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Protecting the Academic Precariat: Aspects of organising and bargaining in New Zealand’s universities Megan Clayton, Industrial and Professional Committee, Tertiary Education Union In academic journals and mainstream media alike, the continuing rise of precarious work in developed countries has become a topic of consideration in recent years, as have its consequences. A part of this wider network of analysis has been the consideration of precarious work in academic contexts. Given the cultural associations of academic work with intellectual elites and social privilege, this has required some unpacking. Many analyses comment on the way in which both the public and the academy itself appears unaware of the extent to which academic teaching, in particular, is supported by fixed-term, casual and otherwise contingent labour.1

There is in both literature and media in general a lack of integrated discussion of the topic of precarious academic labour. Many academic articles consider the issue in terms of disciplinarity, such as examining precarious work in a particular field: the humanities in the United States is a common example.2 Others discuss precarious work in terms of the academy itself: as a consequence of neo-liberal managerialism,


See, for example, the discussion following the death in poverty of former Duquesne University adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko: Daniel Kovalik “Death of an adjunct”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (online ed, Pittsburgh, 18 September 2013). Lindsay Ellis “An Adjunct’s Death Becomes a Rallying Cry for Many in Academe” (19 September 2013) The Chronicle of Higher Education <> Maria Maisto, Joseph A. McCartin and Jacob Swenson “Unethical Academia: The Next Front for LowWage Worker Uprising?” (17 October 2013) The Huffington Post <> 2

See as an example Frank Donoghue “Do College Teachers Have to Be Scholars?” (2012) Spring The Hedgehog Review 29, which discusses an op-ed from The Chronicle of Higher Education that argues it is possible for adjunct teachers in the humanities to make high salaries provided they abandon aspirations to scholarship and intellectual life.


or the massification of higher education in a time of public sector constraint. Overall there is a lack of explication in these articles of the wider social contexts of labour, perhaps because the interdisciplinary approach this would require is inimical to current norms of academic publication.

This paper will highlight some themes in recent discussions of precarious academic labour in order to discuss the New Zealand context, and particularly the work of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa in organising, supporting and advocating for its members in fixed-term and casual employment in New Zealand’s eight universities. Precarious academic work is both a threat to “decent work” in universities, and a pragmatic response, ideologically driven, to wider pressures on academic life. Under government inimical to higher education, the union has an important role to play in defending those who experience the effects of this in inequitable work arrangements.3

In the North American context, the widespread rise of precarious work – fixed-term, casual or informal employment agreements – is often associated with the end of the long boom in the mid-1970s and the decline of traditional working-class jobs. One Canadian writer notes the ubiquity of precarious employment across all sectors: “seasonal workers, security guards and sales persons; web designers, fast-food workers and university teachers; child care and elder workers, and so on”, extending in Canada to “at least a third of all jobs and likely more”.4 In New Zealand, the rise in precarious work is said to begin from the early 1990s, following the neo-liberal labour market deregulations by the fourth Labour and fourth National governments (1984-90, 1990-99).5 3

A recent survey, “The Impact of Insecure Work Arrangements: A Survey for TEU Members” found that one in six respondents reported they were employed in a fixed-term, casual or otherwise insecure role, and one-third of respondents reported they had been employed in this manner previously. See TEU “Survey Shows Widespread Insecure Work in Tertiary Education” (11 July 2013) <> 4

Cy Conick, “Precarious labour” (May-June 2011) 45.3 Canadian Dimension at 24.


Philip Bohle and others, “The Evolving Work Environment in New Zealand: Implications for Occupation Health and Safety – NOHSAC Technical Report 10” at 6. <>


There is little recent data concerning the proportion of precarious jobs among those employed in New Zealand. A 2008 report using data from the late 1990s calculated those in part-time, casual or fixed-term employment and those who hold multiple jobs to be around 23 per cent of the workforce. The report also notes that data on casual work is not collected nationally in New Zealand, and that the last survey on that topic was conducted in the 1990s.6 Whereas in New Zealand it is noted that the “logic of casualisation is that businesses are likely to employ people on a casual, part-time or temporary basis when it increases their flexibility” with “workers … subject to fewer conditions of employment than full-time employees”,7 a Canadian source is less circumspect:8

A strategy favoured by some corporations is to maintain a small core of highly desirable full time, full-benefit positions as a means to elicit extraordinary effort over a long period of time form workers competing for these positions. Many workers are forced to take part-time employment in a company in the hope that they will be hired full time when full-time jobs slots open up. But these are growing increasingly scarce.

