End Casualisation: Anxiety, Precarity, and Resistance
Gutman – who had held similar jobs teaching twenty-eight different courses at four separate institutions over five years – had learnt that to get such jobs he needed really to do only two things. The first was to ‘maintain a façade of scholarly endeavour whilst strongly hinting at one’s willingness to cheerfully accept untold amounts of work’, and the other was ‘placating the consciences of the interviewing panel, who always liked to believe that by offloading their own work they were assisting a young person on the path of scholarship and wisdom’.
- reference to Incredible Bodies by Ian McGuire in Mason & Megoran (2021)
I am still sitting with the blatant irony that on my first day of work at my job, sitting in the office where we – as new trainees – have been summoned to be introduced to the workings of the company, my colleague started humming the melody to 9 to 5 by the incomparable Dolly Parton. Naturally, I couldn’t resist, typed it in on YouTube and moments later all three of us were singing along to this anti-capitalist anthem, barely getting by, all taking and no giving. And while many of us have been working ourselves to the brink of death, professionally, scholastically, or otherwise, one of the most important days in working-class history has come around. May Day.
Also known as International Workers Day, May Day is a commemoration of five anarchist labour organisers who were executed in the United States in 1887, after being arrested for being involved in protests led by the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) in Chicago. Anarchism had emerged as an international movement against capitalist exploitation and oppression since the 1870s, bringing about collective action and organisation across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. On the 1st of May 1886, 300 000 unionised workers across the United States took to the streets, striking for the 8-hour workday. In Chicago, these demonstrations turned violent as the striking workers were charged by the police at Haymarket Square. In a feat of direct action, a bomb was thrown, hitting the police. Subsequently, the police opened fire, killing an unknown amount of people. After the local state sentenced five of the eight convicted leading organisers to death, the 1st of May was pronounced Workers Day by the Second International in 1889, calling for global labour unity. We wouldn’t be where we are today if the workers of the world had not united.
Capitalism’s changing faces still grin menacingly upon us and since the 1980s, neoliberalism, championed by Reagan and Thatcher, has turned its deregulatory gaze towards various institutions and industries, and with that, the university. Teaching staff at universities across the world have felt its destabilising impact. Academic careers, priorly assumed as rather secure paths of employment, have become plagued by incessant insecurity, impermanence, structural overwork, and exploitation under the heading of casualisation. Dutch universities aren’t exempt from this; teaching staff, particularly Junior Lecturers have been affected. And so, as countless workers before them, they organised and are now in the midst of an ongoing marking strike, demanding fundamental structural change of universities across the country. I was lucky to meet a representative of Casual UvA and have a chat about their course of action, their goals, and intentions for the future. (For the sake of anonymity, I decided not to disclose their name and will from here on refer to them with the initial A.)
Casual UvA is an independent collective of temporary employees organising at the University of Amsterdam under the umbrella of the organisations Casual Academy and 0.7. The precarious conditions of temporary staff at the UvA have been a topic of complaint for a while, but it wasn’t until October 2021 when it began to take shape as a formal organisation, holding meetings and discussions for the first time. Junior Lecturers collectivised in spite of circumstance, and in November of 2021 published a public letter to the Board of Trustees (CvB). In it they requested a public statement and a timeline of concrete action to address casualisation and the structural overwork of teaching staff. The College van Bestuur – CvB for short – is the central administrative body of a university, equalling an executive board managing universities. While Casual UvA received a public statement from the CvB, what they didn’t receive was a timeline of concrete action, and so they made true on their promise of entering “a trajectory of escalation”. The inaction sparked demonstrations across the country, with different universities being associated with the umbrella of Casual Academy, including but not limited to Utrecht, Rotterdam, and Leiden, additionally to the VU and the UvA in Amsterdam. In February of 2022 one of the first demonstrations was held in Utrecht under the heading Academia Does Not Love Us Back, met with continued refusal of the CvB to act on improving working conditions. As many students from social science departments will be familiar with by now, this led to the strike we currently find ourselves in. The idea for it was fleshed out in March in collaboration with labour unions and permanent staff, and subsequently announced on April 1st. Surely, an unpleasant April Fools for the CvB. A marking strike was chosen – no grades are to be released until Casual UvA receives a public statement with specific details of implementation and are actively consulted in the process. This aims to locate accountability at the university, since it is the institution's responsibility to deliver our grades in time. Additionally, they wanted to mitigate the impact on students as much as possible. I was told that conversations are being had, but the university is still showing an adamant lack of accountability and while Casual UvA is receiving some selected information, they are excluded from the active process. One might wonder what matters are being discussed behind these closed doors, a university refusing transparency when faced with their own exploitative conditions. If at all, they’re not doing a particularly good job of convincing us that they care for their employees’ well-being.
Departments currently participating in the marking strike and Casual UvA include Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (ISW), Future Planet Studies, Human Geography, and the Beta-Gamma programme of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. At first glance, this is very social science heavy, but A. stressed that Casual UvA is not limited to the social sciences. Some disparities exist across departments, but the conditions affecting temporary staff are structural. As this is a grassroots organisation, Junior Lecturers connected on the basis of mutual contacts, this cluster of social science accordingly is much more a result of relative proximity, rather than exclusivity. Media & Communication Science has expressed their solidarity, and Casual UvA is currently in conversation with Psychology, PPLE, and Education & Child Development. Since the beginning of the strike, UvA has released an outline for a New Lecturer Policy, aiming to offer job security and more career prospects. While this superficially is in accordance with the demands of Casual UvA, A. elaborated that they still haven’t been consulted on the proceedings and that the policy has yet to specify what is to happen to lecturers currently employed on temporary contracts. While the risks are clear and ever-present, they have found power in their relative anonymity and action as a collective. Anxiety, of course, pervades and is weaponised by the university by all means. Our Junior Lecturers are already overworked and have to further overwork themselves for visibility and recognition, an exertion underscored by threats of disposability and their vulnerability within a system that devalues their work to dehumanise them. To illuminate what the current working conditions the UvA deems adequate are: Junior lecturers are commonly offered sequential contracts, usually on a yearly basis, with a maximum of three contracts. Due to Dutch labour law, after three years they have to either be permanently contracted or terminated, and with that teaching becomes a dead-end job. Almost no opportunities for professional development are offered, neither is support available. Left without mentors or department integration, lecturers are brought in to satisfy temporary needs and thrown out as soon as possible. Needless to say, this is absolutely dehumanising. Pedagogical development is not made available to teachers, leaving them stranded to teach courses they at times have little familiarity with. The worst effects of casualisation are felt by already marginalised lecturers, gendered and racial pay gaps exacerbating already precarious conditions. And as so very often, the university is more concerned with attention being called to the problem, rather than with the problem itself.
As the strike and negotiations continue, one thing is clear: Casual UvA is here to stay. Forming a network with other Dutch universities, they aim to become a resource and facilitators, adding representation at the department level for continuous accountability of universities and to end casualisation. Questions of radicality are also still being debated, further action may show how indispensable temporary staff truly is for the functioning of universities. Although they are not presently unionised, this may change as the movement gathers momentum. And while they are still organising at the grassroots level, the makings of a national as well as international network is in consideration, connecting with a variety of similar organisations from Colombia, over Canada, to the UK, all organising in their particular contexts and sharing resources. I, for one, would more than welcome an international association of workers shaking up the foundations of the university, if combined with decolonial praxis. And with the involvement of students, who knows. We might see a radical shift in the relations of production quite soon. The possibilities are endless if we dare to imagine something new and unite.
Thank you, A., for your time to have this chat with me. The Decolonization Club stands in solidarity with Casual UvA.