Dr Gareth Brown
I came to academia relatively late in life. I spent most of my twenties scraping an income playing and touring with a variety of bands (some of them moderately successful) and devoting the rest of my time to social activism. Most of this was situated within and adjacent to the alter-globalisation movement.
My life as a political organiser began with the ecological direct action group Earth First! and went on to involve Queer, Anti-Fascist, and Anti-Militarist activism as well as involvement in campaigns against gentrification and in actions in solidarity with striking workers. I was involved in organising the G8 counter-summit in Gleneagles in 2005 and the first Camp For Climate Action at Drax Power Station the following year. In these movements and campaigns I learned how to navigate often quite complex processes of mass, directly democratic decision making in ways that took into account the diversity of views among us and allowed us to move forward together. These movements were, and are, immensely innovative and dynamic spaces, often having to develop strategies and tactics on completely untrodden terrain. In an ever-changing education sector, I believe we would do well to cultivate that same spirit.
I’m a single parent living in social housing in one of the poorest parts of Leeds. I’ve seen how devastating the triple-pronged assault of austerity, rampant precarious employment, and the overwhelming concentration of the UK’s media in the hands of a tiny number of right-wing oligarchs can be for the structure and cohesion of our communities. Thirty years ago, these communities would have played a fundamental role in our ability to sustain long periods of industrial action. For this reason I’ve always believed that developing the union has to be something that we do in concert with developing a broader movement that can transform life and change the world. So when I reconnected with Higher Education in my mid-30s, it was with a mind to contribute to that transformation both through my research and through my union organising.
I returned full time to the academy in 2011, doing a PhD on the ‘imaginal commons’—exploring the way people in political groups collectively imagine more desirable futures. My decision to research this area came from a feeling that since the financial crisis of 2008, many of the political organisational forms used by those of us desiring to make the world both better and radically different had stopped making sense. This of course included those that I had been involved in as well as those associated with the more orthodox political left. But with that, new possibilities for how we organise and take action together were opening up.
My (precarious) employment—at the time as a Graduate Teaching Assistant then later as a Teaching Fellow—prompted my initial foray into union organising. My first case for UCU was my own: I successfully argued that simply allowing my GTA contract to lapse without consultation or process would be unlawful and then, a year later, that further threats of redundancy at the end of a one-year fixed-term Teaching Fellow contract were also unlawful, ultimately securing an open-ended contract.
I subsequently forced my employer to offer open-ended contracts to a dozen or more colleagues who had been in similar situations. More generally, since that first case, I have helped more than 100 people with individual cases, on a wide range of issues, including: racial and gender-based discrimination; academic freedom; sexual harrassment; spurious performance management; sick pay; precarity; and health-destroying workloads. I have thus seen at first hand the myriad ways that employers may cause pain, stress and material hardship to university workers (experiences we see replicated across all sectors in which UCU organises)—and the huge difference it can make when the union intervenes in individual cases.
I have also seen at first hand the pervasiveness of such attacks on individual employees. Management in universities frequently appears punitive. And managers’ failures to follow legal process or basic rules of common sense and human decency seem too common for us to rule out the possibility of ‘strategic incompetence’ on their part. Hence the necessity for UCU to engage in collective action as well as individual casework—not a surprise to me, given by previous experience in political and social movements.
As well as taking on casework and briefly serving as the branch casework coordinator, since 2017 I have been co-secretary of Leicester UCU. As such I have been intimately involved in all of our campaigns over the past 3 years. Besides the current and ongoing ‘Four Fights’ and pensions disputes, we have fought at least three local disputes in the past five years: against ‘institutional transformation’, against compulsory redundancies, and in relation to lecture capture. In 2018 Leicester UCU came a ‘highly commended’ second in Midlands TUC’s campaign of the year award for our success in preventing the loss of up to 200 jobs at our university.
As one of my branch’s principal officers I’m required to meet regularly with senior managers, through such forums as Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee (JNCC), to advance the interests of members and to put forward our position. This involves keeping an eye on legal process and protecting employees’ rights but is also a space in which we try to do political work, calling into question lazy, tick-box approaches to how power operates in environments like ours and using our collective leverage to positively transform our workplace. In March 2018, I was part of the negotiating group that persuaded University of Leicester’s leadership team to agree to spread pay deductions for the just-ended 14-day strike over seven months.
We often hear “build the union!” and “grow the movement!” but we must do this together. My experience of organising grassroots movements through consensus will be vital to my time as an officer of UCU. Chairing the union’s key committees and negotiating on behalf of members for positive outcomes in a collegial way is key. With a reinvigorated Tory government, shameless Vice-Chancellors, and a political landscape ravaged by austerity and COVID-19 it is time that we stood together not only to advance member’s interests but also to care for ourselves and each other too.
The #Gareth4VP campaigning team consists of the following five UCU members (in alphabetical surname order):
- Dr Jo Edge, University of Manchester UCU and UCU NEC representative of women’s members HE
- Dr Chris Grocott, University of Leicester UCU
- Dr David Harvie, University of Leicester UCU and UCU NEC representative HE Midlands
- Dr Claire Marris, City, University of London UCU and UCU NEC representative HE London and the East
- Dr Leon Rocha, University of Lincoln UCU and UCU NEC representative HE UK