Steve Hanson sends a postcard from the frozen caste system of precarious academic labour in the UK
I have slowly woken up to the fact that I am in a caste, not a class.
I work as a ‘casual’ academic. I am offered one contract per year, which is then dropped in early summer and picked up again around September.
This sense crept in slowly. Every email circular that comes around, whole rounds of invitation to promotion, our caste are not eligible to apply for them.
Other work that tenured staff do, which will be covered by their full-time contract, making podcasts for instance, we would have to do unpaid. I often email and ask, to be told, politely, ‘no, we can’t pay you for that’.
Of course, I could do it for free, but I refuse to. Sadly, some do work for free. The ‘s’ word used to be used for that.
Some casual academics already have PhDs and very good outputs that might benefit the university, but they are barred: Our outputs should be a two way issue, we should be able to trade up our good work for passage into better employment conditions, but this isn’t the case.
This is not a meritocracy at all. It’s Catch-22: We are barred from trying to escape from our caste, precisely because we are in that caste. Our status is entirely based on our title, not our abilities. This is the key difference between a class and a caste.
I find it very hard not to think of the places I work in as corporate businesses. I really struggle to see them as a public good now.
But I do struggle with it. I try hard to refuse to see my role in the university as blandly equivalent to the ten-hour filing shifts I did over the summer to make up gaps in my livelihood.
Sometimes my resistance collapses and my relationship with the university becomes completely instrumental: There are things to do, I go in and do them, rather than as should be the case, that there is a holistic culture of public good in the university and we are all equal.
I am actually late to this realization, the Consumer Rights Act was fully applied to the university sector in 2015: This legally reframed the relationship between student and teacher as one of a consumer to a service provider.
If casual labour in universities – and elsewhere – ends tomorrow morning, the damage done to the trust of thousands of workers during this period will last for decades.
Yet the university rhetoric, on mission statements and texts about ‘our values’, are always in the form of a worthy equality in the abstract.
But what they can’t go near is this caste system, the economic inequality and total lack of mobility. It is literally unspeakable.
The classic glass ceiling has been replaced with a concrete floor under which we labour. Like the big mansion houses of the nineteenth century, we come up from below stairs, metaphorically speaking – although some of us do work in basements – and deliver what we must, before disappearing. If we do it silently and unseen, so much the better.
The irritated tone I sometimes receive in response to emails asking simple questions about how things work, tell me this clearly.
The architecture and infrastructure of the university is perfectly calibrated for this to happen. Centralized timetabling and automated dissemination of our room bookings is one part of this.
Recently though, my membership of a caste was finally confirmed.
This year, the dropping of one contract and the picking up of a new one after the summer break was a little different.
We all had our hours cut, but weren’t advised on the reasons why, or the quantity of the cuts – it was never announced, only the qualitative changes to the work were explained.
There was just one line that suggested the work would be ‘quantitatively’ different, without any details or justification.
A legal argument could probably be made that a single line mention that things will be ‘quantitatively’ different next year covers it adequately.
That legal argument might also say that we are only offered work for each contract, and what happens outside the period the contract covers is irrelevant.
But culturally, the university benefits from staff who know the ropes – who have experience – and the general chat is often about how things will be next year. Culturally, it is a continuum.
Clearly, there is a cyclical culture in place and there is a tension between that culture and the legal status of the hourly paid caste.
For the university, we are simultaneously always there and always only ever working one temporary contract. For the casual academic, we are always potentially only days away from unemployment.
Time itself is different for our caste. Zygmunt Bauman wrote about the distinction between the sailor’s tale and the peasant story. The sailor’s tale is about the exotic, it is chopped-up, discontinuous, arduous and strange. The peasant’s story is cyclical, the seasons come and go in the same place.
The casual academic tells sailor’s tales. Tales of undertaking adventures in many remote locations to balance the books back home. The tenured academic experiences seasons that come and go in the same place.
However, Bauman makes the point that both these types of story have become one, in the 21st century: Similarly, I am not claiming the tenured have a utopian idyll and those outside tenure are all at sea, far from it. But there is a big difference between the two types of work, and the experience of that work, even though the work itself – teaching, marking, admin – is often identical.
