Blog confidential: You won't promote me, I'm part of the union

Your chance to advise on academic dilemmas. Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

July 8, 2010

This week: You won't promote me, I'm part of the union

I have worked in a university language department for 15 years, building my reputation and research base on political linguistics and deciphering the rhetoric of the mainstream political parties.

I have written several important books and over the past 10 years have more than covered my salary with the research grants I have won for the department. Although I am a principal lecturer, I have been passed over for more prestigious positions. The reason for this "oversight"? I believe it is because I am a trade union representative.

I have been a union member all my academic life. It's a family tradition: my parents were also very active in their respective unions. I am good at my job and good at being a union rep.

I have applied for promotion five times to no avail and am convinced that I am unlikely to become a professor because of my union involvement.

I have been very active in defending staff in other departments who have experienced bullying in the workplace. One in particular obtained an out-of-court settlement primarily because of my support.

I am at a loss. I don't want to leave and I'm not prepared to give up my role as rep, but I know that those who usually get the jobs I apply for are corporate types. So what should I do? Is there a solution that doesn't involve selling out?

You really are caught between a rock and a hard place, aren't you? But honestly, I'm surprised at your naivety. Yes, you are good at your job and yes, you are a good union rep, but why do you expect promotion on that basis? You should know that the higher you climb the greasy pole, the more compromised you become.

I am a supporter of the unions, but I find our university branch to be completely ineffective and question the way local reps are often placed in compromising situations. Indeed, I feel that they are being exploited (which is ironic). They are not paid for their services and often go the extra mile for colleagues while receiving little or no support from anyone in return. To make matters worse, they then find that they have sacrificed their careers in the process. Sound familiar?

Things are getting worse in the academy. Huge cutbacks are on the way, we work harder than ever before and are asked to make huge compromises, yet union membership is falling. You, my friend, are an unsung hero, but if you really want promotion, here's my advice: don't do the union stuff.

However, it is obvious that there is more to you than someone who would be willing to cross over to the corporate dark side. Unfortunately, you are getting it from all angles: you are being exploited by a union in desperate need of reform and a corporate world sadly lacking ethics.

Have you heard the one about the dean who was a union rep? No, neither have I.

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