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Recruiting and negotiating on behalf of staff on casual contracts

21 October 2008

Notes for UCU branches and local associations on recruiting and negotiating on behalf of staff on casual (fixed-term, variable hours, zero hours, hourly-paid) contracts.

For many local UCU activists on permanent and salaried contracts, the issue of casual contracts is a relatively new one, and this document, prepared by the UCU's fixed-term and hourly paid staff committee, is intended to provide relevant and helpful information. It is recognised that there are also fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual contract UCU activists in branches LAs and on branch committees, and it is hoped that this document will aid their fight for better treatment.

Staff on casual contracts matter to the UCU

They often suffer some of the worst employment conditions in the UK - as a union we are committed to changing these:

  • no job security even after long service - they can be replaced at any time
  • dismissal with little procedure
  • feudal employment relationships which can lead to stress and bullying
  • exclusion from the life of the department
  • no occupational sick pay, or the notion that the hourly rate includes an 'element' of sick pay
  • not being allowed or invited to join the relevant pension scheme
  • low and unregulated hourly rates
  • no national pay rises
  • no or insufficient office space.

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Casual contract staff need a union

Why don't more staff on casual contracts join the UCU?

  • They may not know that the UCU is their union. Many casual contracts do not mention union membership; casual contract staff are often not on new staff lists sent to the UCU branch or local association used to contact potential members; and they do not usually get a full college or university induction where they would hear about the UCU.
  • They may not know or believe that the UCU is interested in improving their terms and conditions and dealing with any abuse they are suffering.
  • They are often afraid that standing out as an activist, even joining a union, could lead to losing future contracts or having their hours cut. They can perceive the risks as high and the potential benefits as questionable.
  • Their pay is often low and insecure and paying a union membership fee may not seem to be a priority.

But staff on casual contracts often feel they are treated unfairly by their employer, so are potential union members.

'The thing that makes me angry is that they show complete disloyalty to us when we've worked extremely hard for them'

'Though we devote our lives to our jobs and to the idea of learning as a real force for change, more often than not those providers we work for treat part-time contractual staff as expendable capital... something that can be used, abused and discarded at will. Why should there be such a fight for just equal rights with permanent staff? Surely, this should be obvious and legitimate. No longer are part-time contractual teachers just 'doing it for the pin money' as the legend would have it: now we are the cutting edge of widening participation --- the first point of contact with learners in a new 'lifelong learning' world'.

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Finding casual contract staff

Who are the casual contract staff at your college or HE Institution?

  • A recognised union has the right to know who its potential members are. Ask your employer for contact details for staff on casual contracts. There is a letter requesting information on hourly paid staff and this can be adapted for other groups of casual contract staff as necessary. The phrase 'for the purposes of collective bargaining' is a useful one:
    Model letter requesting information on hourly paid staff employed by HE institutions [153kb]

    Some employers may struggle to produce an accurate list, but any list is a good start. Where staff on casual contracts are paid through the payroll, it must be possible to trace their existence!
  • In HE there are often large numbers of hourly paid lecturers teaching English for academic purposes, other languages, lifelong learning classes and education.
  • IN HE, especially in the pre-92 sector, a large subsection of hourly paid staff are postgraduate staff.
  • The vast majority of research staff in HE are on fixed-term contracts.
  • In FE, part-time, hourly paid lecturing staff, especially minority ethnic staff, are concentrated in certain curriculum areas, particularly basic skills and English for Speakers of Other Languages, which have traditionally received less funds.
  • They may also be found teaching any subject in any department, numbers varying between colleges and universities. Try asking your existing members about hourly paid and other casual contract staff they know of in their departments.

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Recruiting staff on casual contracts

Making contact:

  • Some staff on casual contracts will not have easy access to e mail, therefore a mail drop is useful too. Posters and word-of-mouth invitations to contact the branch or LA and come to meetings are useful, especially until the branch or LA can get a list of hourly paid and other casual staff. There are recruitment materials on the DAN part of the UCU website at which can be adapted if necessary to appeal specifically to the hourly paid and other casual staff at your college or HE institution. It is wise to avoid abbreviations that people completely new to union involvement may not know, eg TPS, USS,

Problems with meetings:

  • Many hourly paid and other casual staff are in the college or university part-time and are occupied with teaching when they are there. Some teach at the times other teaching staff and lecturers do not, eg lunchtimes, Wednesday afternoons, evenings.
  • Some will hesitate to be seen going to an UCU meeting in their department.

Ideas for meetings:

  • Have an advertised drop-in session in a college or university cafĂ© over several hours.
  • Where the departmental management is sympathetic, attend a departmental meeting or training day and give a presentation.
  • Ask UCU departmental reps to speak to hourly paid staff and other casual staff.
  • Ask UCU department reps to call a meeting for casual contract staff and make it clear that management supports the meeting.
  • Alternatively, hold a meeting off departmental premises.
  • Find out when casual contract activists can come to a meeting and arrange it for that time, inviting other casual contract staff as well.
  • Hold the same meeting at consecutive hours, eg 12 noon, 1pm, 2pm.

When meeting hourly paid and other casual contract staff:

  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Tell them of the UCU's anti-casualisation campaign and its aims.

Recruitment and organisation of hourly paid staff

  • Mention the very low membership fee for those on low salaries.
  • Feed back on successes to both members and non-members, as this encourages people to join.
  • Discuss management proposals.
  • Invite members and non-members, though membership needs to be rewarded eventually by greater opportunities to participate.

Encouraging hourly paid staff to organise


  • any existing networks of fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual contract activists
  • meetings of fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual contract staff: departmental, college or university-wide, and specialist, eg in HE for postgraduate staff
  • the election of fixed-term, hourly-paid or other casual contract reps in every department
  • use of the DAN activists e-group and discussion forum
  • fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual contract activists to stand for the branch or LA Executive
  • fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual contract activists members to attend the UCU's annual fixed-term and hourly paid meeting as delegates, and to consider standing for the national fixed-term and hourly paid committee
  • the setting up an organising committee to include at least one sympathetic permanent/salaried UCU activist who is a negotiator - such figures are very much needed
  • the use of the anti-casualisation campaigning materials and the general campaigning materials on the DAN part of the UCU web site.

Publicising abuses

The treatment of fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual contract staff in colleges and universities is often such that it only has to be brought out into the open to attract the sympathy of the public. Consider using this to support the campaign, on behalf of the branch or LA as a whole.

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Negotiating on hourly paid issues

What to work on

Choose issues that concern the casual contract staff at your college or university most, as well as considering what is achievable. Network and share local strategies, for example by using the DAN UCU activists e-group and discussion forum. Issues could include:

  • to increase the use of permanent contracts across the institution
  • to transfer hourly paid and other casual staff to full-time or fractional contracts with comparable terms and conditions to non casual (academic or academic-related) staff
  • to resist the imposition of zero hours and detrimental variable (minimum) hours contracts
  • to ensure staff on fixed-term and / or part-time contracts (including hourly paid staff) do not suffer detriment compared with non casual staff
  • to ensure all casual contract staff are paid a rate of pay that is equitable with (and can be linked directly to) the rates of pay for comparable permanent, salaried staff
  • to increase the recruitment and organisation of fixed-term, hourly paid and other casual staff within UCU
  • any other concerns expressed by fixed-term, hourly paid or other casual contract staff at your institution.

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Fronting the campaign

Remember the vulnerability of casual contract staff when it comes to fronting the campaign - it may be better for permanent/salaried members to do it, depending on the local circumstances.

For further information on the UCU's anti-casualisation campaign contact Ed Bailey.

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Last updated: 4 December 2015