Organising workers in the modern (and future) world of work: the IFUT experience

December 17, 2019

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by Joan Donegan, Irish Federation of University Teachers

The Carnegie UK Trust-TASC Ensuring Good Future Jobs essay collection describes many of the key challenges faced by workers in Ireland today, and proposes a series of policy and practice changes to ensure good future jobs. First published on 28 November, as a coordinated response to the Irish Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy, this blog series showcases the contributions by key social partners in Ireland to the collection.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers is the pre-eminent trade union representing academic, research and senior professional staff in Irish universities. It was founded in the mid- 1960’s. The issue of security of tenure has always been a central concern for all those unions worldwide, which, like IFUT, represent these grades in universities. However, in the context of this reflection on the topic of organising workers in the modern world of work it is noteworthy that the question of job security should have, in the past and today, had such a significant impact on our union’s experience of membership recruitment, but in such radically different ways in each period.

Then

In the early years of our existence, although it was formally a trade union and recognised as such by employers and other trade unions, IFUT nevertheless acted more in the character of an Academic Staff Association. Its preoccupations were, generally speaking, those of the cohort of university staff who were more concerned about academic issues such as professional autonomy and academic freedom than the more basic issues of pay and working hours. Those who were most active in the leadership of the union were those who were more likely to feel more secure in their jobs. This was true even though there was a degree of tension between this group and the younger, newer academics who felt that their place in the university was disproportionately marginalised and excluded from influence.

As IFUT grew in numbers and confidence it was effective as a negotiator on behalf of its members across the full range of their concerns as employees and not just as academics and/or professional staff. But such activity was taking place in the context where it was taken for granted that conditions of employment in a university would be more favourable than for the generality of workers elsewhere in the economy.

Now

Nowadays we have the opposite situation. Today, one of the most significant impediments to the greater recruitment of new members in our area of influence is precisely because they do not feel secure in their employment. It needs to be said clearly that the current situation facing early-career academics and researchers is not just somewhat worse than that of their predecessors, it is radically so.

Insecure and precarious employment is now practically the hallmark and norm for the treatment of new academics and researchers. This is extremely concerning and leaves a bitter taste given that government and Higher Education rarely misses an opportunity to declare their commitment to “the knowledge economy” and to the promotion of research. Yet the default position is that full-time researchers in our universities are employed (often for long years) on short-term and highly insecure contracts. It is a fact that practically all of those who have managed to move onto more normal, standard-duration, contracts did so only with the benefit of strong trade union support, and in spite of strenuous efforts by their direct employers and the government department which (inadequately) funds the colleges to maintain them in long-term insecurity.

 

Since IFUT spends approximately 70% of its time and resources dealing with problems of, or arising from, precariousness, it feels particularly frustrating that it is this very ubiquity of insecurity which is, at the same time, making it more difficult for us to bring the benefits of trade union membership to those most in need of it. The effect of these precarious contracts is to make employees feel that they have no future in employment. Indeed, the official policy of a growing number of universities is that they are not employees but merely “trainees”. It does not take much thought to work out that, if a worker is encouraged to think that he/she is not an employee, then they will be more reluctant to join a trade union whose main perceived aim is the improvement in the pay and conditions of those who are employees.

So, for IFUT “organising workers in the modern (and future) world of work” requires us to persuade workers to let us represent them so that, as a first step, they will become employees with all of the hard-won rights that such a status is supposed to confer.

If the predicament of researchers is bad (and it is and has been for about the past 15 years) then, sadly, we can say that their colleagues on campus who work as early-career university teachers are rapidly catching up with them in the infamous “race to the bottom” which has been referred to by no less a person than the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins (most recently in a speech commemorating the centenary of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on September 17, 2019).

It is now quite commonplace for newly commenced university teachers to not only have the same insecure contracts as their researcher colleagues but to also be denied sufficient hours. Many are allocated only a very small number of teaching hours per month or term so that their “weekly hours” might only amount to a very small fraction of the ‘standard working week’. (We should also point out that the pay offered to such teachers, who have the same prior qualifications as “regular” university Lecturers, used to be calculated only on the actual hours in the lecture hall, preparation and time on pre-lecture research was unpaid, as was any follow-up time in assessing or advising students. This blatantly unfair situation has changed only recently and only because of strong pressure from IFUT.)

In such egregious circumstances, there is yet one more barrier for a union trying to recruit such staff- they simply cannot afford the price of the standard weekly or monthly union sub.

In IFUT’s case, we now offer sliding scales for union membership subscriptions based on the numbers of hours worked. Thus, the union may get as little as €4 per month from such members which is, it is not difficult to calculate, hugely below the actual cost to the union of providing representation. It is also the case that such levels of sub-par treatment of the workers concerned means that they need and deserve much more, not less, of the union’s time and resources than ‘regular’ employees.

Conclusion

Many people reading what we have set out above will be surprised that there are so many problems regarding conditions of employment in the university sector, a sector whose image is still, generally speaking, one of privilege, good pay and security of employment. Many others may make the common mistake in assuming that when it comes to the task of recruiting employees into a trade union then “the worse the better”, in other words, that the more problems there are facing employees, the more easily can they be persuaded to join a trade union to fight for improvements.

I am not sure this was ever true but the current reality is that the growth in the prevalence of precarious forms of employment means that, not only are the affected employees worse off but also that they will feel even more nervous and inhibited from combining with colleagues to pursue collectively an agenda for better terms and conditions. Thus, trade unions such as IFUT have had to work not only harder but more imaginatively to come up with new ways of attracting members and assisting them to fight for improvements in their lot. It would indeed be very welcome, and, we think, appropriate if our national government (which has a mandate to serve the common good) were to be more pro-active in promoting measures to reduce insecurity of employment and encouraging the orderly negotiation of better conditions of employment.

University staff make a critical and positive contribution to the holistic well-being of our society. Surely, therefore it makes sense for them to be valued and afforded the space, the respect and the security which will enable them to deepen and enhance the quality of that contribution. Poor conditions of employment combined with high levels of insecurity are contributing to the deterioration in the attractiveness of the academic profession. This cannot be good for students or society.