Tuesday, 20 February 2007

UCU Hustings

Today, around 20 academics attended the general secretary hustings organised by Keele's University and Colleges Union. This is the first election for the new union, which formed after the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education fused. It is therefore an important election as it could determine the direction of the union for many years to come.

All three candidates were invited to put their case. Unfortunately Sally Hunt (the joint incumbent and former head of the AUT) declined the invite, citing "busyness". Nothing to do with the frosty reception she received when she last visited, I'm sure. Both Peter Jones and Roger Kline accepted, but in the end only Kline turned up. This is just as well. The UCU Left are backing him as are most of the left groups, so it was interesting to see if he deserved this support.

I certainly liked what I heard. His short lead off dwelled on two matters: management culture, and the direction the UCU should be heading in. He opened with the complete breakdown in trust between academic staff and management, citing the awful example of Leeds Met where staff have to carry around mobile phones so the powers can conduct spotchecks at any time. Likewise other institutions have been employing consultants to ring in to check up on academic's customer relations "skills". Taken in conjunction with increasing workloads, the subordination of academic freedom to perceived commercial viability, privatisation of some university functions and the removal of fees caps, all point to the marketisation of further and higher education.

It follows from this the UCU needs a strategic orientation, seeing as the government and the employers have theirs. To this end the UCU needs to become the champion of quality education by ensuring the interests of the union coincide with the members, the students, and society at large. The UCU has to be political, albeit with a small 'p'. FE and HE are highly politicised battlegrounds, so a retreat into apolitical trade unionism is to fly in the face of reality. Lastly the UCU must be transparent and accountable. Kline was open to say that without it union bureaucrats would do what comes naturally to them, which is to compromise. Without democracy the union cannot learn from its mistakes nor attract sufficient members that could make the UCU a really powerful player ministers would ignore at their peril.

Inevitably last year's acrimonious dispute over pay was going to come up. One union militant queried Kline on the ending of disputes, as the strike and action short of a strike (i.e. the exam boycott) was called off by the AUT leadership without any kind of consultation. As Kline was a full timer for NATFHE at the time he claimed there was very little coordination between the two unions, to the point where they only met for a total of seven hours throughout the months long action. He argued that if he was in the position of heading up a dispute he would not simply announce a deal had been done, but would put it to members in the form of delegate conferences for them to decide. He also outlined his position on local wage bargaining. Where research has been done into its effects on workforces, invariably the bulk are forced to accept lower wages, and worse workers who happen to be black or women tend to endure pay discrimination.

As a union of 135,000 members we are presently punching well below our weight and I think the strategic vision Kline offers could help bring us into our own. I know where my vote will be going. If you're in the UCU you should support him too.


Geoff Collier said...

Are you sure he said Leeds Met as the place that staff have to carry mobile phones? I'm a student there and I've seen no sign of that.

Phil said...

I'm pretty sure that's what he said, Geoff. It might well be the case that not all staff have to carry them and it applies only to one school, for instance. Or I misheard. I suppose you could do a bit of digging.

Btw Geoff, what are you studying?

Geoff Collier said...

I'm doing a degree in History & Politics. I can certainly ask around about this.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said...

Dear Peter, dear Roger and dear Sally,

We would like to bring to your attention the tragic issue of entrenched workplace bullying in higher education, and we would like to have your comments, suggestions and proposed strategies to deal with this. We are making some suggestions and comments below but ultimately we want to hear your opinions on the matter.

Right now most - if not all - HEIs have in place and are required to have in place anti-bullying policies. These exist on paper, but - as evidenced in numerous cases (Sheffield Hallam University, Leeds Metropolitan, Birmingham's School of Health Sciences, Cumbria Institute of the Arts etc), plus our own UCU survey, the problems persist. Quote from recent UCU survey:

'...An astonishing 82% said their institution had a management culture which 'actively contributed to stress' (87% in colleges, 80% in universities). 27% thought their management 'acknowledged the causes of stress' but only 15% thought their management 'sought to address the causes...'

Some rough figures: It is estimated that 14-16% of the British workforce experiences workplace bullying. In a union with a membership of over 100.000, this translates to over 14.000 members.

It appears that there are few, if any, 'formal' evaluations of bullying intervention programmes. For example, the recent HSE Research Report 024 reviewing supporting knowledge for stress management standards (Rick et al, 2002) found no studies examining evidence on interventions to reduce the bullying/harassment stressor.