Eventually I decided to contact my union branch over the way the cuts had been carried out. They went into my department and found that we were having around eight hours shaved from each module we work. This might not sound like much, but we get few hours already, and if one works this out as a percentage, it is a significant cut, around 12% of our total hours.
It’s the equivalent of around half a day sliced off a 35-hour working week. If the management came back after summer to find they had been docked half a day’s work, with zero justification, they would want to know why.
We are now providing a much larger portion of the work previously done by more senior staff for less money. Also, these changes always seem to be applied to year one undergrads, precisely the place they shouldn’t be.
The other thing applied to our caste and not to permanent staff is that we are paid one rate for teaching and a lower rate for marking. Students, do you know these things?
I suggested to the union that I would be prepared to push this as a grievance, to support the anti-casualisation campaign, but they said no. I then asked them to at least complain about the way it had been done – we were deemed not worth even telling why we were being cut in an official email.
At this point, the union went very weird on me, bending over backwards to avoid even sending a mild email of disappointment, even claiming that I wasn’t a branch member. I later discovered that the line manager who had made the cuts, and implemented them in this way, is a UCU branch officer. I am not claiming there is a connection, by my suspicions are on high alert.
This is why I am an IWW ‘dual carder’.
There are managers in universities who claim to be anarchists, communists and ‘radicals’ who are implementing the caste system I describe. When in the university, always judge people on what they do, not on their wild claim to be a Situationist, or their ability to quote Lenin.
These people are often perfectly decent, personally. But they are trapped in the system. All of their action is systemic and cut off from their beliefs.
I am not saying they are insincere, but there is a big gap between the systemic and the cultural. You will never close that gap entirely, but it needs to become much smaller. The gap between how they act and what they say is often hypocrisy by default.
There are big issues with a white-collar union and the presence of managers in that union. I am trying to resist using the word ‘bourgeois’. Again I am struggling.
There is no conspiracy theory here, but there is always complicity. Some people will feel the pinch of this article, people who have benefitted from the cuts to our hours, because their proclaimed politics are very different from the reality that lies under them.
Some of the younger members of this caste too, who keep their heads down and sometimes work for free, towards the dream of tenure, will feel the pinch of these words. You may not think so, but I am trying to raise these issues for all of us.
As the union wouldn’t support me, I wrote personally to the Head of Department, without any of the anonymity a union can provide. I asked for a justification for the cuts to our hours. He hasn’t replied in three months, despite two reminders to his PA. ‘Ignore it and it will go away’?
I understand the union position is difficult when it comes to sessional lecturers. But all of their work seems to be focused on the legal and not the cultural. The limit of their action seems to have the same boundary as the limit of the legal.
There are also people in universities with PhDs, who understand linguistics and epistemology – the structure of meaning at a high level – who don’t seem to understand this.
But the tide may be about to turn.
I spoke to Phil Roddis, whose Steel City blog outlines his case against Sheffield Hallam. This case began less hopefully, but now observers in legal fields relating to employment are watching it. They are already citing ‘Roddis vs Hallam.’
Central to this case is the claim that hourly paid contracts should be equivalent to full-time and tenured contracts.
So the first serious obstacle to this case came when the hourly paid and full time contracts were deemed to be not of the same type. But this ruling was then overturned on appeal.
In November, Roddis goes to court again to argue that the work the casual academic does is of the same type as that of the tenured. If he wins, it should make the position of the sessional or hourly-paid academic very much stronger in terms of seeking justice from a sector that arbitrarily places them in a caste.
That caste is there to provide an army of labour that can be taken on and shed rapidly. Roddis discovered, via a freedom of information request, that over one third of staff at Hallam are in this caste.
Again, a legal argument could probably be made that all of this is fine. But the law is not the same thing as justice and justice is not the same thing as either morality or ethics.
Roddis told me that the HR response to his case early on was an insult to his intelligence. That is exactly what has made me write this article. I’m absolutely up for fighting this new sense that we’re a caste, not a class, not even worth a basic justification, a simple human dignity like being told how and why our hours are being cut.
I am also already being warned that I simply won’t get re-hired in September 2019 if I raise these issues. Well, I will be watching for that and I will simply pick that issue up in the way I have picked up this one, if it happens.Good luck to Phil Roddis and the union team in November, and despite speaking from a position in which we are all divided and ruled, solidarity to all my colleagues.
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