As will be seen, similar experiences can be found among employees in precarious work in New Zealand’s universities.

The discussion of precarious employment in universities is, in the literature, typically focused on the employment of academics on a fixed-term or non-permanent basis. Particular distinction is drawn between these workers and those in the United States who enjoy the benefits of tenured employment. That there is a financial imperative for the universities to maintain a pool of non-permanent academic labour is not in doubt, to the extent that this is now “a strategy utilized by universities to reduce 6

Bohle and others, at 60.


Bohle and others, at 61.


Conick, at 24.


overall labour costs”.9 The extent to which this is an embedded feature of the way in which North American universities are run is starkly illustrated by figures widely cited across a variety of research: those “tenured or eligible for tenure, now make up only 32 percent of the college teaching workforce” in the United States, while “adjuncts … make up the remaining 68 percent”.10 Working conditions for these adjuncts are notoriously poor: employed part-time and ineligible for tenure (and therefore health insurance and superannuation), adjuncts may be paid by the course or by the hour, typically earn between 1500 and 3500USD per course taught and work across multiple employers. Few have access to permanent office space or departmental representation, and most are ineligible for membership in the unions to which their tenured colleagues may belong.

The difficulty of organising and bargaining for these contingent faculty is in the United States an area of study of its own. Convincing academics in precarious work of their class position is a particular challenge for union organisers, who comment, along with other researchers, on the “dual consciousness” of those affected: the tension between the academic unions’ historical “‘guild consciousness’ of the skilled professional seeking to protect existing privileges” and “the objective fact that [adjunct faculty] are now workers”.11 The extent to which the individualism of academic identity affects the ability to organise, is widely noted. Other restrictive factors include the related idea of academia as a meritocracy and the practical realities of precarious employment, outlined above. Even so, those affected “are currently organizing more aggressively than any other sector of the teaching workforce” in the United States.12


Michelle Webber “Miss Congeniality Meets the New Managerialism: Feminism, Contingent Labour, and the New University” (2008) 38.3 Canadian Journal of Higher Education 37 at 37. 10

Donoghue, at 31.


Joe Berry Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2005) at 18-19. 12

Donoghue, at 33.


Academics and general staff alike in New Zealand universities are represented by the Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa, which has membership of between 40 and 70 per cent of academic staff of the eight university branches.13 While academic and general members are covered by different (single-site) collective agreements14 and some members are on individual employment agreements, this combination of different professional roles and responsibilities inside one industrial organisation has made it possible for the union to consider the problem of precarious work in the wider context of labour relations. Since precarious employment disproportionately involves women, younger and older employees, Māori and Pasifika,15 there is a further context of campaigning for social justice that is served by the union’s ability to represent staff across the two main areas of university work. The union also affiliates to the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, through which a continuous campaign for Fairness at Work runs.16

In order to establish the extent of precarious work in the universities and those most affected by it, the TEU made a series of Official Information Act requests of the eight universities in 2012 and 2013 concerning the distribution of continuing/fixed-term, full-time/part-time and casual employment agreements across academic and general staff.17 Data was received from all of the eight universities for 2012, and seven of the eight for 2013.18 Responses revealed considerable variation between the universities in both the use and the categorisation of casual staff in particular. Some institutions reported a high number of casual employees while others did not keep sufficient data on these workers to report the information that was requested. 13

The TEU also represents members in institutes of technology and polytechnics, and in wānanga.


An exception is Massey University, where staff are on the same collective agreement.


Bohle and others, at 61.


New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi Fairness at Work <> 17

In 2013 information was also sought on numbers of women and Māori employed in each of these categories, but this has not been used in this paper. 18

2013 data from one university was presented in a manner that was unusable for this paper, so only six of the eight universities have been considered.


