‘The fight of our lives’ | Interview with Marian Mayer

Marian Mayer, who is standing to be Vice President of the University and College Union (UCU), spoke to John Walker about the battle against mass redundancies in higher and further education, preventing an unsafe return to work, and reclaiming a decade’s worth of lost ground in pay and conditions.

See Marian’s election website here.

The Vice President role became vacant after the death in January of its incumbent, Nita Sanghera, who would have become president of UCU in May 2020.

UCU pickets in Oxford, February 2020 | John Walker/Flickr

John Walker: Why are you standing for UCU Vice President?

Marian Mayer: I am standing for Vice President of UCU to honour and continue the legacy of Nita Sanghera, our first female Black Vice President, who would now be the President of our union. It took until 2018 for our union to recognise its truly diverse membership and elect a Black woman as VP. I talked often with Nita about how we could affect radical change in our union; it’s important that we have a democratic, transparent and honest union, led by members and run in their interests.

It’s essential that our union does all in its power to resist the relentless neoliberal agenda to dismantle publicly funded post-16 education. I work in a post-92 institution, where I am Co-chair of my branch, and in around 10 years on the Southern Region Committee (which I currently chair) I have heard from post-16 education branches across our region that our terms and conditions have consistently and significantly worsened, while the challenges we face have increased. This tells me that our union is failing its members. We have had a decade of defeat in terms of pay and conditions, and that will only end if we organise, mobilise, and coordinate policies and actions nationally, and fully support local actions. As Vice President, and then President, I will work hard to make the gains our members need.

JW: How would you like UCU to develop in the current economic (and medical) climate?

MM: I would like to see, and would certainly work towards, the development of our union as a proactive, fighting union. The London Economics report, commissioned by the General Secretary, perpetuated the notion that it would be inevitable that thousands of jobs would be lost in the Post-16 Education sector due to the collapse of the marketisation of Higher Education. However, we know that there are very few institutions that are really failing financially, and those that are should be properly financed and supported by the government. Rather than accept the government’s narrative that the sector faces an inevitable financial crisis, our union should be coordinating national actions and supporting local actions, especially at those institutions that are at risk of major job cuts: Roehampton, SOAS, Goldsmiths, Liverpool, Reading, Imperial, Herriot Watt – the list is growing daily. Sheffield UCU launched a successful campaign to fight back against job cuts in their branch, there are models across our sectors that could be emulated, but more support is needed from the centre.

In terms of the current global pandemic, what our union has begun to do to provide guidance for safe working on and off campus has been critical in helping branches to understand how to negotiate with the employer for safe working. That should be continually developed, as the academic year begins and we see a move back to working on campuses, in colleges and in other education workplaces, and as we come to better understand the immediate, medium- and long-term effects of Covid-19 on the health of anyone who attends post-16 education, including in Adult Community Education and Prison Education environments.

Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver and I wrote a motion to Congress in 2019, which was passed and is now UCU policy. It called on the NEC to commission critical financial accounting reviews to help challenge the rationales used by institutions undertaking so-called ‘voluntary’ or compulsory redundancies; and, to produce a report of all the institutions that have deviated in the past 10 years from national agreements, detailing the deviations involved, and to compile an annual report of all such deviations going forward. If that policy had been implemented, we would have a very clear idea of the financial position of Higher Education Institutions, and could use that data to support national and local action to defend jobs.

JW: How can UCU members resist the barrage of job cuts, in particular of casualised staff, and changes to pay and working conditions under the cover of financial crises in individual institutions?

MM: We need to seize, with both hands, the opportunity presented by the A-level and BTEC results fiasco. We have seen casualised members across the sector sacked in their thousands – treated with contempt. These job cuts were based on the claim that student numbers would be hit hard by Covid. It has transpired that student numbers are not as bad as first thought, so we need to act fast and make our demands. The North West Anti-Casualisation Network have said we should demand 3-year minimum contracts for all who were asked back to work. The Corona Contract group, representing hundreds of casualised workers, have made similar demands. We know that to get the vote out on a ballot will be difficult, but not impossible. We have an opportunity right now to overturn the decisions that we know our employers want to plough ahead with independently of Covid. No struggle is won without a fight, and we need to mobilise now.

JW: How do we ensure management doesn’t try to entrench detrimental working practices under the cover of the pandemic?

MM: In my own branch we have negotiated an Intellectual Property policy that effectively allows academics ownership of any recorded material, which our university can use for a strictly limited period of time, after which it reverts back to the producer of the material. We also have an opt-in policy for lecture capture software, and any minor changes to our terms and conditions of working have been agreed to be strictly for the period of the pandemic. That period is as long as a piece of string, so we will review the agreement the moment it becomes detrimental to members.

