Comment & Analysis
Feb 27, 2017

Far From a Nuisance, Industrial Action the Only Leverage Left for Trinity Academics

Dermot Frost, Secretary of Trinity’s branch of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, on why Trinity staff are balloting for Industrial Action.

Dermot FrostOp-ed Contributor
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Sam McAllister for The University Times

Trade unions generally have a bad reputation as troublemakers, rabble-rousers and disruptive forces in the workplace. Consider the LUAS strikes last year – the narrative was very quickly manipulated to portray the dispute as one in which lazy workers were demanding an exorbitant pay increase, caring not a whit for the inconvenienced passengers. Whether or not the drivers had a legitimate grievance against a greedy, massively profitable multinational organization was never discussed in the media, the back of a taxi or over a pint. The image of the bearded official, quoting Marx and Trotsky, is an easy trope for the establishment to lean on to win the public’s support.

In their current dispute with Tesco, Mandate Trade Union are defending the terms and conditions of long-serving employees, refusing to sign new contracts that would lead to lower pay, longer hours and other worsened conditions for workers. Tesco, again a profitable organization, claims to have done everything possible to avoid the dispute – other than honouring the existing employment contracts with their employees. But somehow that is ignored, and the staff and union are painted in a bad light for standing up for their rights.

Historically, almost all progress made in working conditions, across all sectors, have come from employees organizing themselves and making demands: the eight-hour day, the end of child labour, equal pay, minimum wages and paid holidays have all been hard-won by unions and their members. Such improvements in working conditions were never offered freely by management, but were won by workers standing together and demanding concessions. For most employees, the only leverage they have over their employer is withdrawal of labour, ranging from “work to rule” through localized strikes, to a general strike of all workers.

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We fully support the campaign to reverse these two management decisions that are short-sighted and are having a negative impact on the operation of the university

Staff in Trinity are represented primarily by three trade unions – the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) (mainly academic staff), UNITE (mainly technical staff) and SIPTU (mainly administrative and support staff). While each group have specific concerns relating to their own members, there are times when the three come together to address an issue that impacts all staff, or to address a general principle of fairness, even if the cohort of impacted staff is limited.

This has happened in recent months in the on-going disputes surrounding lack of permanent contracts and lack of promotions for administrative, library, support and technical staff. While the majority of affected grades are represented by UNITE and SIPTU, there are a number of IFUT members in technical, library and administrative roles. We fully support the campaign to reverse these two management decisions that are short-sighted and are having a negative impact on the operation of the university.

The decision to issue only fixed-term contracts to non-academic staff was made in 2015 by college management without consultation with the Human Resources Committee (HRC) or the Board. At the time, I was an elected member of the Board and chair of HRC, and members of both groups expressed great concern with this dictat, both in respect of the impact of the ruling on staffing and the bypassing of normal procedure for changing College policy.

Running down and under-resourcing an area to reduce its effectiveness is a standard management strategy on the road to privatization and outsourcing

During the years of austerity, promotions in general across College have been reduced in number, but academic staff have continued to advance from assistant professor to higher grades such as associate professor and professor on the merits of their own teaching and research. Despite this, for the last number of years no promotions have been available to non-academic staff. The argument is that these staff members should compete for promotion by applying for new roles within the university. The consequence, perhaps intended, is that administration and support areas continue to cannibalize each other as staff jump from short contract to short contract, rather than building up expertise in their particular area.

Running down and under-resourcing an area to reduce its effectiveness is a standard management strategy on the road to privatization and outsourcing. We have already seen College introduce two companies in online teaching and commercialization to allow staff to be employed on lower salaries, with fewer benefits and much less security of tenure. The unions in College will remain vigilant to these practices and will oppose them to protect the terms and conditions of our members. Nobody likes taking industrial action but when faced with no other option it is a step we are willing to take.


Dermot Frost is Secretary of Trinity’s Branch of IFUT, and Manager of the Research IT group in Trinity College Dublin. He is also the Principal Investigator for Trinity in the Digital Repository of Ireland.

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