We and They: UCU and the threat of redundancies at the University of Exeter

A spectre stalks the University of Exeter, and sadly it isn’t that of communism. It’s that of redundancies. Tomorrow the local UCU branch meets over Zoom at 1.30pm in an Extraordinary General Meeting (ExGM) requested by its members to discuss the threat of ‘mass redundancies’. Consultation on redundancies in professional services units has already commenced; members in the affected units know their jobs are directly at risk. In addition, the university has paused recruitment on its Penryn campus for several courses, which has prompted significant anxiety.

Discussions of financial shortfalls are constant – even if many are sceptical of the true extent of them – and a particular date looms ever-nearer, that of the 31st January 2021. This date is of special significance at Exeter because the campus unions – UCU, Unison, and Unite – signed a collective agreement with the employer last summer which wrote in a date by which compulsory redundancies (CRs) could take effect. It remains one of the worst documents I’ve seen a branch I’m a member of sign. It effectively legitimised the parameters of redundancies, and ceded freedom of action to the employer.

In return for this generosity, employees got freezes on their pay increments, the suspension of promotions, and the temporary withdrawal of the bonus scheme. The text of the agreement is significant; its purpose is ‘to minimise as far as possible the need for the University to make compulsory redundancies’, not to prevent them altogether. An uncharitable eye – or mine, and those of other opponents – saw the writing-in of a date as facilitating them. As is par for the course in too many UCU branches, the agreement was rushed through once the reps had signed up to it. An e-ballot was conducted facilitated by the union’s national headquarters, with most members in ignorance of the matters at stake, or of the possibility of an alternative. It was ratified convincingly, at least in percentage terms.

When news of redundancies began to break, members spoke out. Comments were uttered to the effect that ‘the agreement was supposed to prevent this’ or ‘we have done all this for nothing’. Those who opposed it knew at the time that it would never do that; its purpose was to legitimise it. What has happened at Exeter is a complex story, but it is one in which the boundaries of the political imagination – even that of trade union reps at times – are limited. For too many, there was no alternative, because UCU’s local leadership offered none.

But there has now been a further and critical development which is at the centre of tomorrow’s meeting. The University of Exeter has undertaken to rewrite the staff redundancy policy in haste. The union has told the members that much, but little more, other than to say that the university seeks to make the process swifter. The branch issued a statement on the 18th November that the union had been unable to agree the changes in their current form. Members still don’t know what these changes are.

There’s one fairly major problem. As the statement noted, the employer averred its right to make the changes without the agreement of the union; Exeter’s employment protections were gutted in statute reform over a decade ago. But now – in the last week of term – members are still in the position where it may be that the university has changed their terms and conditions of employment with their union’s knowledge – and the changes haven’t even been shared with members by their union representatives.

That’s bad enough, but when we return in January it will be less than four weeks until the date for potential CRs to take effect, as written into the Collective Agreement, and members still have no knowledge of how the changes to the redundancy policy may affect them. As any activist knows, controlling the management of information, and of timing, is pivotal for any attempt by an employer to prevent any meaningful resistance.

It’s unclear to me why Exeter UCU’s committee hasn’t shared with its members the proposed changes. It’s unclear to me why they have refused to hear motions on the issue previously, or indeed why several meetings relating to serious issues affecting members, including the courses at Penryn and now redundancies – have had to be forced by requisitions from members, instead of being scheduled by the committee itself.

It’s unclear to me, but there is unpalatable feel of deja vu to it, one that comes from bitter personal experience.

One of the dangers of being a union rep – and this isn’t particular to Exeter – is you get too close to HR. The ultimate danger of that is you end up doing their work for them. This isn’t a j’accuse– it’s a story I can tell because I’ve been there myself. As a branch secretary negotiating severances for people during a restructure at one institution, I found myself wondering, after the members had lost their jobs, that we as the union had just been factored in. We’d gotten the best deal we could. We’d reduced the numbers of job losses. They’d gotten ‘decent’ payments.

Driving from one distraught member’s house down a dual carriageway I started thinking dark thoughts.

Had we helped the members? Or had we helped HR? Or had we just been factored in; had HR had a series of scenarios including their best possible, and just thrown us bones to make it look like we’d won a concession. Like the union had a purpose, and in so doing avoided the threat of a dispute and industrial action.

The union, I thought grimly, had become a rubber stamp. The We and the They matter; we as reps were thinking of ourselves in one relation, and they as the members.

What we did or didn’t do wasn’t as bad as in the infamous case at the University of London, where it was found one union (not UCU) had colluded with employers to target union militants, something which has often been the case in British trade unionism. But the language of ‘partnership’ with employers is intrinsically treacherous.

As the TUC has over the years confronted its weakened position in society – or perhaps precisely because it has not – it has increasingly positioned trade unionism as a service. This is what is often discussed as the service model of trade unionism; that the union provides services to its members – see the burgeoning CPD ‘offer’ that UCU puts forward, for example. That stands in lieu of acting as a collective political organisation with genuine industrial muscle, much of the time.

