Thursday, 18 July 2013

The debt owed to the builders of the ivory towers

Now and again, I like to take a metaphorical stroll through the blog of a certain Martin Hall. I try and refrain from over-indulgence as one can have too much of a good thing. He has a knack of organising words into sentences and then into paragraphs which look very neat. This, I'm told, also ensures that it is an eminently interesting and pleasurable read and thus never boring. As he does invite discussion about current issues, I thought I'd take him up on his kind offer.

The Living Wage

This week's piece features on the 'Living Wage'. The Living Wage is one thing I believe Professor Hall and I might agree on over a Cappuccino in the Maxwell Building prior to him handing in his resignation for matters that will become clearer. I particularly liked the section where he talks about '...Taking suppliers’ employment practices into account is a logical extension of the Fair Trade principles that we apply in contracting for catering...'    

But this got me to thinking, which as regular readers of this blog will know, is nearly always a bad thing. I re-read the paragraph that majors on 'fair trade principles':

'Secondly, adopting the principles of the Living Wage Foundation directs us to look carefully and critically at our procurement policies and practices. While we would not be able, for a range of reasons, to require or ensure that our suppliers themselves pay at or above the Living Wage, we can and should find out if they do, and make the case why they should.' 

Blacklisting and its adherents

Recently, I came upon a webpage on the Information Commissioner’s website that reported that a Mr Ian Kerr of the Consulting Association, was fined £5,000 in 2009 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for running ‘a covert operation to vet construction workers for employment in the industry’. In short, Mr Kerr ran a 'blacklist'. The IC states that:

“Kerr’s database was used by over 40 construction companies and included information about construction workers’ personal relationships, trade union activity and employment history.”

The companies involved, in the eyes of any reasonable person including MP Ian Davidson, operated a blacklist of construction workers and other trades allied to the construction industry.(1) There's an interesting article on this matter on the UNITE union website which readers might find interesting. The UNITE website reports that:

“Construction companies are in the spotlight now following the Scottish Affairs Committee investigation into blacklisting. This follows the 2009 Information Commissioners Office raid on the Consulting Association which discovered a construction blacklist with 3,200 names on it. Eight of the major contractors employed by Crossrail were found to have been actively involved in ‘blacklisting’. BAM Nuttal / Construction paid the Consulting Association (CA) over £38,000 between 1996 and 2009. Kier: Paid the CA over £30,000 between 1996 and 2009. ”

The Information Commissioner notes that:

“Because people may have been denied employment because of the activities of The Consulting Association, the ICO has assumed control of the database.”

An April 2013 Commons Select Committee reports that:

'The companies involved included some of the biggest names in construction but also many smaller firms. The organisation set up to create, maintain and operate the blacklist – the Consulting Association (TCA)– appears to have been largely established by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, which also provided TCA’s Chairmen for eight of its 16 years of operation.'(2)

It's nasty stuff.

Words, deeds, bricks and mortar

Since the move to MediaCity in 2011, a hallmark (should that be a 'hallmart'?) of Martin Hall's strategic plan, apart from divesting the University of vast quantities of 'staff', is bit of 'new build' here or there. Recently, it's been reported in the Construction Enquirer that contracts to the tune of £64 million have been awarded to build new Student Accommodation at the University of Salford. Other large companies have returned tenders for the 'arts centre gateway building'. Today, and by fortunate coincidence, the magnificent Salford Star has a well-timed feature on the role of Salford City Council and the University of Salford's relationships with one or two large construction companies which I encourage readers to gambol through.

Van the Guarder

Our universities are in the vanguard of establishing, protecting and furthering enquiry. Essential to this is criticism and critical debate. They're in the business of promoting freedom of expression for the wider  benefit of society. This has the additional benefits for the health of industry and commerce. Social justice is at the heart of the Vice Chancellor's view of the role of Salford University: “Whether in Cape Town or Salford, the university with its enshrined rituals, customs, respect for debate and status, has the potential to drive the battle for social justice.” For his commitment to social justice, I for one am happy to join at least one other person in my front room in applauding him to the high vaulted ceilings.

Compatibility issues?

There are one or two other things I won't be applauding him for particularly with regard to that 'respect for debate' bit. His use of £150,000 of university funds, the libel laws and civil courts to stifle criticism of... er... well.. himself and his erstwhile colleague Dr Adrian Graves is in my opinion a bit rum (see here for a High Court judge's full explanation). It's something for which he should resign in my considered opinion. After all, I personally would've liked to have seen that £150,000 used to secure the employment of several additional workers at the University of Salford on a wage well above the 'Living Wage' for a year or two, as opposed to spending circa £150,000 securing the services of an Ian Austin and some other legal types.

