Workers Uniting Higher Education Exchange August 2013

Workers Uniting is committed to building union strength through exchanging experiences, sharing resources and union tools, and joint action, in economic sectors key to the union on both sides of the Atlantic.

Under the Workers Uniting banner, Unite and the USW engaged in a week long exchange in the higher education sector at Unite’s education facility Esher Place (in Esher just west of London). The Steelworker delegation included local union leadership from each of the three university locals in Canada (USW 1998 at University of Toronto, USW 2010 at Queens, and USW 4120 at Guelph), as well as two activists involved in the Pittsburgh area Adjunct Faculty Association, and staff. The Unite participants included activists from 8 different universities drawn from the over 100 universities across the UK and Ireland where UNITE represents university employees, and the national Unite Higher Education Officer

As the delegates exchanged experiences, compared union structures and cultures, and shared union strategies it quickly became clear that clear that many of the issues facing workers in universities on both sides of the Atlantic are very similar:

  • Pressures from management to modify pension plans (and move to defined contribution plans)
  • Bullying and harassment in the workplace
  • High level of job insecurity, resulting from on-going reorganization which changes jobs and tasks, as well as from budgetary pressures
  • Growing use of outsourcing and contracting out by universities
  • Growing use of short-term contracts (sometimes ‘zero hour contracts’) and contingent labour (at all levels of the university – up to and including instruction)
  • Importance of union out-reach and relationships with students and the community
  • The need to find successful strategies to counteract the austerity agenda
  • Uncooperative and increasingly antagonistic human resource management policies and staff (“HR is not your friend”)
  • Growing university management interest in on-line courses, and the threats posed by MOOCs (Massive On-line Open Courses)
  • The need to inspire confidence among our rank and file members in order to take on management and government.

Following one session it was remarked that the similarities were so striking that it appeared that “we all work at the same university”.

There was a strong desire expressed by the participants to continue to build on the week long exchange, and to continue to share experiences and union strategies. The group crafted a short statement which expressed participants’ interest in working together:

As workers uniting, Unite and USW are committed to working together to ensure solidarity and fairness for all workers in Higher Education and to support and promote affordable and accessible education for all. We resolve to establish an international council which will coordinate and support positive action for communities around the world.

There were many highlights from the exchange. The visit to Sussex University, and discussion with University HR officials on Sussex’s decision to contract out grounds services (‘estates’) and catering, as well as the one-woman play Wrong ‘Un from Red Ladder Theatre Company, were high points for all delegates.

Other sessions that had an impact were:

  • Interactive session comparing USW and Unite structure, culture, and ways of doing things
  • Presentation from David Hillman (Stamp Out Poverty) on the Financial Transaction Tax (‘Robin Hood Tax’)
  • Presentation on Arts and Culture as Learning and Organizing from Steve Rowlatt and Catherine Whittaker, (including the award winning video Gloria) who are part of the "learn with Unite" team
  • Unite’s initiatives to build community activism and support and work with ‘community membership’ (the session featured the participation of a young Unite Staff – Colin Stuart, who is a community organiser, he has specific responsibility for young community members)
  • Justice in Colombia report on Workers Uniting exchange
  • Presentations by USW delegates on: USW sponsored “metro strategy” to organize adjunct university and college instructors in Pittsburgh area; USW campaign “Give Everyone a Chance” addressing the injustices of Canada’s temporary foreign worker program; OFL and CLC campaigns promoting trade unionism; Local 1998 initiative to address workplace conflicts and provide union activists with the confidence they need to address conflict; MOOCs (Massive Open On-Line Courses). 
  • Overview of issues in higher education from Andy Murray (Unite regional officer London-Eastern Region for higher education)
  • Gail Cartmail’s presence and closing presentation. Gail is Assistant General Secretary for Unite.

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