We also have Health and Safety legislation to fall back on to protect members who are working through the pandemic.

JW: How do we resist pressure to open campuses unsafely?

MM: We simply do not return to working on campuses, or in colleges and adult community education centres, if they are not safe. The situation is very different for prison educators, who are subject to the onerous working conditions of the four providers of prisoner education under the Prison Education Framework (Milton Keynes College, Novus, People Plus and Weston College). Nevertheless, the onus is on the employer to satisfy Health and Safety legislation and legal frameworks.

A UCU Strike Rally in Glasgow, December 2019 as part of the Four Fights campaign | LornaMCampbell/WikiCommons

JW: How do we ensure risk assessments are carried out in a way that protects vulnerable staff?

MM: By negotiating, through Health and Safety committees, Covid-specific Risk Assessments with precise criteria for vulnerable staff, especially Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff, older staff, those with underlying chronic health conditions, and those who are living with people who are vulnerable. This is not an exhaustive list; I offer these as examples of how this work should be done.

JW: How do we resist political policing – such as attacks on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – tied to government relief for universities?

MM: In the same way we resist any other political policing: through our right to academic freedom of speech. We take our argument to the membership and we ask for solidarity. We argue that as a union we should be engaging in international struggles, and that’s why I’ve asked members to donate to the Lebanon relief fund.

JW: How can the UCU work better with other Higher Education and Further Education unions?

MM: In my own branch we work in concert with our sister union, UNISON: we caucus before every meeting with management, we set agendas, agree which union will speak to each agenda item, and unequivocally support each other. We share resources, including a union office, and our UNISON comrades stood shoulder to shoulder with us on the picket line during the 4 fights dispute.

JW: I would propose that UCU forms an alliance with the other education sector unions – Unite, UNSION, GMB, EIS and the NEU – to protect post-16 education. That solidarity would be a powerful force; very often we have common cause, not least currently in relation to safe workplaces, and over other issues: pay erosion, pay inequality, discrimination, bullying and harassment. Again, this is not an exhaustive list!

JW: How do we ensure more secure and senior staff take strike action when the rest of us do?

MM: In my own branch we’ve had professors on the picket line, we’ve had secure and casualised staff, especially PhD and Post-Doctoral Researchers and Academic Related and Professional workers, join us. I think that speaks to the way our branch is organised, as we have a broad range of reps for every possible constituency. If we could replicate models of branches where there is parity and representation of members taking action, that could be shared across the sectors. And we could do some work at the national level reminding all of the membership that standing in solidarity is what wins battles.

JW:How do we build solidarity with students?

MM: Again, in our case we had absolute solidarity from our students’ union during the 4 fights dispute. And, of course, the National Union of Students issued joint statements in support of our action. My sense is that the solidarity in our branch came from the relationships that we, as UCU members, had with the sabbatical officers who we had taught, and who our academic-related and professional support staff had worked with. Students have very similar concerns to our own, and the joy of hearing the President and Sabbatical Officers of our students’ union standing on the picket line with us, telling us that our cause was their cause, was heart-warming. They also brought us tea, coffee and biscuits, on freezing cold, wet and windy days that was very welcome.

JW: Are there other issues you’d like to bring up?

MM: Thank you for this question. As I say in my election address (the extended one on my website) we are in the middle of a global pandemic, a climate crisis, relentless attacks on post-16 education, and the most progressive anti-racist movement we have seen for centuries. We have a poverty crisis, a housing crisis, the UK is the world’s 6th-largest economy and yet thousands of people rely on food banks. We have institutionally racist public services, and here I am looking closely at the police, who can seemingly act with impunity and discriminate against Black people.

I’m standing to continue Nita’s legacy and to build an organised left within our union. We have to face facts: we are in the fight of our lives. If we don’t mobilise and organise to fight the neoliberal agenda, which is attacking all of the union’s members, then we have no function as a union. Nothing is more important than electing a socialist Vice President. I believe that our union should be truly democratic, truly transparent, and that we should take nationally coordinated action to defend casualised workers, to end the gender and race pay gap, to address the increasing workloads that are causing such serious harm to our health, both physical and mental. And if we don’t end the decade-long erosion of our pay, we have lost as a union. Truth, honesty, transparency and democracy are fundamental tenets of my personal and political philosophy. I would like our union to be mature enough to recognise that our various factions can be a force for good and we can work together, although we must have organised left to fight the battles ahead of us.

There is no time for talking, there is only time for action, we need urgent action now.

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