There are almost 40,000 Contract Research Staff (CRS) and a large but unknown (because university employers never bother to count them) number of hourly paid teachers and demonstrators (often postgraduate students) working in UK Higher Education and Research institutions. However, relatively few of these staff are members of a trade union. This is extremely worrying because, of all the HE staff that eligible to join a union, it is clear that CRS and other casualised workers are the most vulnerable and encounter the most problems.
Fixed-term contracts and hourly paid arrangements are the cause of many problems. Researchers and hourly paid staff whose future employment appears to be entirely in the hands of their employers are more vulnerable than any other staff group to being unfairly treated or dismissed, and to missing out on legal entitlements.
Information is often not provided by employers. For example, do you know what happens when your contract ends? Can the university simply 'dump' you? Is this really the best outcome for your work, and for your own career? What are your rights? On a fixed-term contract you naturally have rights that are only fair and reasonable--but will they be honoured? Are you allowed to take sick leave? Can you take a pension? Will you get paid if you become pregnant--will your job still be there to return to? What exactly are 'reasonable' hours and holidays? Should your name go on a research paper that you have contributed to? Are you obliged to teach? Can you participate in the management of your research project? Should you be forced to take a pay cut when you transfer to another research project? Should you get redundancy pay?
Trade unions make it their business to know the answers to these questions. Even if you manage to find out the answers on your own, you may find it difficult to stand up for yourself unless you know that your situation is wrong and that there are people to support you. Reliable information and advice on what to do next may not be available, and you will not have a very loud voice on your own. Union membership gives you the security of collective protection: access to advice and support on all aspects of your working life, from intellectual property rights to maternity leave--and to legal representation if you need it. There is a lot of new legislation coming up that affects you. For example, the Fixed-Term Workers Regulations are currently under consultation between the government and the unions. The new legislation should be in operation by next summer, but don't rely on your employer to tell you about it, because it is likely to cost them money!
You may see your current job as a short-term arrangement which will end soon anyway, so why bother joining? Well, if you want an academic career, isn't it worth fighting for? Look to the future: Do you really prefer being on a 6-month contract? Will this allow you to work most effectively? Is it good for your prospects? Problems may arise during your first contract, which may well be extended several times, so unless you join a union at the start there is a danger you will remain vulnerable for a long time.
Furthermore, only the unions have any hope of influencing contract researchers' pay and conditions, but in many universities hourly paid workers have not received pay rises in line with other members of staff because they are not covered by national pay negotiations. University employers have often refused to negotiate with trade unions about pay for hourly paid workers, saying that the unions do not have enough of these workers in membership and therefore do not represent them. It is therefore essential that you join a union. You may not want to get actively involved, but think of it as insurance. Your union can help if you want better pay or if anything bad happens to you, but like any insurance it can only help if you have been a member for some time prior to a crisis.
Alternatively you may wish to become active in the union in order to fight against casualisation and second-class academic citizenship. Unions can only act if they know what the problems are. It is up to us to tell them. The Association of University Teachers ( AUT) represents all grades of academic and academic-related staff, including CRS, in universities. The AUT has CRS and FNS (Fixed-term noncontract staff) committees which initiate and co-ordinate campaigns and respond to national developments that affect CRS, FNS, and hourly paid staff, such as changes in research council funding regulations, new legislation (e.g., Fixed-Term and Part-Time Work Regulations), and national negotiations with employers on Equal Opportunities and Casualisation. These committees are made up of academics who are themselves facing the problems associated with fixed-term and hourly paid contracts and their voice and action is crucial in shaping the union's policy with regard to less secure academic jobs.
The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education ( NATFHE) also represents academic staff (mostly in post-1992 universities) and is committed to reducing casualisation. The Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union ( MSF) opposes short-term contracts amongst scientific workers and promotes greater participation by women in science, engineering, and technology. Find out which union has negotiation recognition for your staff group in your university. Most universities tell new entrants which unions are recognised by the university, and the unions themselves will be able to tell you which union (or unions) represent you. Whatever your situation, there is a union that can help you and there is no need to suffer in silence.