Playing the Odds: How fractionals at SOAS organised and won

Today the SOAS Fractionals for Fair Play campaign announced that 95% (on a 63% turnout) had voted to reject a contract offer which fell well short of their demands. They also announced a 25% increase in the fractional population taking out a full UCU membership in July. The UCU branch is now committed to considering industrial action next term in the event of a failure to reach a negotiated settlement. To help understand the background of the campaign, we reproduce Bill Crane’s account of the campaign from the summer edition of the rs21 magazine, originally published in June.

FFFP Public Meeting

FFFP Public Meeting

Fractionals are at the bottom of the academic pecking order: casual staff on annual contracts, typically PhD students or postdocs, doing “fractions” of a full time job on a fraction of the pay and conditions. But this year at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London, the fractionals fought back. They took on their management and forced their UCU union to act. They won a crucial first victory over negotiations to improve pay and conditions – in solidarity with striking cleaners and protesting students on campus.

Who are they? – What did they win?

Fractionals are teaching staff on fixed term contracts, typically lasting the academic year, whose pay is calculated as a fraction of that of a full time equivalent. They are overwhelmingly current or recently qualified PhD students and members of the academic union UCU.

FFFP supporters spent six weeks in April and May refusing to mark essays – just as UCU’s planned marking boycott was suspended. SOAS managers called this “illegal industrial action”. It was repudiated by the national union. They were threatened with 100% pay docking and disciplinary action including dismissal. But they sustained the action and won a deal.

They called off the marking boycott in exchange for lifting threatened sanctions, an anti- victimisation clause and negotiations for a new contract with improved conditions and a bigger fractional wage budget next year. This was an important first victory.

Why does this matter?

FFFP successfully mobilised a group of casualised workers. Analysing this win can help us grapple with wider questions over how to organise workforces that have been restructured by neoliberal management. It could provide an example of how to renew workplace organisation more generally.

UCU was formed in 2006 and its membership initially grew. But this seems to have now stagnated after a spike in recruitment during the 2011 pension strikes. Permanent staff are being made redundant or replaced with casualised jobs across higher education. That means shorter UCU retention rates and a declining subscriptions base for the union.

You see the same picture across the trade union movement. FFFP provides one model of how to address this problem. The campaign increased the SOAS UCU branch membership by a third in a single year. We have to recruit and retain this new cohort of workers if the trade union movement is going to regenerate.

This campaign can translate nationally across higher education. The neoliberal restructuring of universities is ongoing, and this will ensure more flashpoints like SOAS. Final salary schemes in pre-1992 universities are under threat. Any industrial action on this issue will be an opportunity to cement solidarity with permanent staff in the coming year.

January: Surveying the battlefield

The SOAS campaign started modestly in January, with a small group of PhD students meeting informally. They were frustrated at the union’s tentative approach to their problems, which emphasised casework over collective action.

They decided to conduct a survey, drawn up by PhD students with statistical expertise, to find out the state of casual contracts at SOAS. Fractionals toured picket lines during UCU’s national pay campaign. This helped make contact with activists across different departments. By the end of the month they had a presence and an identity. Producing banners, leaflets and choosing a name – fractionals for fair “play” – that reflected the determination to build a campaign driven by creative flair, eminiscent of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike slogan: “We want bread, but we want roses too!”

The survey ran throughout February, promoted by email, Facebook and physical leaflets. Asking people to fill it in turned out to be a crucial tool for identifying those willing to get further involved. The email discussion list grew to over a hundred and activists set up regular weekly meetings. FFFP developed a core of activists and a substantial periphery.

The campaign worked by consensus where possible, but key decisions were taken by majority vote. That was the case with the formal “work to rule” launched at the end of February in line with UCU’s action over pay. Fractionals announced to their students that they were refusing to work excess hours. There would be no more “out of class” contact or email communication.

February: Solidarity with SOAS struggles

The campaign converged with existing campaigns to get its message across. SOAS also had a Justice for Cleaners campaign fighting to end outsourcing of a mostly Latin American workforce. This reached a crescendo with strikes in March, where fractionals were welcomed on to cleaners’ picket lines.

JFCleaners

The Democratise SOAS campaign was initiated by students to challenge undemocratic governance structures at the university. It hosted staff-student forums organised along the lines of indignados assemblies in Spain. It emphasised solidarity between staff and students challenging neoliberal management priorities. Fractionals do a large amount of teaching on core undergraduate courses. They are the first point of contact for much of the student body, and FFFP received formal support from SOAS student union at an early stage.

