employers have come under pressure to provide workplace nursery and childcare places.

What I want to focus on here is the problem of self-interest amongst academic staff. There are a significant number of academic staff who are supportive of the proposed additional nursery provision and will turn a blind eye to the conditions of lower-paid staff. This is of even greater concern when there is a degree of equivocation about the proposed nursery from the Cambridge University Branch of the University and College Union (CUCU). This is the representation of self-interest and a strategic error by the union’s branch executive in my opinion. What I argue here is that to be effective in future action, UCU must build and organise from the bottom up, it must act in the interest of all staff, not just in the interest of academic staff.

This all comes off the back of the biggest strike ever in the UK higher education sector which was a bitter dispute over pensions between the universities’ representative, Universities UK (UUK), and the University and College Union (UCU). That strike was successful because support and assistant staff and students supported UCU’s action. My view is that we can influence the university to be more forthright in opposing the current marketisation and financialization of higher education, but that can only be achieved by organising with all staff at all levels. The UCU cannot achieve it on its own. If we allow ourselves to be divided through self-interest, then we will lose.

Background: the proposed nursery and local union organising in the university

The proposed nursery building is to be built on the car park of the Faculty of Education, in Hills Road in Cambridge, I am the Faculty’s UCU representative. There are approximately 200 full- and part-time staff in the Faculty. I represent around 70 or 80 UCU members, the membership is mostly made up of academic staff, but there are also academic-related staff, researchers, assistant staff and doctoral students.

The Faculty UCU is the largest organised representative staff body in the Faculty. Following the pensions strike, Faculty union members have been motivated to take a collective and active role in the Faculty. There was a general view that collective decision making and collegiality had to be fought for both in the Faculty and in the university. Our aim after the strike has been to ensure that staff in the Faculty are represented more effectively.

The issue of the nursery came to a head when a notice was published in Cambridge University’s weekly journal The Reporter in May 2018. A Faculty UCU member alerted me to the apparent advanced stage of the proposed nursery planning, it seemed like a fait accompli. We quickly assembled a working group and found that there was strong feeling about the proposal from assistant staff. It will greatly affect them if car park access is lost; public transport is inadequate and many, because of house prices in Cambridge, live a distance away. While the university has said that alternative parking provision would be provided, staff have little faith in this. I get the impression from assistant staff they just feel that they have been ignored on this issue. And while some of their arguments might be dismissed as nimbyism, I believe they have not been adequately consulted and they would be disadvantaged if the proposal was to go ahead. My instinct as UCU rep was to work together with all staff in the Faculty to oppose the proposal, not principally based on local issues, but on wider concerns about financialization, governance (i.e. lack of consultation) and equality and diversity.

We petitioned for a ‘Discussion’ in the Senate House to be followed by a ballot on the proposed nursery. ‘Graces’ or proposals, ‘Discussions’ and ballots are the pillars of university democracy in Cambridge. Discussions allow members of the Regent House to present arguments for and against issues of concern to the university, there is no debate and limited right to reply, but ‘remarks’ (i.e. the speeches) are transcribed and published in The Reporter. The issue of membership of the Regents House led to much debate in the Faculty because most assistant staff are excluded from membership and therefore have no right to speak or vote. Membership of (or the roll of) the Regents House (a body which dates back to the thirteenth century) is limited to University Officers; effectively academics, academic-related staff and senior administrators. In sum, not only would assistant staff be adversely affected by the proposed nursery, they could not access the democratic processes that exist in the university to fight their corner.

Union and academic staff equivocation over the proposed nursery

In the Faculty, I became aware that the strongest opposition to the nursery proposal is from assistant staff. The nursery will affect them most and they are the least likely to be able to make use of the new provision. I believe most UCU members in the Faculty are also opposed to the proposed nursery. However, I have been made aware that some academic staff in the Faculty are either supportive of the nursery proposal or are undecided. More importantly, the official response of Cambridge UCU Branch to my request for support on the issue also resulted in equivocation. This is their statement:

Owing to the documented need for expanding childcare provision at the University, CUCU’s executive committee does not feel able to oppose the building of the proposed nursery, but we feel it is important that the concerns of members in the Faculty of Education are widely known. We note, in particular, the issues raised about consultation with staff and of affordability across the University’s childcare centres, which CUCU’s Equalities Working Group will be seeking to address in the coming months

In response, I acknowledged that I thought the politics of this situation was difficult: nursery provision is in great demand and that will benefit, particularly, women, versus what appears to be NIMBY-motivated opposition. There is, however, more to this especially in respect to governance (lack of meaningful consultation) and issues around affordability, equality and diversity.

Organising from the bottom up

Following on the from the pension strike I have, along with union colleagues in the Faculty, attempted to develop union organisation across the Faculty. I have encouraged assistant staff to join Unison and to coordinate our work in representing all staff. This approach, I find is not unique or without precedence. In the second edition of Notes from Below1http://notesfrombelow.org/issue/technology-and-the-worker, there are series of articles considering union organising in the technology industry. An anonymous software engineer explains that most employees in large tech companies are not six-figure salaried software developers, there are large numbers of support staff and service staff. In attempting to organise in the tech industry, the author explains how organising is more successful when they organise from the bottom. Those workers on middle and higher salaries are less motivated to organise but respond as service staff become increasingly organised. Better paid staff are likely to be aware of the injustice and exploitation in the organisation, but they can be indifferent because of their material conditions, they find themselves in an ambiguous situation in relation to capital and labour.

