Interview: The Fight for Fair Pay in Universities

‘Fractionals’ are hourly paid part-time teaching staff in universities who are paid a ‘fraction’ of a full-time salary. An increasing proportion of academics are on these precarious contracts. On 8 May, SOAS Fractionals for Fair Play (FFFP) announced via their Facebook page that, after threatening a mass marking boycott in late March, management had accepted all of their demands: to be paid for time spent marking, for maximum class sizes, and for a review of teaching fellows’ hours. Joe Hayns spoke with an FFFP activist about the campaign.

Congratulations on the FFFP victory. The campaign began in 2014. Could you give a sense of how it’s developed since then?

Thank you very much, we’re all pleased by the outcome.

The campaign started in 2014 when several fractional teachers began discussing their working conditions on a University and College Union (UCU) picket line. Fractionals conducted a workload survey and found that most of their work went unpaid. Management wouldn’t negotiate, so we held a marking boycott in the spring that lasted several weeks.

Management said they’d negotiate, but then imposed a contract on us before the 2014-15 year, which was overwhelmingly rejected by the campaign.

We continued to hold weekly meetings, but it wasn’t easy, and there were periods when some of us felt like we were fighting a brick wall. But this year the campaign saw an increase in numbers and support.

In my opinion, that’s partly due to the abysmal treatment of fractionals. At the start of this academic year, one in five fractionals had contract and/or payment issues. It outraged a lot of people in the university.


How do you think Coalition cuts changed labouring conditions in universities? Can we talk about a long-term, steady worsening of conditions, or did the 2011 Education Act and Coalition cuts involve a qualitative change?

There has been an increase in precarious, casual appointments across the sector over the last few years, as a result of those drastic cuts to higher education funding.

At SOAS we definitely noticed a drastic change. In 2015, the governing body requested that the school create a £5 million surplus to protect against the ‘existential threats’ – I’m using the words of one of the managers here – of funding cuts and immigration reforms that threatened the institution’s income and future ‘sustainability’.

But for sure, there’s been a longer process of treating universities as businesses rather than institutions for learning and training.

 

Some fractionals were involved in the 2010-11 student protests in the UK, others in struggles elsewhere. How have your different experiences of politics – different perspectives, tactics, and so on – shaped the campaign?

It’s been quite interesting to see how our different ideas about effective protest and resistance have informed the campaign.

We’ve used a broad range of tactics, from silent protests in the classroom (wearing badges, for example), to book-sales for our strike fund, to lobbying department heads.

We also created a film in 2015, which some lecturers and tutors used in their courses to link with readings on labour movements, exploitation, or neoliberalism.

In the most recent action, we’ve had a ‘social media team’, with several fractionals tweeting and sharing student and departmental solidarity statements on Facebook. All these great ideas for drawing attention to our working conditions came about because we have so many creative people with ideas gleaned from different political and research experiences.

Of course, fractionals are not all ‘the same’. Appreciating our different positionalities was crucial when we encountered obstacles, especially when trying to negotiate individual hardships and difficulties that prevented or discouraged some people from taking an active part in the campaign at times.

Understanding the different situations in which our colleagues live and work, particularly for international students who have visa concerns or may lack funding, has been crucial this year for building our base.

 

SOAS markets itself as a place for ‘critical’ ideas, and as being particularly ‘sensitive’ to the Global SouthBut, as at every university, at least in the in the UK, workers’ positions, pay grades, and prestige are clearly related to their legal status and the dynamics of racism.

SOAS definitely markets itself as a radical institution. And it is, but it’s the students and staff that make it radical.

Many of the cleaners and outsourced staff are migrants from the Global South, but the Justice for Workers campaign (J4W, formerly Justice for Cleaners) has been fighting for a decade for improved working conditions and an end to outsourcing.

Many fractional staff, particularly Graduate Teaching Assistants, are migrants. While we don’t have information on national origins, the majority of fractional staff at SOAS are BAME (to use the institutional language), while only 32% of full-time permanent staff are.