The tables below provide a simple breakdown of the numbers received according to continuing or fixed-term employment and within these categories academic or general coverage and full-time or part-time employment. Where data was received on casual staff for 2013 this is recorded. The University of Otago also reported some staff with combinations of employment not accounted for by the academic/general, full-time/part-time, continuing/fixed-term and casual breakdowns. These are noted separately following the main tables.


Staffing levels within New Zealand Universities as at 30 June 2012 (response to OIA request)

Continuing Staff

Academic Full-time Parttime University of Auckland




General Full-time Parttime







Massey University






Victoria University of Wellington



183 1316 296




981 53


















136 208



129 254



108 224


1601 22



Total % FixedTerm Staff

284 682


1648 337


251 134



148 138

Total FixedTerm Staff

General Full-time Parttime

919 84



667 University of





144 918


Fixed-Term Staff

Academic Full-time Parttime

326 2209

960 University of Waikato

Total Continuing Staff



Canterbury 597 Lincoln University


University of Otago


1096 28





1693 79





















40 93



906 1157

Staffing levels within New Zealand Universities as at 30 June 2013 (response to OIA request) Continuing Staff

AUT University of Waikato Massey University

Total Continuing Staff

Academic Full- Parttime time

General FullParttime time


172 926 458 111

804 133 937 569 177

569 1018 181

746 1202 293





Fixed-Term Staff

Academic Full- Parttime time 76 1863

Total Total % Fixed- FixedTerm Term Staff Staff

General FullParttime time 37

Total Total % Casual FixedStaff Term & Casual

Academic General

69 145 59 121



180 142 133

231 122 86






Casual Staff

356 199












23.8 N/A




Victoria University of Wellington








Lincoln University



1008 286 78


225 309

364 1573 445


University of Otago









1038 43 28



4 14 366







48.3 N/A





219 1112









The University of Otago also reported to 30 June 2013 the following on a combination of continuing, fixed-term and casual agreements: Academic Staff Full-time Part-time 68 51

General Staff Full-time Part-time 38 46

A smaller number of University of Otago staff hold combinations of academic and general roles, continuing, fixed-term and in casual employment.


In general, New Zealand universities employed fixed-term workers to 30 June 2012 at just below 10 to just above 37 per cent of continuing and fixed-term staff, and six of the eight universities reported a proportion of fixed-term workers from just below 10 to just above 48 per cent of the same to 30 June 2013. Variations can be seen between the two sets of responses, from small-scale increases or decreases in the proportion of fixed-term labour (AUT, Waikato, Massey, Lincoln) to significant increases (VUW) or, in the case of one institution (Otago), a significant decrease. It should be noted that variations in how employment is recorded (as in the specificities of the Otago example, above) may influence reporting. Averages for supplied data for both years were close to 25 per cent. For 2013, when information on casual workers was available, the proportion and the average were much higher, the latter above 40 per cent:


% of Fixed-term staff to 30 June 2012

% of Fixed-term staff to 30 June 2013

% of Fixed-term & casual staff to 30 June 2013

University of Auckland








University of Waikato




Massey University




Victoria University of Wellington




University of Canterbury




Lincoln University




University of Otago






22.5 (excluding Auckland & Canterbury)

40.7 (excluding Auckland, Canterbury and Lincoln) 10

The available data shows consistencies with aspects of the situation abroad. As in the United States, “peer institutions have widely disparate ratios” of fixed-term academic employment,19 and, while continuing academic staff are in most institutions not yet the “privileged minority” they are in the United States,20 in some universities (particularly Victoria University of Wellington in 2013) the number of fixed-term academics is close to the number of their continuing colleagues. Of importance too, however, are not just the quantitative figures but also the qualitative measures of the experience of precarious employment in academia. The negative impacts of precarious employment are widely reported, and it is in mitigation of these that the TEU continues to direct its efforts.

One report notes the effects of “irregularity of income, job insecurity and intermittent bouts of unemployment” associated with precarious work as

adverse … on contingent workers and their dependants in terms of diet/food choices, budgeting/meeting financial commitments/planning for family and retirement, vocational training levels and the educational performance of children

and cites an existing comparison of these effects to those reported for 19th-century sweatshop, factory and casual labour.21 Staff in fixed-term employment in New Zealand’s universities cannot access the redundancy entitlements of their continuing peers, do not accrue annual or sick leave beyond the duration of their employment agreement and cannot access study leave or long-service leave. Where an employee repeatedly works under fixed-term employment agreements, these inequities are particularly apparent over time. One TEU member describes a seven-year long employment arrangement of single-semester employment agreements with a


Donoghue, at 32.