The debt owed

One doesn't have to be religious to recognise that we owe a huge debt to the skilled workers who painstakingly raised from the earth, countless wonderful cathedrals. For those of us who have had the great fortune to have sojourned among the artfully constructed ivory towers, we owe just such a debt to those workers who constructed them. Like me, I'm quite sure that Martin Hall will frown upon the past blacklisting of construction workers, indeed the blacklisting of any worker for trade union activities or for doing what is right, fair and often for the health and safety of their fellow workers? After all blacklisting is surely incompatible in a country where the democratic system is held up to the world as an exemplar? It's incompatible in a country whose legal system is increasingly shaped by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights? Blacklisting can never be condoned precisely because the operation of a blacklist denies not only to the worker/trade unionist the basic right to employment, but also denies to his/her family, the right to secure long-term employment and standard of living. In short it denies them the prospect of a Living Wage. This is confirmed by the Commons Select Committee report:

"Thousands of workers and their family members, had intrusive, private information filed away about them so that they could be systematically discriminated against. Workers were denied employment without explanation, financial hardship was caused, lives were disrupted or ruined."

Blacklists are inherently hostile to the right to free association enshrined in the HRA 1998 and the ECHR, and without the right to freely associate, we lose the right to freely speak. And when all is said and done it's inconsistent with even the meanest reading of those two words ‘social justice’.  

I repeat, it's made by Watkins not Watkinson....
Resonation complex

The 'Blacklisting in Employment: Interim Report' deals mostly with historical events regarding the blacklisting of workers and asks the question ' blacklisting still taking place both within the construction industry, and more widely...?'(3) So with Professor Hall's words resonating around my inner cranial sanctum as if someone had sneaked in and irrevocably increased the sustain on my dad's old Watkins Copicat,(4) to 'beyond maximus', I thought Professor Hall might want to read through the Commons Select Committee report and then peruse the list of names on the ICO's website which I've reproduced below. I thought I'd include this to help him to continue to look 'carefully and critically' at the University's 'procurement policies and practices' prior to the awarding any further contracts. 

Notes and Resources

1) The Commons Select Committee report  'Blacklisting in Employment: Interim Report' is available at
2) As above
3)'Blacklisting in Employment: Interim Report' page 25
4)  The Watkins Copicat is a much sought after tape echo unit from the 1960s early 1970s. The writer inherited a 1970s Mark IV Copicat from his dad.

The list of companies on the ICO website that used the Consulting Association


Usual disclaimer: This work is and expression of opinion on a matter of public interest and contains the opinions of the author. It is intended to report current events that are of public interest and public concern. The reproduction and use of any documents, photos and video images herein is to provide humour and accuracy in order to avoid civil litigation and claims of misquoting. In reporting current events they are used within the context of Fair Dealing or Fair Use. The author is happy to provide further acknowledgement if requested (email below). The author also suggests that before embarking upon expensive civil actions for libel, contact the author. We have reams of documentary evidence which we are happy to provide. A right of reply also operates. We are also happy to make corrections and if necessary provide an apology.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Seven Years

I pondered the content of Professor Martin Hall's latest missive to staff at the University of Salford on the issue of job losses. What was the reason my union had sought fit to suspend the current dispute with the University? Were all the jobs safe? Were the courses targeted for closure now not going to be axed? Were the UCU not 'enraged' any more as suggested in an article in the Times Higher published on International Workers Day (May 1st) 2013? Had the unenviable tag of being "Britain's most prolific university for axing staff" according to UCU regional official Martyn Moss now fallen like some unloved Ghengal Yoke onto the shoulders of another lucky UK Vice Chancellor? 

Trick players known as 'jocular oculars'

Were those two bloodshot and increasingly redundant orbs that loafed somewhere in the region adjacent to my nose-bridge, just below a savage pair of pseudo-Brezhnevians, playing tricks on me once more? I wondered if for the UCU, the University were now not "callous" as alleged on the UCU's own website, and had maneuvered sideways a bit in order to reposition themselves firmly outside the boundaries of the "uncaring light" Mr Moss had cast them within in the above article?

Worrying trends?

Recently, using a form of pre-nursery statistical analysis, I wrote about what I saw as a worrying trend regarding the use (or lack thereof) of industrial action by the UCU at Salford to halt job losses over the past eighteen or so months:

Common aims and common outcomes

Sometime in May, I recall staff had voted overwhelmingly for strike action over the above job cuts. I also recall two staff proposing to this packed lunchtime meeting, that the union call for a vote of no confidence in senior managers, which was carried with one solitary abstention. What had become of these democratically-arrived-at mandates? Had I missed something? Had the gilt-framed vote of no confidence got lost in the post en route to Martin Hall? Why had no one informed me of the whereabouts of the picket-lines full of well intentioned ivory-tower-dwelling hampermen, known for their liberal application of sulphorous languge to the be-reddened ears of the erstwhile scab? It beggared belief that given the peppery sentiments expressed during this above meeting, that such a common aim with a common outcome could fail to materialise? Almost immediately my mind became pregnant with potentialities, which as readers of this blog will know is nearly always a bad thing.

The downside to decimalisation?