But the service model goes further than this. In much TUC-affiliated union rhetoric, the unions also exist to provide a service to employers, and employers have embraced this. Unions can ‘sort problems out before they escalate’; unionised workplaces are ‘happier workplaces’. TUC training courses (the online reps 1 course for example) specifically cite the benefits of trade unionism to an employer.

In short, trade unions can manage their members, and save HR the bother.

This has been so enthusiastically embraced by HR departments that you’ll find few university institutional pages that don’t have a ‘join the union’ page where HR extols the virtues of their partnership with ‘sensible’ trade unionists and the like. This is new only in its specific form; the historian of industrial relations Jack Saunders has often noted, the union bureaucrat in the British trade union movement exists to be the person to call by the employer when a strike needs to be shut down.

It’s just that this goes further. In many sectors strikes are more or less a thing of the past and in our own – where restrictive threshold legislation applies – they are more and more difficult to mount. All-the-more need, then, for deep organising and a consciousness of the real material interests – divergent interests – of employees and employed.

Exeter has a history of using its union branches to effect changes that are not in the interest of its members. In 2009, the union ratified a truly awful ‘Agreement on Academic Freedom’ which, taken together with the institution’s social media policy which references it, had dire implications for members in times of industrial dispute. During the 2018 strikes, several Exeter academic staff found themselves contacted by various managers about comments they had posted on social media networks, in particular Twitter. The social media policy provides for social media monitoring, requires staff to identify themselves by name on their social media accounts when discussing the university (I’m Mike Finn, the Director of Liberal Arts, so there we are), and raises the possibility of action in the event of reputational damage.

The Agreement on Academic Freedom meanwhile to which the policy makes reference states that it in turn

has been informed by Sections VI and VII of the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris on 11 November 1997…This definition will be applied by the University when making decisions under the Disciplinary, Removal and Grievance Procedures agreed under the Statutes of the University and detailed in Ordinances…

There’s one problem. They left out the important bits. Section VI:A para. 27 of the UNESCO recommendation specifically states that academic freedom must include the

freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship…

while section VI:B para. 31 states that this includes

the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, while respecting the right of other sections of the academic community to participate, and they should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution…

These elements were strangely absent from the Exeter Agreement on Academic Freedom, which UCU locally signed up to, and were part of the reason why, in my co-authored paper with UCU General Secretary Jo Grady before she took office, I was moved to write of the lack of understanding of these issues in UCU as a whole.

The settlement at Exeter instead confines staff’s public opinions to matters on which they research directly – so I’m covered at least, phew, since I work on academic freedom – and tells them they can be monitored.

The point isn’t that the University of Exeter pushed for all this – that’s unremarkable amongst brand-conscious institutions, as I’ve commented in my wider work on the restriction of academic freedom in modern Britain – it’s that the local UCU branch seemingly nodded it through, thus legitimising it. Other universities do have better policies, often because of the work of union branches. Some even explicitly assert the right of their staff to criticise the institution publicly.

For many, even HE staff, academic freedom issues can seem a bit nebulous at times although in the present they’ve often become very real for individuals. But more orthodox terms and conditions issues are – or should be – less so.

An institution’s redundancy policy is one such. That’s a key part of your terms and conditions as a worker. Who can let you go, when they can let you go, what right of redress you have, what chance of appeal against any decision.

Again, it’s not surprising that an employer would seek to alter this in their favour. It’s in their material interest to do so. What is – or should be – surprising is that trade union reps have seen these proposals and not shared them with their members, even as a deadline for potential compulsory redundancies looms.

As I’ve said, it’s unclear to me why, in this specific case, this is as it is, and hopefully in the meeting tomorrow we’ll get some answers. But as someone who’s been a union rep many times, who knows how hard the role is, I am constantly reminded of the problems of we the reps and they the members; if you will have frank conversations with HR you wouldn’t have with your own members about their terms and conditions, then something, simply put, is not right.

A final point. The We and the They matters. In the foregoing the We has been reps, written from an ex-rep’s vantage point. The They the members. And the union has often been referred to similarly.

But the truth is, as I once wrote somewhere else, we are the university, and we are the union too. Members demanded the meeting tomorrow; members will demand answers. But that alone is not enough. Whatever the outcome, we need to make our union locally an organisation that does not act for us or in our name, but acts as us.

This is hard. We are busy. Reps want to be reps, let them get on with it. Or so some may think.

But in the world we live now that is unbecoming of us as academic and academic-related staff. We need, as far as we can, to shape our own destinies.

Please come to the meeting tomorrow fellow Exeter members. This isn’t about goodies and baddies, or caricatures of politics. It’s about material interest and standing together as a community. We are physically apart, many of us, in this moment.

But we are always far more powerful together, and we can be that tomorrow.


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