In our opinion, it is far more productive for our union to intervene before disciplinary decisions are imposed on academics and other staff, before bullied staff loose their jobs under tragic circumstances. It is far more productive for a truly independent body, external body to assess if the university (employer) has indeed followed the right procedures before reaching a decision. This needs to happen before a decision is imposed and not after. The problem with formal grievance/discipline procedures, from the point of view of statistical monitoring, is that they come at the end of a long chain of actions and decisions and are therefore rare.

Usually, any mediation offered by the employer can be used / is used as another forum for power games where the target (victim) experiences the ultimate bullying and usually leaves with an exit package, a confidentiality clause and wrecked health.

The 2005 Survey of HR Professionals: Which of the following factors impair your organisation's ability to deal effectively with bullying?

Unwillingness to acknowledge a problem by management - 74.4%
Prevailing management style - 70.4%
Lack of training in how to deal with bullying - 45.4%
Lack of cooperation from management - 44.4%
Inadequate procedures - 30.2%

In random order, some of the challenges we face, are:

• Failure of some employers/managers to fully implement ACAS guidelines, and in particular the right to call upon witnesses, to have representation, to have access to accurate records of all hearings. Yes, the Employment Tribunals can decide on this but does it have to always go that far? Are there no other options?

• Failure of some employers to have appropriate internal procedures, embedded with principles of natural justice. How many universities have a record of resolving employment disputes through negotiations and a truck record to prove so?

• Colleagues who are afraid to speak up for fear that they may suffer various forms of penalties. So the victim is often left without wtinesses. Which colleague will openly support the victim of bullying and become a witness against senior managers?

• HR and personnel departments caught in the dilemma between their professional training and professionalism, versus possible management 'pressures' to go along with the prevailing and obviously wrong groupthink.

• A noted lack of expert union reps in workplace bullying backed up by union active policy, strategy, negotiation, and legal action. There is a web page online from a network support group, and a legal/counseling help line that union members can phone, but the issue seems to be the lack of satisfactory results in some well document cases. The available help from the network support group, seems to come too late in the process.

• Funding and quality control bodies should somehow engage in the process of contributing to the implementation and appropriate application of internal grievance and disciplinary procedures. They should/can consider what is happening with workplace bullying, for this has effects on how the general workplace functions or dysfunctions. Yes, we know universities are independent bodies. True, but this is where the collective energies of multiple partners at all levels have to come into this, and the union is only one of them. In fact, the union could lead such a campaign and perhaps attempt to unite all the players in some kind of common cause.

Yes, we do have a new booklet that is well written, BUT the issue remains 'policing' and monitoring and from what we know, universities are not always good at policing their own. An independent party is indeed needed, an external party, even an ombudsman, something, anything… for there are far too many instances when universities when left on their own have not always done the right thing… (ACAS, internal procedures, discrimination, victimisation, racism etc)

TUC, Andrea Adams Trust, and other organisations are working/have worked on a number of projects – policing remains the issue, the gap, the weakness. We feel that our union could be more proactive on this issue and at least advocate for this. This is perhaps one of the central challenges. Does 'independence' mean lack of accountability and transparency on issues of workplace bullying?

The reply from HEFCE is/was that universities are accountable to their own governing bodies. Well, one wonders how cozy these relationships may become after some time. There is a voluntary code of practice for governors, but how many of us know about it or have read it? How many governors have been challenged successfully?

So, who has responsibility for this mess? So far, we have failed to pinpoint a single agent for change. That would be too easy. A collective and coordinated effort of multiple players is needed. We have a long way to go. We would like to know if our union will play a leading role in this or will remain a passive observer offering well-written booklets and support after the events.

It would be good to hear/read from all of you your thoughts and your suggestions on how to tackle workplace bullying in academia.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Kropotkin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon


AN said...

As an engineer in the telecomms sector, I would recommend to Leeds metropolotan uni that there are better technologies than GSM for keeping track of their staff, perhaps they shoudl ask their own engineerin dept for advice ;o)

Geoff Collier said...

It seems to me that Leeds Met have abandoned all technology for keeping check. They send a bloke round to check whether a class is being taught at the right time etc. OK, maybe its more than one bloke and maybe it's only those lecturers who won't switch their gizmos on. Who knows? Well, several leftist lecturers do, I guess.