Unison members at SOAS have won their fight against compulsory redundancies after planning to strike, reports Feyzi Ismail
Management has backed down and comprehensively withdrawn compulsory redundancies for professional services staff at SOAS – colleagues who work in administrative, cleaning, catering, security, library and other support roles – in response to the threat of two days of strike action by SOAS Unison. The union had an astounding mandate of 75% in favour of strike action on a 72% turnout following the announcement over the summer of compulsory redundancies as part of SOAS’s Transformation and Change restructuring project.
Workers who were facing redundancy at the end of September will now be offered redeployment opportunities, support and training to help them find alternative employment within SOAS. Senior management talk about being true to SOAS’s ethos, values and heritage, but refused to take compulsory redundancies off the table until they had a potential strike on their hands.
In the current HE environment, in which redundancies, cuts, casualisation, workload – and now health and safety challenges – have become endemic, this victory should serve as inspiration for struggles across higher education. Managements in the university sector are often doing creative accounting and using the pandemic to pretend that largescale redundancies and restructurings are essential. But SOAS Unison called management out and won. This should be happening across the sector.
Support staff are vital to the functioning of the university, and never has this been more the case than now, when all teaching and student support has to move online. It is becoming clearer and clearer that in reality there will be more work for staff in this environment, not less. And when campuses reopen, cleaning and catering staff have the huge responsibility for keeping everyone safe.
The two days of strike action that were called for 22 and 23 September are now called off, and instead SOAS Unison is celebrating. The victory rally is an important opportunity to discuss how to fight the challenges that remain – excessive workloads, changes to shift patterns and a 40% reduction in cleaning hours, in part due to many colleagues leaving SOAS on voluntary redundancy without being replaced. It goes without saying that a reduction in cleaning capacity when cases of Covid-19 are increasing at an alarming rate is both dangerous and irresponsible.
Nothing should be compromised when it comes to the health and safety of staff and students. If there is one thing that has become blindingly obvious during the pandemic, even to the Tories, it is that key workers such as cleaning staff are essential. For academic staff too, face-to-face (F2F) teaching must cease completely until it is absolutely safe to return to campuses. UCU’s announcement regarding F2F teaching came late, but it’s a principle that we cannot back down on.
SOAS Unison has a proud record of fighting and this victory should put them in a position to demand more – that working conditions must be protected and improved. It follows previous victories by SOAS Unison, particularly cleaning and catering staff being brought in-house. The victory also shows that solidarity is crucial in this era where education is a marketised commodity and the most vulnerable workers, both academic and support staff, are treated as disposable and expendable.
There are still many questions that SOAS management has failed to answer, including how much savings have been made as a result of the restructuring, how many staff have left and what proportion are casualised, what kind of impact the reduction in staff will have on the School’s viability and core teaching and research output and what the restructuring means for workload and conditions. Financial transparency, despite promises, has not been forthcoming. But there will be more campaigns, including a fair workload campaign that SOAS Unison is launching in the coming weeks.
UCU colleagues and casualised staff at SOAS should take heart and refuse not only a further deterioration of our working conditions but our health and safety as teachers. The fractionals campaign at SOAS recently put out a statement in response to management’s suggestion that casualised staff could be the ones doing the bulk of F2F teaching during the pandemic. The dual challenge of preventing cases of infection and preventing increased stress levels due to workload means that trade unionists at universities across the sector have to work together. Casualised and support staff, who do the frontline work of the university – in UCU and Unison respectively – have a particularly important voice in this fight.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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