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Summer casework: why we all need to be in UCU

Over the summer, we have been approached by several university employees who have needed independent support and advice. The University regulations allow union caseworkers to support employees in a variety of situations, and generally the independent support provided by union is very well received. In some cases, they were long-standing employees who had just joined the union because of their problem. In others, they were non-members who approached us asking “if I join, what can you do for me?” Yet other non-members asked if they should hire a lawyer.

These approaches all suffer from a lack of understanding of the university’s (and most other employers’) processes. Let’s deal with them one by one.

Can I join if I have a problem?
Yes, you are very welcome to join at any time. The union would, however, be completely unable to balance its books, or supply volunteer caseworkers, if large numbers of staff were allowed to join, and pay membership, only while they have an employment issue. The union’s legal service imposes a strict, but short, waiting period on new members before offering support. Similarly, within the branch, we are unlikely to be able to offer support for pre-existing issues with new members.

If I join, what can you do for me?
As I say above, we can support you with your next problem. We may be able to offer informal local assistance with your current difficulties. All the while, you will be helping to improve pay and conditions for all of us.

Should I get a lawyer?
This is the big misconception. A lawyer will be of almost no use to you until it is too late. You can take your problem to him or her, and they can offer you advice. But they cannot accompany you either to an investigation or to a disciplinary hearing. You will be on your own. And they probably will not know much about local conditions at the university. Your lawyer can come to an employment tribunal, but by then, after you have been sacked, it is almost certainly too late. Even if you win, you will almost certainly not be reinstated. The chances of winning are about fifty-fifty; if you win, you can expect a cash settlement of perhaps several thousand pounds, but no job to go back to.

Almost all of the good outcomes we achieve for members are the result of dedicated work by our trained team of volunteer caseworkers. They meet with members and come to investigation and disciplinary meetings. Their accreditation training is supplemented by wide experience of what actually happens at Southampton. And, within the limits of confidentiality, they share experiences at regular meetings. In most cases, we are able to prevent problems escalating. For the more intractable cases we can call on paid union professionals, who (unlike lawyers) are also entitled to come with you to meetings. Finally, if all else fails, we are able to offer support at a tribunal. But, as I said, by then it is probably too late to keep your job. Here is what the university writes:

The member of staff has the right, if they wish, to be accompanied by a workplace colleague or a trade union representative.

The representative/companion is permitted to address the hearing in order to put forward the member of staff’s case; they can sum up the case and respond on their behalf to any view expressed at the hearing.

The representative/companion is also permitted to confer with the member of staff during the hearing.

It should be noted that the representative/companion has no right to answer questions on behalf of the member of staff, to address the hearing if the member of staff does not wish him or her to do so, or to prevent the employer explaining its case.

Representatives/companions have an important role to play in supporting a member of staff and are allowed to participate as fully as possible.

There are other important reasons for you to be in the union. If, say, a student complains about you, you will be judged according to the university’s policies. University HR won’t be much help; their role is to protect the institution, not the individual. If the policies are unfair, you don’t have much hope. We are a recognised trade union, and the university has to negotiate these policies with us before adopting them. We are able to use our experience of casework to develop policies which work for both university and staff. Our effectiveness depends on how seriously we are taken by the university; we have far more influence when we have a high membership. Indeed, for matters affecting only level seven staff (Professors, etc.), we are not yet recognised and the university declines formal negotiation. So, if you join as soon as you arrive here, you are helping to protect yourself from policies that might later be used against you.

Finally, we negotiate, and occasionally go into national dispute, over pay and pensions. We improved the employers offers on each in the last round of changes. The current round of pay negotiations is under way and pensions are again under threat. We need your support now.

Join here.
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† See Struck Out, by David Renton.

Denis Nicole

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