For better representation, what if universities paid staff’s union dues?

Employers might find it easier to reach agreement with a less politically skewed membership body, says an anonymous academic 

七月 26, 2023
UCU picket banner placard
Source: Tom Williams

A few years ago, my university outlawed open-access publication of our articles in journals. There was an exception if an external funder insisted on it but, even then, the university would not pay for it.

Since last year, though, we have been required to obtain this “gold” open access.

Part of the reason for this sea change has been the reaching of what are called “transformative agreements” between universities and publishers, whereby open access fees are rolled into the cost of subscribing to hybrid journals. This removal of the previous upfront cost for open-access publishing has, at least for now, resolved what appeared to be an impasse between what publishers were demanding and what universities deemed financially sustainable.

Universities in the UK are now at another, very different kind of impasse with the University and College Union (UCU). Strikes over a variety of issues, including pay, pensions, workload and casualisation have been going on interminably and show no sign of ending any time soon. But just 20 per cent of those of us who are eligible to join the UCU have actually done so, according to a figure recently cited by our administration. I cannot vouch for that figure, but it is certainly true that the percentage of academics who are UCU members is significantly less than 100.

As a long-time member of academic staff who has never belonged to UCU, I might be tempted to join just so that my vote would count when it came to accepting a proposed agreement with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea). I come from a union background, with grandparents who earned subsistence wages in a profit-making company’s factory. I, however, work for an organisation that is not profit-making; indeed, a good number of universities are struggling to survive. My inner grandma tells me there is a category mistake here. But that’s just a personal thing.

The segment of staff who belong to the union cover the full political spectrum but, overall, one would expect them to be to the left of non-members. Recently, for instance, a UCU meeting in Glasgow passed a resolution concerning the war in Ukraine that, according to reports, caused a number of long-time members to tear up their union cards. Strikes over these last years have also led to some attrition, as I have seen within my own department – but struggle and attrition strengthen the will of others to fight on.

My point is that in mid-2023, the UCU membership is decreasingly representative of the views of academic staff overall. Nevertheless, the UCU is uniquely empowered through employment law to undertake actions with profound effects on academic staff. The UCU would, of course, welcome new members – not just for their annual dues but also for the ability they would offer the union to claim that it represents more than a small minority. But those dues – up to £330 – are a barrier.

So what if transformative agreements were struck between the UCU and universities – or, better still, with Ucea – to cover the dues of any academic who wished to join (or was already a member)? The precise fee would have to be negotiated, of course, but would inevitably represent a big financial outlay for universities; the advantage of doing it via Ucea is that universities in financial straits would not need to match the contributions of richer counterparts.

The big gain for universities is that they – via Ucea – would be negotiating with a UCU whose internal balance reflected that of academic staff overall. Of course, an impasse might remain, yet there is a good chance that the sort of situation we have witnessed this year, in which agreements reached between UCU and Ucea have been rejected by UCU members, would be rarer. And when they did occur, they would at least have the validity of representing the will of a larger proportion of the staff whose lives and careers they affect.

It took the open access movement 20 years to get to transformative agreements. Without some rather radical change, the strife we are seeing in labour relations, too, could go on and on.

The author has chosen to remain anonymous.



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Reader's comments (8)

I am in the same position as the author, both in my background and in having never joined UCU. I am the son of a union official so do not begin with an entrenched anti-union stance. However, I have never joined because of the number of usually left-wing policies espoused by the union. However, the deciding factor for me was the very existence of a national pay scale that seems ludicrous. Paying the same in Newcastle as in Guildford is crazy and leads to many unofficial extra payments to get around the problem. Would I join if the dues were paid by my employer? Now that I am a few years from retirement, probably not. I am not sure if younger staff would either but maybe they can comment here.
Pretty sure the anti-trade union laws would not allow this even if UCEA and/or university bosses agreed to it. Seems to me like what you are suggesting is a way of undermining the union from within by boosting its ranks with members who are not trade unionists and who are opposed to the principles by which trade unions operate. You are also forgetting that UCU is not the only recognised trade union in the HE sector or do you think representing the 1,000s of professional services staff without which universities cannot function is irrelevant and unworthy of the same consideration?
I just wish to point out to the author that UCU is not just an academic staff union but also represents other staff such as research fellows, librarians, technicians, research managers, etc. Subscription cost is related to your salary and is well worth it not only for having a seat at the table but also a certain degree of protection from management or HR which as we all know can be capricious at times.
Sounds like a financial 'nudge' to encourage membership, although membership does not imply that the additional members will actually participate in union activities. As pointed out in previous comments, the UCU has members across a wide variety of different responsibilities - many of whom have experienced a significant increase in workload and job insecurity. At the branch level, the UCU does provide invaluable support in individual disputes. Membership is akin to having insurance. However, I left a few years ago due to the increasing political messages put out by the UCU and involvement of the SWP. It's a real shame. With respect to the academic community, I think we would be better representated by a professional body which was not a vehicle for the far left to hijack. They are toxic.
I am not sure that the authors suggestion is viable for reasons suggested in the comments above. However, 45% of the membership who voted on the employers most recent offer voted to accept it. A small increase the the membership would actually help the union leadership to be able to reach a compromise with the employers, in my opinion.
Besides the possibility of the issue of affordability of membership dues, it doesn't actually make much sense not to be a member of UCU if one is working as an academic or in (HE) professional services since all such salaries are negotiated by the union. Not being a union member seems to imply one doesn't really care about one's salary or that there is a preference to piggybacking off the UCU negotiations, taking what comes as may. Is that a morally defensible, never mind sensible, position?
Its worth pointing out that while membership might be low at the author's instutution, that is not true across the board. Indeed, at my instutition, my estimate is that membership is somewhere around 50%, perhaps a little higher, judging from the membership lists for my department (which is what I have access to).
So your premise is for UCEA to fund the planting of stooges within the UCU so they can sway every vote. Is that really the model you want ?