Targeting zero-hours contracts - case studies

3 December 2014 | last updated: 22 January 2016

Targeting the use of zero-hours contracts is a major priority for our union and, like others in the labour movement, UCU is operating a twin track strategy for addressing this.

The problem of employers using super-casualised employment forms like zero-hours contracts will only ultimately be solved by measures to make them impossible to operate and grant workers better rights. That's why UCU continues to push the political parties to harden their policy positions on zero-hours contracts. The focus on 'exclusivity clauses' or attempts to distinguish 'exploitative' zero-hours contracts are woefully inadequate responses, which is why we have supported Labour MP Ian Mearns's private members bill. This bill would make it very difficult for employers to operate zero-hours contracts and while it stands little chance of becoming law, building support for it is an important contribution to the debate, at least within the Labour Party.

In the immediate term, it's also vital to use our campaigning and collective bargaining strength to push employers to stop using them now. Nationally, in higher education, as a result of the national agreement reached this year with the employers representatives at UCEA, a joint union and employer working group has been set up to look at casualisation. While this is likely to produce some joint 'guidance' on 'best practice' there will not be a national level agreement on zero-hours contracts. Nonetheless, the national level engagement is an important lever with which to increase pressure.

The union is also using the national FOI results to identify strategically important mass users of zero-hours contracts, target them and to coordinate support for UCU branches at those institutions. If we can win good agreements that move members onto more regular, secure contracts, we can raise the pressure on other employers and start to change the direction of travel in our sectors

Nationally, we've produced a new guidance document for branches 'Ending zero-hours contracts in further and higher education' [344kb]. This document aims to help branches to recognise zero-hours contracts, set out guidance on negotiating to move staff onto more secure fractional part-time contracts and offers advice on building effective campaigns to support negotiations. Like all guidance documents, it captures the best of what's already happening and generalises it for other branches to adapt to their own uses.

Nationally, we're also coordinating support for branches in target institutions and we're seeing the building of some impressive campaigns. Since the progress made by Edinburgh University UCU, whose campaign is covered elsewhere, we've seen effective campaigns built at Sheffield Hallam University and two universities in Liverpool, for example. The key features of these campaigns are the combination of attempts to negotiate with the building of 'top to bottom' campaigns that combine gathering evidence on and mobilising zero-hours staff with levering in local political support.

On the back of the FOI, Sheffield Hallam UCU conducted a survey of hourly-paid staff which aimed to get beneath the glib management line about staff valuing flexibility. Their report, launched on UCU's national day of action, was sent to management, local politicians and the press, increasing pressure on the university management.

Similarly, UCU at Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores conducted local FOIs to gather more detailed information about zero-hours contracts, launched a survey of zero-hours contracts staff on the national day of action and wrote to their local MPs briefing them on the use of zero-hours contracts at their institution. In addition, they have formed a joint branch organising group to recruit and organise among casualised staff. At Edinburgh, Sheffield Hallam and Liverpool, strategically focused campaigning and bargaining that combines local, regional and national resources is building pressure for change.

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