This is similar to the situation in the University of Cambridge, where permanent academic staff have relatively higher salaries and better conditions of work and benefits. The union organisation in the university contributes to a two-tier system, with UCU representing academic and academic-related staff and Unison or Unite representing assistant and support staff. During the pension strike support and assistant staff were –  even though many did not take action – supportive of UCU members in their action, as were the majority of students. I would argue that the strike was so successful because of the support from non-unionised assistant staff and students.

Strategically, Cambridge UCU should be doing more to organise from the bottom up and building solidarity. The effects of current economic and higher education policy are likely to continue into the future. We will only change things by building a movement based on a broad coalition of higher education staff. If UCU is to be successful in future disputes which there are likely to be, it will need the support of staff across the university. Turning our backs on assistant staff at the moment is counterproductive.

The danger of self-interest

In my speech in the Discussion, I made the point that £1000-per week childcare is unaffordable for many lower paid staff. I calculated that a couple with two children earning £60k per annum and living and renting in Cambridge would struggle. I therefore conclude that those supporting the proposed nursery are doing so largely (and perhaps understandably) out of self-interest – they are those who can afford childcare. I also hear the argument that more workplace nursery places will benefit women who continue to be the main carer. However, it is important to listen to the lowest paid women, this from a colleague, a member of staff in the Faculty of Education and a single mum.

I have to work a minimum of 16 hours a week to claim help towards my childcare costs (ie nursery from 9 months – 3 years). In reality, I have to pay for 17 hours a week to cover drop off and pick up.

17 hours a week childcare a month amounts to about £510 in my case.

The government pays up to £300 of that amount. It is capped so that you can only claim help towards a certain amount. Any hours you work over that you have to pay the full price yourself. So, for example, if I wanted to work full time, my wage would be around £1300. My childcare costs would be £1275 for the month, with £300 help from the government, I would be working to pay for childcare.

The proposed nursery will not change her material conditions, it offers her no opportunity to advance her career. Furthermore, since my colleague is trapped by childcare costs in low pay because of the lack of support from the university or government, her conditions contribute to the university’s gender pay gap.

Why then would there be limited support from academic staff and such equivocation from CUCU executive, when the university’s proposal has so many flaws and is not inclusive? Any nursery provision in the university should be available to all. If we support egalitarian principles, equality and inclusivity, why would we support exclusive nursery provision? Furthermore, why would we – why would anyone – support provision with such a flawed consultation process that it has allowed little or no representation from the lowest paid staff in the Faculty or university?

The only real explanation is self-interest, that better-paid staff believe that their needs should come before other lower paid staff. The self-interested perspective of some academic staff at the university is worrying. I imagine that the entitlement and privilege inherent in this institution can easily prepossess the attitudes of academic staff, even union members and members of CUCU executive. Of course, it might be claimed that academic staff in the university make important contributions through research that has the potential to influence many people’s lives positively. It can be argued that academics in the university should be given preferential treatment. I, however, strongly disagree with this. The work of academic staff should not be seen as the brilliance of individuals but the culmination of collective effort. No one in the university can do anything without buildings, facilities, libraries, administrative or technical support. The environment that inspires us is repaired and renewed by maintenance staff, cleaners and gardeners.

It is easy to believe that as academics in the University of Cambridge we are somehow special and while there are some very talented people working in this and other universities, the opportunities that we have had to succeed and excel are a result of a lot of luck. I know how I came to be an academic here and much as I would like to think it is my innate genius, I have to concede that it is largely serendipitous. Of course, I have worked hard and taken the opportunities that have come my way – nonetheless, my success and opportunities are underpinned by good fortune. If we forget this, we slide into arrogance and ignorance and become consumed with self-interest. The positions we hold come with them a great deal of responsibility. It is important that we respect that responsibility and act in the interest of all the members of the university.

We can only bring about change through collective solidarity. If staff and, in particular, union members allow themselves to be divided over this controversial issue of a nursery then nothing will change.

What should we do?

What can we do about this – about the University’s opaque and expedient financially-led decision making and about the wider political-economic context that has propagated the current conditions? It is necessary to resist, but not alone – not as individuals. We have to oppose and demand transparency, democratic decision making, fairness and equality collectively. We must insist that the University, instead of acquiescing to the conditions of fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism, that has turned education into a crapshoot, uses its institutional capital and international reputation to put pressure on governments to properly fund education – through fiscal means and not through private finance, student debt and excessive amounts of applied research. It is only through collective solidarity that these changes will happen. On the issue of the nursery, it is necessary to build collective solidarity among all staff; academic, academic-related, researchers, teaching associate, assistant and support staff.

As a union, we must organise from the bottom up. If we allow divisions through self-interest things will not change. The university will continue on its current path of marketisation, financialization, private capital accompanied by downward pressure on staff pay and conditions.

The question you have to ask is which side are you on? Self-interest and capital or equality, fairness and staff solidarity?

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