Contract Researchers: The Underrepresented Majority

I firmly believe that everyone should be a member of an appropriate trade union. Unfortunately though, when I look at the traditional higher education unions, I find this assertion difficult to maintain. Why? Well, I don't think there is, at the moment, a union for contract research staff.

A traditional first choice for union membership should be the Association of University Teachers. Any union is defined by its membership, and problems arise in the AUT because this membership is quite diverse. In your institution, the vice-chancellor and the most recently recruited research assistant may both be members of this same organisation. With such potentially contradictory membership, it is no surprise that the AUT sometimes appears conservative or irrelevant.

My colleagues who are employed on fixed-term contracts and who are not AUT members tell me that either they are unaware of, or disinterested in, what the union can do for them. Another common retort is that the AUT is the union for the permanent teaching staff.

This is hard to deny, but perhaps things would change if more fixed-term staff joined. The power of numbers is, after all, on our side. When I last had access to the statistics over 50% of the AUT's constituency were employed on fixed-term contracts. And yet, only 20% of its actual membership were so employed. There must be some reason why this is so?

In my 8 years of membership in the AUT, I would typify the reaction of the categories of AUT officials and members to the concerns of contract research staff as follows: The national AUT officers were very supportive; the local officers were, at best, irritated; the active membership was sympathetic, but the ordinary member is actually antagonistic. Unfortunately, it is this latter category that we rely on to get things changed, and they see every reason for things to continue as now. This is because the vast majority of the membership of the AUT is on open-ended contracts that deliver virtual tenure. I believe that they realise that this privileged position is purchased at the cost of the insecurity of the remainder of the academic community and are content with this. It is for this reason that I think the AUT lacks the one vital ingredient for a union to be effective, that is, solidarity.

In my years of AUT membership I rarely saw this solidarity in action. There was one instance of grassroots action at my institution where individuals, AUT members, and nonmembers, pulled together to try and convince the university management that the use of waivers in fixed-term contracts was not only unfair, but indicative of poor personnel management. The important aspect was that this was not started by an official AUT campaign, but by individuals, deciding on a course of action. Only after this campaign was up-and-running did the AUT become involved, and at that stage we particularly appreciated the contribution of our local AUT regional officer. Happily, a satisfactory resolution was reached.

I am a slow learner, so it took me 8 years to realise that very little was going to change as a result of the actions of the AUT. I decided to try a different forum and now I'm a member of the Manufacturing Science Finance union. Sadly, all is not ideal in that union either. The same "I'm all right Jack" attitude prevails, and the concerns are more geared toward blue-collar issues.

So there are drawbacks with the current representation of contract researchers by the Higher Education Unions, but is there a solution? I don't know. One suggestion which I would like to see debated is the establishment of sections within the AUT which explicitly recognise that there are different interest groups within the union. One model would have the senior management members "ring-fenced" into a distinct division within the AUT. The problem with this is, how do you define senior management? And this action would further undermine any solidarity that may have existed. Another solution is for a lot more contract research staff to join the union, giving the constituency a greater voice. Sadly I can't see this happening, and if any merger, for example with the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, takes place, the contract research voice within the new union will be even smaller. A separate union for contract research staff would be good, but its industrial muscle would be weak. The sight of an empty desk or laboratory bench is less attention-grabbing than an empty lecture theatre.

Given this rather gloomy account of union membership for contract research staff, and a poor prognosis, you may well ask why I continue to pay £9 a month to a union. I suppose it's an exercise in hope over experience--and MSF branch meetings are accompanied by a tasty buffet!

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