White men make up the single largest group of full-time permanent staff (40%). So the exploitation of precarious and casual labourers at SOAS is also an anti-racist issue. But you wouldn’t get that image in a marketing pamphlet.

 

How has the FFFP relation with UCU changed since 2014? Are most fractionals UCU members? Was 2014 a ‘wildcat’ strike? Would the threatened strikes have been ‘unofficial’? If so, what does that tell us about UCU?

FFFP is an independent campaign as well as a student union society, but we work closely with UCU.

I’m one of two fractional reps in the SOAS UCU branch, and we have FFFP members serving as representatives on the SOAS UCU Executive Committee. Earlier in the year, when we were moving towards industrial action through UCU, we encouraged fractionals to join the union, and many did.

But not everyone wants to join UCU. It’s understandable, as the relationship between FFFP and UCU has not always been amicable. The union has not supported some of our actions, and others – such as the recent refusal to undertake unpaid labour – have come as quite a shock to the branch and the regional office.

Fortunately, this year we’ve had wide support on the Executive Committee and among the union membership. This was absolutely crucial for mobilising support within individual departments.

But when things have stalled on the UCU front, FFFP has fought hard to keep moving forward, even working outside union structures and regulations when necessary.

 

It sounds as if UCU was an impediment at some points, and an aid at others. What are the dangers of remaining entirely within these larger, relatively undemocratic, fairly supine unions? What are the risks of trying to organise outside of them?

In any union, it always helps to have a radical and supportive local branch, especially when the regional or national offices are less so. But it’s harder if you’re part of a section of workers whose concerns and contractual conditions aren’t shared by the whole membership, whether at a local or national level. On top of that, the trade union laws in this country have become so restrictive that pursuing any action through a union has become more difficult and time-consuming. I think we will see more ‘wildcat action’ outside the confines of union governance in the future as those official routes become further restricted.

Of course, there are huge risks if you try to organise outside of official union structures. If you take any action that the employer deems ‘unofficial industrial action’ – and SOAS did consider our recent refusal to mark essays without payment to be just that – you are putting your current and future employment on the line. Many fractionals were concerned over losing teaching positions and income next year, and without an official union ballot you cannot give guarantees that won’t happen. But the situation was dire, and in the end there were enough of us willing and able to take that risk, and we won.

 

You’ve already questioned SOAS’ self-presentation. But, with a vocal minority of LSE students actively against the ongoing UVW cleaners strike at LSE, it seems only clearer that SOAS students are relatively radical – for example, the BDS motion, J4W, and a general and deep anti-racism, especially. How have you related with students?

We’ve supported and been supported by students.

FFFP joined BDS protests, held open meetings in the student occupation last academic year, and more recently organised a SOAS Community Week of Action with Justice for Workers.

SOAS Against Human Trafficking also organised a fundraiser for FFFP earlier this year, and many of the J4W activists have shown a lot of solidarity to our campaign. Within individual departments as well, students have consistently brought up fractional issues at staff-student forums.

So, at an organisational level, students have been great at making lots of noise, and on an individual level it’s good to know that your students support you, as they will direct their anger upwards during marking boycotts and protests.

 

If the point of workplace struggles isn’t only to improve pay and conditions, but to be part of a wider effort against exploitation and oppression, victories can be bittersweet. Momentum can be lost, people can let their guard down. Are those dangers there? Perhaps I’m putting too much ‘pressure’ on groups like FFFP?

There is definitely a danger that victories in workplace struggles can lead to complacency under capitalism.

However, while workers’ campaigns like FFFP aren’t going to dismantle global capitalism on their own, I think these smaller, localised struggles can be learning experiences and help politicise people in ways that they will take with them in the future. There are many activists and revolutionaries who have cut their teeth in smaller leftist campaigns and workers movements, and these spaces can foster wider social and political awakenings amongst those involved.

There is also something to be said of the benefits of learning the genealogies and histories of labour struggles to inform broader anti-capitalist campaigns. So yes, there are dangers, but I think there is also potential for a wider impact beyond the immediate victories of any workplace struggle.

 

FFFP, thanks very much, solidarity.

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