I worked as principal caseworker for the University and College Union branch at the University of Exeter for more than five years, handling more than 250 cases during that period. It is good to read that “campaigning constitutes a tiny minority of [officers’] work” (“Backstage hands”, Features, 25 June).
When I first became involved, a small number of the more hardened members complained that new recruits to the union regarded membership as a car breakdown service. It is, however, far more expensive (about £250 a year on average) and, from my experience, could result in long waits at the roadside for “expert” assistance.
Supporting members with individual grievances is not straightforward under current employment law, so it is easy to be critical of UCU support staff. The UCU has dedicated people in regional offices that are scandalously understaffed. Getting a “qualified” legal view on cases is almost always impossible because of rationed budgets. There tends to be a focus on whether procedures are followed rather than concern about the substance of the case.
From my experience, human resources staff rarely made mistakes in ensuring that procedures were followed to the letter. I tended to have more success in my support of members by articulating the injustices and sadness of cases, aspects that failed to exercise UCU officials who were more concerned about the salary of the vice-chancellor and getting people out on the picket line.
I worked at the University of Salford for eight years, and I found the leadership of the UCU at the university incompetent. I had been a National Union of Teachers representative and an elected chair of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, and had more than 30 years of experience in trade union work. The leadership at Salford were interested only in gender and equality issues and had little time for real casework. During the period 2006-12, management treated the UCU branch with disdain and carried out restructuring and redundancies with little fear of movement from the officers. This case reflects the trend in UCU, in that it fails abysmally to protect its members at the local level and instead focuses too much of its resources on grand national and international schemes that have little effect.