Friday, June 15, 2012

For Fair Pay and Academic Freedom: Why you should support the Post Graduate Workers Association

Guest post by @RBU81

The regular dwellers and occasional lurkers of the Tomb should be interested to hear of a campaign that has kicked off amongst postgraduate workers in British universities for better pay and conditions. Their starting point is a statement in support of basic employment rights, which includes holiday pay, sick pay, and it is unfortunate but necessary to say, the right to get paid full stop. They want people in HE to sign the statement in the link below, and pass it round any networks they are involved with. Numbers matter; they want 500 in a short space of time. Sign up here

What is the Post Graduate Workers Association?
The PGWA came together after a conference last month in London that brought together over 50 PhD students to discuss the deteriorating conditions of work for graduate employees in HE, and the state of the sector more broadly. It was a modest affair, but did win backing from London Region UCU and several student unions in London. It came out of shocking reports of PhD students being asked to work take ‘teaching internships’ at some institutions. Even at more financially secure institutions, unpaid overtime is the norm.

Research students employed in academic work are the junior partners in both an academic and economic relationship with their institution. This puts them in a uniquely vulnerable position at the best of times. It is then no surprise that the funding crisis in HE is hitting this group hard, and basic employment rights are being disregarded. This comes on top of increased pressure from the REF to finish PhDs on time, and to teach with pressure of the national student survey.

The PGWA was set up to self organise this group of workers, and to work in UCU and with NUS in doing so. Whilst the teaching charter produced jointly by NUS and UCU is good, it will only be implemented if there are networks of postgraduate workers that have the confidence to say no.  This also means standing in solidarity with the wider fights in education, in particular with our colleagues over pensions.
In only a month it has come into contact with 100s of other PhD students in the same situation, and met groups who have had some success in challenging their institution. Important next steps are making links with these groups and planning for the UCU’s anti-casualisation day of action. 

Why does it matter?
This group of workers may be perceived by some as relatively privileged. Theirs is not, however, a privilege that puts food in the fridge. In central London the Hare Krishna food handouts at SOAS and LSE are a de facto postgraduate soup kitchen. It matters because of the real poverty that exists for some in this position.
It also matters because the debates about the future of union movement are ones that are going to be proved in practice.  The PGWA, however small and nascent, points to a way of rebuilding union organisation amongst those not traditionally represented in any sector. It undercuts some of the divisive but fashionable arguments in academia about a precariat that has interests separate to those with secure employment (the up coming debate between Guy Standing and Ray Morell at Marxism 2012 will cover this). If employers get away with these practices on what they see as the periphery of their workforce, they will seek to implement them elsewhere.

Postgraduate workers belong at the centre of the UCU. Let’s win back the old union idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.

If you want to be involved, find us on Twitter @PG_worker, facebook/PGworkers and And if you are working in HE and are not a member of UCU, join the UCU here.
@RBU81 is a 2nd year PhD student and as from next month the Postgraduate Research Representative on the NUS NEC @RBU81. This article is written in a personal capacity.