The success of the SOAS campaign will hopefully inspire other precarious workers across the sector
On 8 May 2017, fractional staff at SOAS, University of London won a three-and-a-half year battle for improved working conditions and better contracts. The victory came after almost 7 weeks of refusing to undertake unpaid labour, during which time fractional teachers—those employed on permanent or fixed-term contracts whose part-time salaries are calculated as a ‘fraction’ of a full-time salary—refused to mark students’ essays. The action was led by the Fractionals for Fair Play campaign (FFFP), which has been fighting for recognition of fractionals’ labour and contributions to SOAS, and was not protected as official action by the local UCU branch. Nevertheless, FFFP received wide support across the school and UCU membership, with many departments writing statements to management declaring their support for fractional staff and improved contracts.
Since summer 2016, UCU had been in negotiation with SOAS management over the working conditions of fractional staff. The official claim, informed by a January 2016 survey of fractional staff, demonstrated that 40% of their work remained unremunerated. SOAS UCU fractional representatives, along with members of the SOAS UCU executive committee, had been called to meet with managers only twice before the end of the first term in December, despite urgent issues around late and missing contracts that were adversely affecting fractional teachers. It was only after significant pressure from FFFP and UCU that the School held two additional negotiation meetings, and promised to conduct a full audit of contracts to identify points of failure and prevent such mistreatment from reoccurring.
However, by March there was still no movement on the School’s promised audit, and the contract and payment issues had rolled over into the second term. Moreover, the School had failed to make any offer on the claim, maintaining that to pay fractionals for marking essays would require a reduction in paid hours elsewhere in their contracts. Fractional staff had had enough.
FFFP circulated a pledge for fractionals to sign, testing the waters for industrial action. The campaign was careful to conduct business off SOAS servers to avoid surveillance by managers. Within two weeks, over 70 fractional teachers had signed the pledge vowing not to mark essays, with the potential to withhold over 3,000 essays. The campaign notified SOAS managers of growing discontent and gave them an ultimatum: make a concrete offer on the fractional pay claim, or fractionals will no longer mark for free. The deadline passed and fractional staff stopped undertaking unpaid labour on 21 March.
The reaction from colleagues and students was overwhelmingly positive from the start. Student activists began emailing managers and using social media to name and shame the School for exploiting low-paid teaching staff. Departments across the School wrote solidarity statements demanding that the School address fractionals’ concerns, with many staff refusing to mark fractionals’ essays, and the union issuing a statement declaring that to ask permanent staff to mark the essays would be a breach of health of safety. Student associations, including SOAS Justice for Workers, sent statements to their members encouraging them to express their support to their tutors and to email management. By Easter, over a dozen departments across three faculties at SOAS had expressed their support for fractional staff and their pay claim.
This was the second time in three years that fractional teachers at SOAS refused to undertake unpaid essay marking. This time around, fractionals remained adamant that they were not holding a ‘marking boycott’, but were rather refusing to undertake unpaid labour. The School responded by calling it ‘unauthorised industrial action’, highlighting that it did not have the official support of UCU. However, perhaps realising that the wave of opinion was not in their favour, SOAS management entered into a formal dispute with UCU at the end of March, noting that fractionals and UCU were ‘immovable’ on the claim for marking compensation that, according to their estimates, would cost the School £1 million. Paula Sanderson, the SOAS Registrar, argued that in the current financial climate the School was unable to afford such a sum.
In the first negotiation meeting, UCU fractional representatives presented calculations done by FFFP, which demonstrated that even if essays were paid at a rate of 1.5 scripts per hour—well above the 2.5 scripts per hour put forth in the UCU claim—the cost would amount to less than half of the School’s estimate. By the second dispute meeting, things were looking up and the School returned with more accurate calculations demonstrating that it would only cost the School £225,000 to pay fractional staff for essay marking. A few days later, the School made a formal offer on all four points of the UCU fractional claim.
The success of the FFFP campaign demonstrates the power of collective action—even if that action takes place outside the boundaries of union governance. In some ways, the School did the mobilising for us. The outrageous cases of late and missing contracts and payments, which affected 1 in 5 fractional staff in the first term of this academic year, did much to anger fractional staff and their colleagues across the School. It was as if, after more than three years of fighting exploitative working conditions, the idea that fractionals were unfairly treated and incorrectly remunerated within SOAS finally gained wide acceptance across all sections of the university. This is not to say that we were unsupported by permanent staff and students in previous years—quite the contrary—but rather that many members of the SOAS community began to see that management was not taking fractionals’ concerns seriously.
The results of fractionals’ action is thus: essay marking will now be paid separately, with payments to be backdated to October 2016, undergraduate tutorial sizes will not exceed 15 students (12 students for MA tutorials) without the agreement of the tutor and students, teaching-only staff will have access to annual funds for research activities, and routes to permanency and increased hours will become part of the School’s fixed-term policy review process. It is a stunning victory for fractional campaigners past and present, and we hope that this success will inspire other precarious and hourly-paid workers across the sector to take action in their own institutions and fight the increasing casualisation in UK universities.
Carrie Benjamin is an anthropologist and activist completing a PhD at SOAS, University of London. She has been involved with the Fractionals For Fair Play (FFFP) campaign since 2014, and currently serves as union representative for SOAS UCU.