Fresh roots rejuvenate

July 9, 2015

Thank you for the article on the “key issues that local union branches are dealing with” (“Backstage hands”, Features, 25 June). It is important that the hard, mostly voluntary, work that University and College Union activists and members do is being recognised and given coverage in Times Higher Education.

I was slightly disappointed, however, that there was no mention of the transformations that are taking place within the union at a local level thanks to the influx of junior academics, postgraduate researchers and graduate teaching assistants.

This is certainly the case within the West Midlands region. At Coventry University and the universities of Warwick and Birmingham, for example, many early career researchers who gained valuable political and campaigning experience within the student movement of 2010-11 are getting involved with their local branch in order to protect their fast-disappearing rights and job security.

The recent success at the University of Warwick in defeating the TeachHigher initiative was largely a result of these early career researchers mobilising non-traditional union and non-union agency and anger, and combining this with the power and weight of the national UCU organisation. Semi-autonomous activist working groups, experienced in social media and aware of the explosive potential of horizontal networking, managed to operate at an astonishing speed to stop what seemed initially to be a lost cause.

It is an exciting time to be an early career researcher in the UCU. There is a new sense of possibility within these democratised local branches, and I encourage all junior academics, graduate teaching assistants, hourly paid lecturers and so on to get involved with their local branch, take ownership of the casualisation issue with others in the same situation and connect with this expanding network at a national level.

David Ridley
Casualisation officer
Coventry University UCU

I read with interest Kim Frost’s comments on unions in higher education, in which the chair of Universities Human Resources and director of human resources at the University of London described universities as “joint enterprises between staff and management” and also ascribed a key role to unions. I am a member of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, the largest union at the University of London, and the only one to feature both direct employees and outsourced workers in committee positions (our branch chair, Sonia Chura, works as a cleaner). Frost, along with vice-chancellor Adrian Smith, has consistently refused to meet with the IWGB or to engage in dialogue, despite numerous requests to do so. University contractor Cofely still fails to recognise the union despite membership density of about 65 per cent. In Orwell’s Senate House, it seems that some unions are still more equal than others.

Danny Millum
University of London

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