IFUT is author to one of the chapters in a new essay collection ‘Ensuring Good Future Jobs’, launched on 28th November 2019 at the National University of Ireland offices. Edited by TASC and the Carnegie UK Trust, the collection sets out how everyday challenges facing workers in Ireland need to be addressed as the essential foundation for enabling Better Future Jobs.
The collection is a response to the publication of the Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy in March 2019 and contributes to the renewed discussion of the future of work to understand the drivers behind the difference between what might constitute ‘good work’ and the everyday reality.
It features contributions from 15 key social partners in Ireland, including IFUT, business representatives, academics, and the trade union movement and wider civil society.
Organising workers in the modern (and future) world of work
The IFUT experience
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.
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, very 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 membership 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. It can be argued that this self-perception of their status amongst the wider population of university academics had a chilling and inhibiting effect on IFUT’s ability to radically grow its membership numbers. Simply stated, those who were eligible for membership of the union lacked an incentive to join since they enjoyed all of the same terms and conditions of employment anyway and did so in an environment where their security in the system was unthreatened.
In plain language what we are advancing is an argument that security of employment made the recruitment of members more challenging for the union than it might have been if the non-members felt they needed more protection against job loss.
The reason why we have spent time on this historic point is because it underlines the acute irony of the fact that 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.
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.
It still comes as a surprise to many that, despite the fact that “the powers that be” in government and in Higher Education rarely miss 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 on to 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.
Sadly, this state of affairs has had the effect, (and, as set out clearly in submissions from the universities and the department of education) was intended to have the effect of making these employees feel that they had no future in the 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 (they are often denied even the right to use such titles as “Lecturer” or suchlike) to, not only have the same insecure contracts as their Researcher colleagues, but are also denied not alone ‘permanency’ but also ‘full-timeness’. 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’. In such cases the baseline of the National Minimum Wage is never even in prospect. (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.
For all of the reasons set out above it is clear that, at least in the case of Higher Education in Ireland the task of “organising workers in the modern (and future) world of work” is significantly much more difficult than in the past.
In a world conditioned to believe that, as time goes by, things get better and fairer this is a depressing conclusion.
Download the full Report here from TASC.