Berry, at 19.


Bohle and others, at 65.


polytechnic, limited access to sick leave and a “portfolio career” in which “I can’t remember a proper weekend for a long time”.22

Members in the universities who have been employed repeatedly on fixed-term agreements report anecdotally a variety of effects outside the institution, including being unable to secure a home loan despite high-income, high-prestige employment.23 Academic members working on fixed-term agreements describe a limiting of their capacity for research and publication beyond the small-scale and short-term. This has significant flow-on effects for new academics in particular, since for them delays in publication and professionalisation can mean a limiting of options in future, such as loss of access to early-career research grants. Similarly, members report that the casualisation of available research and teaching work in many fields in the universities is a disincentive for continuing academic careers, particularly for those with family and caring responsibilities who cannot rely on seasonal work. 24

Fluctuating institutional rationales for positions being or remaining fixed-term despite the employment of long-serving staff are a source of professional frustration and personal stress. Union members report losing faith in the employers whom previously they were proud to serve but on whom they now depend financially, without security. At least one qualitative study shows the breakdown in personal satisfaction and intra-professional integrity that occurs as a result of this degradation of employment relations:

In this institution, reliance on contingent faculty can vary by department and this variation is not in the control of the departments themselves. 22

Tertiary Education Union “Hinemoana Baker: Eight Years Without a Holiday” (18 July 2013) Tertiary Update <> 23

These anecdotes often come from members who work in medicine and the health sciences, where funding agreements and the work associated with them are often of fixed duration. Baker, above n 22, is similarly affected in her work as a fixed-term creative writing tutor: “I don’t ever foresee being able to buy a house. I don’t have a savings plan or a retirement plan.” 24

This is one theme of individual responses to the question “Would you be comfortable with the TEU assessing if your position could be changed into a permanent position (either full-time or part-time)?” in “The impact of insecure work arrangements: A survey for TEU members” (June 2013).


… One of the full-time professors interviewed adds to this by outlining how Women’s Studies, by not being adequately funded by the university, has created a rancorous legacy on the part of the non-permanent academics. … “Because the program has relied so heavily on part-time and contract people, because our full-time faculty has not been able to support it, it’s run itself on the backs of people like that who then have quite often become disillusioned”.25

A follow-on to this disillusionment noted by TEU staff has been some members’ loss of faith in organisers and the union as a force to better their conditions of employment. The vagaries of fixed-term and casual employment are particularly powerful over time in this regard, with the employer having a variety of reasons available to justify their use.

Options to test the validity of employment agreements in a precedent-setting manner such as in the Employment Relations Authority or the Employment Court are limited, in that employers will typically settle to avoid the risk of a precedent-setting case. Under these conditions, while the pattern of employed fixed-term workers continues, it is the union’s work to find those affected, in some cases to recruit them to membership, and then to persuade them of their interests in taking a case. Rates of union membership for fixed-term and casual staff are generally lower than among their continuing colleagues, with uncertain income and lack of permanence in employment arrangements acting as disincentives for the former group. Success depends on representing members case by specific case, often with an aim of bettering, rather than transforming, the situation. One organiser describes how

I worked for a member … who had been employed on an hourly basis for years when her work was neither casual nor particularly irregular. We got her converted to a proportional 0.4 position and she was paid backpay of around $23000 net. Her husband was only able to get a job at McDonalds and they 25

Webber, at 40 & 45.


had been subsisting on a very meagre income with 2 children. … This situation had been going on for about 5 years.

