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UCU committee member Pierre Bocquillon: “We are working more, we are being paid less”

Like many organisations, UEA UCU has had to adjust and change how it carries out its work as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. To learn about how Covid-19  has affected their work, I spoke to UEA UCU committee member Pierre Bocquillon.

It is safe to say the Covid-19 pandemic has had a big effect on public life. Many people and organisations have had to adjust in a variety of different ways in order to follow Covid-19 measures, and UEA UCU was no exception.

“We had to move everything online”, he explains. Like with many organisations, this shift to working online was difficult at first but was something people got used to over time.  

While many organisations have made the same shift to online work, some have found this more difficult than others because of the nature of their work. I was keen to ask whether he felt this online adjustment has been particularly difficult for them as an organisation.

Pierre believes this online adjustment has made it particularly difficult for the UCU to mobilize its members- especially for strike action. “Usually for mobilizing members you have the possibility of chatting to colleagues in the corridor and knocking at doors in preparation for a vote.”

While the UCU has been sending more emails in order to mobilize people, he notes this isn’t as effective since it doesn’t have the sort of personal contact which “is often important to talk through issues and also to convince people to vote, for instance, in favour of strike actions.”

The last two years have seen a number of Covid-19 related disputes between companies and employees. I asked whether some of UEA UCU’s work over the pandemic has been related to disputes over Covid-19 safety measures. “Covid safety measures have been a contentious issue in the sector in general, and at UEA in particular”, Pierre argues. For the academic year following Summer  2020, the UCU told him to teach online for the year and “return to the classroom as soon as it’s safe to do so in a year or so, and with proper measures.”

This conflicted with UEA’s position of wanting to get students “back in the classroom as soon as possible.” In the end not much conflict over this arose since government regulation meant in-person teaching was not possible for most students across the academic year. For the coming academic year, with a large part of the population having been vaccinated, I am told “the Union is not fighting nationally for us to stay online.” UEA UCU is however stressing caution and has been pushing the university to “be more precise about their plans to limit infections.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a lot of job insecurity. I was curious to see whether Pierre felt this has led to an increase in staff at UEA being interested in joining the Union. 

“Yes and no.” Although Union membership has risen, it has not done so rapidly. “People are worried… There were a number of universities in which some departments have been closed or there were redundancy programmes or there were redundancy programmes.” While this hasn’t happened at UEA, people at the university are worried about seeing redundancies in other places as well as being worried about increased workloads and stress. As a result of this, more people “are looking towards the union to provide support and defend them.”

However, Pierre argues the number of factors which often push up membership have not been possible during Covid. “Strike action has often driven up membership” because it brings people together and facilitates certain conversations to happen which increases interest in the Union. But since such factors have not been possible over the pandemic, membership has not increased rapidly.

A large part of UEA UCU’s work before the pandemic was fighting the changes to the USS pensions scheme. I asked whether he felt the pandemic and its related issues had distracted them from their work combatting the USS pensions change.

The issue of USS pension change “was put a little bit on the back-burner over 2020,” Pierre says. “People were focusing on dealing with the fallout of the pandemic.” It is “an ongoing issue so it has never disappeared” and has recently “come back really at the forefront”. He says most in the Union agree the changes to the pension scheme are “unacceptable”, and they “want a long-term, sustainable solution” rather than “fighting over USS every single year”, but since a workable deal has not yet been made between the UCU, the employers, and the USS boards, there could be “potential strike action in the near future.”

Curious to see whether my interviewee thinks there is a bright path ahead, I asked Pierre whether he was optimistic for the future.

He describes himself as a “fairly optimistic person” who enjoys his job and interacting with students and colleagues, something which will happen more as vaccinations increase. He also believes “there is plenty of good work that is being done across the universities that can be celebrated.”

This being said, he is “less optimistic” about the future of higher education in the UK. Working conditions at Universities have gotten worse; “we are working more, we are being paid less,” and Pierre predicts this could be bad for the future of Universities. 

One thing is for sure though, Pierre definitely won’t allow these changes to happen unopposed. The interview concluded with him stressing he will “be fighting in the Union and hoping also for some wider political change to reverse this trend.”

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Ross Gower

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May 2022
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