a view on industrial action in education by a comrade in the Midlands – November 2014
Exploitation in the workplace is the norm. We expect it. We often tolerate it far more than we ought to. Perhaps those of us working in precarious jobs are exploited more blatantly than most – as a PhD student doing ‘bought-in teaching’ for the university, that was certainly my experience. But, when 6 of us got together to do something about it, we were very successful in improving our lot. I think it’s worth writing about it here to let others know that even in the most exploited jobs there is still scope for effective collective action. We do have some power, despite everything.
First off I should briefly explain our working conditions, and what being a ‘bought-in teacher’ means. We were contracted for 3 hours per class (including preparation and marking time), taking one class per week. This, we were told, was a generous offer, since most other departments only give 2 hours per class, or less. The (admittedly decent) rate of pay was £22.05 per hour – but this ‘rolled in’ our holiday pay, which is a very dodgy practice. The contract also stipulated that we would never do more than 6 hours per week, and indeed that we didn’t have to take any work whatsoever – but neither was the university obliged to offer us work. This is similar to a zero hours contract. But being ‘bought-in’ also carries the condition that each period of work is ‘mutually exclusive’, meaning that between classes we were not employed by the university – effectively taking away workers’ rights and benefits (such as sick pay). This is what makes the role of bought-in teacher such a precarious one – no job security whatsoever. And yet, this is the industry standard across higher education at the moment!
It became immediately apparent that the 3 hours contracted to us was woefully inadequate. It was worse for colleagues working in a second language – the time they spent on preparation and marking meant that their rate of pay fell below the national minimum wage! We raised this with our module convenor (who was totally pathetic!) before taking it to our Head of Department. We were just fobbed-off with sympathetic head-nodding and evasive platitudes. It was out of their hands, apparently, and something that was university policy across all departments, and across all universities. We were also informed that the rate of pay meant that we were implicitly expected to be working more than the 3 hours allotted (?!). We were also reminded that we were being given teaching experience which would be essential for our CVs and future job prospects, which suggested that, rather than us doing essential work, the university were somehow doing us a favour! Despite our complaints, nothing was done. Any PhD students doing teaching work will no doubt be familiar with this situation.
But that wasn’t an end to it. One morning we received an e-mail from the module convenor instructing us to come in the next day to pick up exam scripts for marking – unpaid! This had not been part of our contract, and we had been assured repeatedly that we would not be doing exam marking. That was the final straw, our good will and patience was exhausted, and we were all, quite rightly, livid. I typed up a joint statement from the 6 bought-in teachers, explaining our long running grievances, and our objection to this latest affront. I initially expected to be reined-in by my colleagues as demanding too much, or being too confrontational. The opposite was the case. They wanted extra things added in. They demanded more. It was fantastic! We demanded the £22.05 per hour rate of pay for marking and insisted on a set work-rate. If we didn’t receive these conditions, we wouldn’t be doing the work. This was a ‘wildcat strike’, in that we had organised the action ourselves, rather than appeal to the bureaucratically sluggish Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). We did speak with our departmental UCU representative about our grievances, and they were extremely supportive. But going through the union would have been slow and, ultimately, ineffective. We presented our joint statement to our module convenor, when they had been expecting us to pick up exam scripts. The only role of the convenor should have been to pass on our grievances and demands to the Head of Department. Instead, they tried to argue in defence of the entire neo-liberal education edifice, and told us, in the most patronising terms, to get on with it. This unsavoury individual succeeded in making us even more pissed off than we had been before. By the time they had thought to try some ‘divide and rule’ tactics by offering us slightly reduced workloads individually, it was too late. We were united – and that was important.
Within 2 days all of our demands were met in full. Success! Exam marking is an issue that the university are very fragile around. If they fail to supply grades to students on time they are in serious trouble, particularly with the new ‘student-as-consumer’ £9,000 a year fees mentality. It’s all about student satisfaction scores and league tables – any threat to that is taken very seriously indeed. And that is where our power lay in this situation. We do the skilled work of marking, without us it just wouldn’t get done! By sticking together as a group and presenting a united front we were able to improve our conditions. The Head of Department tried to insist that our success couldn’t set a precedent for future employment contracts, but how can it fail to? If departments aren’t willing to offer PhD students fair contracts, to pay them for the work they actually do, as opposed to some ‘implicit’ token, then the precedent IS set. Organise together and withdraw your labour power. They rely on our labour, and they rely on our desperation for CV embellishing work experience to force us to accept exploitative conditions. We don’t have to put up with it!