Another worker at the same institution who is a single parent had her proportion held at 0.3 and regularly worked additional hours paid at a casual rate. Over the course of the year we managed to get her around $9k backpay. This still meant that these people were on low incomes doing work spread across the week and with long gaps between work but it made a difference in their pockets.26

Even where the use of a fixed-term agreement appears likely to be able to be challenged by the union, this remains an avenue that precarious workers are reluctant to pursue. An employee who feels dependent on the employer’s goodwill may often prefer to take the pathway, already cited and often fruitless, of “extraordinary effort over a long period of time … in the hope they will be hired” on a continuing basis in future.27 To build capacity among members to support each other through the industrial alternative, the TEU uses wider campaigns for solidarity such as member profiles and success stories. The latter often involve extended union involvement and a long route to continuing employment, circumstances which may require exceptional determination on the part of an already embattled employee.28 However, by raising member awareness of existing success for current members by current organisers, hope may continue to float. A section of the TEU webpages is accordingly dedicated to casualisation and insecure work, with resources available for members.29


Email from a TEU Organiser to the TEU Deputy Secretary regarding organising for precarious workers (21 October 2013). Note that these members were employed at a polytechnic. 27

Conick, at 24.


See, for example, TEU “Lesley Francey: Union Ends ‘Nasty’ Roll-over Agreements” (8 August 2013) Tertiary Update <>, a history of the precarious employment experience of the current TEU National President. 29

TEU “Casualisation and Insecure Work” <>


Another area in which the TEU continues to pursue better terms and conditions for members affected by precarious employment is through collective bargaining. New Zealand is different from its North American counterparts in that the union is able to represent all workers in the universities.30 While at this time a national collective agreement for university members is not an achievable goal (although it was actively pursued in the early 2000s), the TEU continues to develop nationally shared goals for bargaining through its Industrial and Professional Committee and these include limiting the use of fixed-term and casual labour.31 At some universities the union has been successful in negotiating restrictions on when fixed-term agreements may be used, such as

relieving for a substantive position where the incumbent is on approved leave, filling a vacancy pending permanent appointment, including emergency relief positions, undertaking a finite task for a period not exceeding two years, or to trial a new course for a period not exceeding two years.32

In other institutions goals for bargaining include extending to those on continuous fixed-term employment agreements the right to redundancy entitlements and accrued sick leave.

The barriers to “decent work” for New Zealand university staff remain similar to those in other areas of the public sector and the neo-liberal economy more generally: employment law that favours the employer and restricts the power of the workers to organise and take industrial action, and a preponderance of top-down managerial systems that restrict the ability of departments and service units to employ new staff in continuing positions. Teaching and research positions are often tied to fluctuations in demand and supply (students and funding) that mean work


See above n 13.


This committee also includes representatives from polytechnics, institutes of technology and wānanga. 32

TEU “Survey shows widespread insecure work in tertiary education”.


continues from year to year without continuous employment.33 This in turn produces among members disillusionment with the employer and sometimes the union itself, along with financial restriction, career limitation and personal hardship.

The strengths, both potential and actual, of the Tertiary Education Union in representing its members in the struggle for “decent work” include its ability to represent all staff in tertiary education,34 to bargain collectively and to promote solidarity nationally through its member networks and organisers. These are the wide-scale activities that support the organisers’ work of identifying, supporting and pursuing the cases of individual members who wish to challenge their employment arrangements, itself a process both “resource-consuming” and, for new members or the many without experience of challenging the employer, “scary”.35 To help the members shoulder that burden of fear, to increase solidarity and collectivity and to continue to campaign locally, nationally and alongside other unions for better conditions of employment for workers is the union’s mandate and its responsibility, expressed in the TEU waiata, “Tū Kotahi”36:

Tū kotahi

Stand as one

Tū kaha

Stand strong

Tātou tātou e

Everyone together

Ngā piki

In joy

Ngā heke

and sadness

Tū kotahi e

Let’s stand together


See Baker, above n 22, for an example of this.


See Berry, above n 11 at 31-37 for some of the historical context of “competitive unionism” in higher education in the United States. 35

Email from the TEU Deputy Secretary to Megan Clayton regarding organising for precarious workers (21 October 2013). 36

TEU “Tū Kotahi” (23 July 2009) <>


Protecting the Academic Precariat: Aspects of organising and bargaining in New Zealand’s universitie  

Megan Clayton's paper to the New Zealand Labour Law Society Conference Nov 2013

Protecting the Academic Precariat: Aspects of organising and bargaining in New Zealand’s universitie  

Megan Clayton's paper to the New Zealand Labour Law Society Conference Nov 2013