SOAS is a small institution with a large PhD program. Its atmosphere meant that solidarities generated in the course of these campaigns mapped well on to existing friendship networks. Many PhD students are studying precarious labour struggles in the developing world. This gave campaigners an insight into their conditions and how to improve them.

March: Results and prospects

At the beginning of March FFFP presented the survey results at a 130-strong public meeting in the staff common room. Students, casual and permanent staff were all present, as were speakers from other SOAS campaigns.

It found widespread failures in existing contracts, with some individuals waiting long periods to be issued with a contract or to receive the pay they were owed. The central finding was that the hours specified in contracts were too few to perform all the duties specified (which included preparation, out of class contact and marking).

Fractionals were effectively only being paid for HALF the hours they worked. That reduced their average pay to below the London Living Wage of £8.80. You could earn more by working in the student union shop or bar. The UCU branch executive had been initially cautious about endorsing FFFP’s radical goals. But they acknowledged the impetus of the campaign by accepting three newly elected fractional reps to join the branch executive.

A branch meeting on 13 March brought together UCU members from permanent and fractional staff. It voted to adopt the campaign’s goals – and to resist pressures from management to shift workload from fractionals working to rule on to permanent staff.

Management also recognised their strength. They agreed a meeting with fractionals and senior managers to discuss the survey findings on 10 March, followed soon after by a meeting with UCU at the end of the month to discuss amended contracts.

April: Permanent staff stand up

The success of the UCU branch meeting prompted sympathetic permanent staff to convince their colleagues to speak out collectively. Public statements issued forth from academic departments to support FFFP demands. FFFP developed a pay claim for an effective 100% pay rise.

The logic was watertight: hourly pay is set according to the national pay spine, and pay should refl ect actual hours worked. They proposed simple mechanisms to pay for preparation, marking and extra-class contact time with students. All these were lacking in the existing contract. UCU adopted this claim, albeit with some reservations over whether it was “realistic” to seek pay for all hours worked. But management were left in no doubt that the fractionals were serious. They were presented with an anonymised pledge to take unspecified “further action”, signed by over 100 fractionals, alongside testimonies of their difficulties surviving in London.

The mainstream media now picked up the narrative. Richard Seymour wrote in the Guardian in April that teachers “began to suspect that management were simply playing for time” and that threats of job or workload cuts were empty. FFFP voted at an emergency meeting to refuse to mark essays, as they had now worked all their paid hours.

May: Carrots and sticks

They sustained this action until the end of May by drawing on all the resources and solidarity developed throughout the course of the campaign so far. Management hoped the action would crumble over time. Their hopes proved futile.

Carrots were offered, followed by the stick. In May fractionals were offered compensation for three days unpaid training they had been expected to attend at the start of the year, along with open-ended negotiations without any “principles” agreed beforehand. SOAS probably expected the collapse of UCU’s national pay campaign would weaken the fractionals’ resolve. But FFFP countered the barrage of management propaganda for the “deal”, backing each other up in interventions on the union’s email discussion list. Emergency UCU branch meetings followed where permanent staff restated their support for the fractionals – and endorsed the fractionals reps’ role in negotiations, despite management attempts to exclude them.

Students, staff and other UCU branches protested outside a governing body meeting at the end of April. Another well-attended protest involved an open mic on UCU’s national day of action against casualisation on 7 May. A further public meeting of 100 took place in the middle of the exam period on the day of a tube strike, with speakers from Goldsmiths UCU, South Bank UCU and a message of support from John McDonnell MP announcing that he had submitted an early day motion about the campaign to parliament.

On the other hand there was the stick. Management threatened 100% pay docking and disciplinary action against fractionals. FFFP responded defiantly: “The use of intimidation tactics against fractional staff won’t work.” Instead of management asking where marks were, fractionals asked them why they paid for only half the hours they worked.In desperation senior management started sending messages to students questioning the good faith of fractionals. These were batted off with an impressive petition by final year students requesting that the director of SOAS settle the dispute.

The solidarity with permanent and administrative staff paid back when they refused to identify fractionals in breach of contract or to take on the backlog of marking. An international solidarity statement was organised signed by Noam Chomsky, David Harvey and other famous names.Daily report-back meetings during six days of talks at ACAS endorsed the firm negotiating position adopted by the three UCU fractional reps. They regularly reviewed their actions and renewed their mandate until an agreement was reached. FFTP said the agreement “acknowledges the justice of our calls and demands.”

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