Keep the caterers: University of Manchester staff win fight over jobs and pay

The University of Manchester was left with egg on its face after it was forced to backtrack on plans to make 43 catering staff on campus and in halls of residence redundant.

The staff are employed by university subsidiary UMC Limited on zero-hours contracts with none of the protections and benefits of in-house employment. They were informed of these redundancies in March, just one month after the university agreed to pay them the Living Wage – itself the result of years of pressure from staff and students on campus. The proposals would also have changed the contracts of remaining staff from full-time to term-time, reducing their salaries by a third.

However, on 19 May it was announced that UMC and trade union UNISON had reached agreement on the proposals. There will be no compulsory redundancies (although a handful of workers have taken voluntary severance packages). While the switch to term-time service will go ahead, affected employees will be retrained in other areas of UMC outside of term-time to ensure that they remain on full-time hours. In addition, staff will receive backdated pay for any hours of unpaid overtime, which for some goes back up to five years.

The University of Manchester made £46m in profit last year. 204 members of staff are on salaries of over £100,000 and vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell claims £35,000 in non-salaried expenses alone. A £1bn Campus Masterplan for the university’s redevelopment is currently underway, with dozens of new buildings and facilities in the pipeline, and a giant screen costing £123,000 that does little more than repeatedly flash the university’s logo was recently installed on the side of the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons. Yet management had the audacity to say that these proposed cuts to the lowest paid employees of the university were necessary in order to pay all staff a living wage.

A team of campaigners consisting of university students and staff – including members of the university’s FRFI society – were pivotal in ensuring that these plans were shelved, with relentless leafleting campaigns across campus and halls and concerted demonstrations against UMC’s proposals. These included an attempted occupation of Rothwell’s office and the gatecrashing of a Directorate of Estates’ meeting on the Campus Masterplan, where campaigners heckled a talk on the £300m development of a new engineering campus to considerable applause and much to the irritation of university officials.

This victory is a small but significant one against the continued marketisation of our universities, but cuts in the name of profitability remain a serious issue. In May, two days before Mental Health Awareness Week, the university announced that it would be cutting its Counselling MA course – which has given over 100,000 hours of free counselling across Manchester – on the basis that it was not bringing in enough money. Announcements like this – and the news that tuition fees may be set to rise yet again next year – make it clear that this fight is still far from over.

Adrian Halilaj

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 251 June/July 2016


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