Pay over Picasso

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It was reported in Palatinate that Durham University has spent £36,000 in the last year, paying staff to fulfil their roles as union representatives. At first this might seem like a big figure. It might even seem like an extraneous spend, given the disruption to teaching caused in part by union activity in Durham last year. In reality however, that’s far from true.

This mere £36,000 is probably one of our universities most cost-effective investments.

This mere £36,000 is probably one of our universities most cost-effective investments. It forms part of the salary of staff members who act as union representatives, who support other staff and ensure things like fair pay, hours and conditions. In short – supporting this role is a basic standard a decent employer should meet. So basic, in fact, that every employer in the UK is required by law to offer paid time off for union activity.

In the context of the university’s wider finances, £36,000 is miniscule. Last month we found out £17 million has been spent on expenses by Durham staff in the last 20 months, £90 million is currently being spent on two new colleges, and of course we can’t forget that our university has a habit of splurging on very expensive art, much of which most of us will never see. Basically – Durham is not short of cash. After all, £36,000 is less than the amount of debt many of Durham’s students take on in order to attend.

This sum allows union reps to act as the key support for staff facing issues in their workplace and negotiate with the university on matters such as fair pay and working conditions. For example, when the pension you’ve been paying into is cut by a potential £200,000, your union rep is the person you ask for help. When your work hours are extended, meaning less time with your family and more of your salary spent on childcare, your union rep is who you ask for help. When you’re on a nine-month contract that doesn’t recognise work you do over the summer, effectively docking your pay by 25%, your union rep is, again, who you ask for help.

So, this £36,000 stretches very far. Comparable institutions like the University of Bristol paid £184,000 over the same time period for work carried out by six staff, spending most of their time on union activity. In Durham last year, only four of nineteen union representatives were paid for union activity, all which took up less than 50 per cent of their working hours. It’s a very small cost to the university, in order to ensure staff are fairly represented. In turn, this is of immeasurable benefit to the student body – overworked, stressed lecturers, tutors and departmental staff under increasing financial pressure will obviously be much less able to support students.

Union representatives will be vital to ensuring that negotiations are meaningful and effective

The Universities and College Union and Unite, two of four unions representing Durham staff, are currently balloting members on whether or not they will take strike action again, over an ongoing dispute about staff pay. Regardless of whether Durham will see more strikes, union representatives will be vital to ensuring that negotiations are meaningful and effective, and will be working to minimise harm to staff, and students, in order to find a resolution. Given £36,000 to spend on behalf of Durham University, I know I’d pick union pay over Picasso in a heartbeat.

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