Had a well-meaning UCU officer of some ranking, sent off for one of those day-to-microsecond convertors so beloved of the home shopping channel fraternity/sisternity? Wild claims are made for these highly calibrated, hand-focused-temporal-compressors which it is said can condense a single day of industrial action into one hundred thou of a second, thereby drastically attenuating any potential havoc and formally assuaging pre-strike nerves for good.

Buy one because it's alleged they really work!

Probabilities and their ilk

I was sure that there was in all probability a more down-to-earth explanation for what on the surface looked like a no-show on the strike front. Had a strike day been organised with such precision and lightning strike efficiency that it simply defied any collective corporeal participation? That is, apart from an alleged showing by a sub-rheumatic Billy Whizz and the erstwhile inventor of the Warp Drive Zefram Cochrane.

Zephram Cochrane or 'Zeph Coch'
 to his parents and lovers
Maybe I was at fault? Was my inability to observe 'ongoing participative kinetically disputed industrial related activity' a consequence of a rogue purchase of a Romulan cloaking device by a non-plussed former undergraduate of mine? Was he still annoyed at a low essay mark I'd given him in December 2007 and had now decided to belatedly wreak his revenge by illegally transporting me to the interstices between seconds?(1)

Textual analysis and its adherents

I perused Salford UCU President Chris Sheehy's words to UCU members. In light of the lack of 'a strike', what did she mean by "..No 'no strike agreements in this branch'? What I didn't sense were words that equated to those more usually associated with ' victory, more like those associated with relief:

"Our hope is that Industrial Relations in the coming years will be more civilised and less aggressive, and nowhere as terrible as they have been during the last seven years. For the good of the University we need to not have to continually fight for our members to be treated more respectfully. This might enable us to concentrate on being still more creative."

Putting aside the bits about 'hope' which nearly always springs eternal,(2) and being 'still more creative' which I don't think has anything to do with avoiding outright industrial action, this statement sounds remarkably similar in its tone to Martin Hall's. I pondered his wish to have a 'new working relationship'. I re-pondered the notion of the union working with Professor Hall to shape the future direction of the University. If this meant nailing four wooden wheels to it and demanding dual controls to steer and apply the brakes then that's fine. If shaping that 'future direction' entailed further job cuts and course closures, even the indomitable Chris Sheehy might have a problem selling that one to union members.

Give us a clue

There's no clue in Chris Sheehy's memo to UCU members if the UCU have asked for clear guarantees as to whether the University's prestigious MediaCity campus has become a net importer of wealth into the University's coffers? Does this suspension of industrial action presuppose a moratorium on any future job losses? Have the UCU Salford suggested to Hall that he puts a freeze on any further massive expenditures on new build schemes to ensure future financial sustainability and that no more jobs are lost? Because, when all is said and done, the sum of a university ain't the sum of its flashy buildings, it's the dialectical relationship between those who labour and teach in them and those who labour and learn in them?

The Seven Years

I decided to consult my cranial 'clipboard' and do a bit more sums... seven years takes us back to 2006. Who joined the University in 2006? Might there be lurking somewhere in the hinterlands, a convenient scapegoat who could shoulder the blame for the current state of affairs regarding Ms Sheehy's "terrible" and "aggressive" "Industrial relations"? I'm not convinced. You see a reasonable person in possession of the figures would note that the vast bulk of jobs axed at Salford since August 2009, went under Martin Hall's stewardship. That's about four years give or take a month or two. For over half Ms Sheehy's stated seven year period, Professor Hall Vice Chancelled over the aggressive "Industrial Relations" that she suggests were the norm at Salford. In March 2013, Hall blamed the 'University's present financial circumstances' for the need to reduce Voluntary Severance. That's a fundamental attack on our conditions. Moreover, a non-dufus might also note that as Vice Chancellor, Professor Hall presumably presided over and gave the green light to the financial decisions that led to the 'University's present financial circumstances'? And while Hall and Co currently consult on a new Strategic Plan, as the old one doesn't seem to have got them within sniffing distance of that elusive top quartile slot that Hall envisaged the University occupying by 2017, the £150,000 question is not whether the UCU at Salford should we be working with him, but why is he still Vice Chancellor?

Paradiddlibel lost

I re-read Martin Hall's March 2013 statement on changes to Voluntary Severance at Salford. I was quite interested in these 'number of factors'. I wondered if one of these 'factors' was Hall and Graves' failed libel claim? It's a matter of public record that Vice Chancellor Hall, Dr Graves and Dr Alan Mawson, who is still Chair of the University Council, between them gave the green light to launch Hall and Graves expensive libel claim in the High Court using University funds, £150,000 of them. This they did without firstly seeking the authorisation of the University Governing body the University Council. According to the  Manchester Evening News, this is something the University accepts was wrong which presumably means that as Hall is the Vice Chancellor, he also accepts it was wrong? Have the UCU Salford demanded answers to questions such as couldn't this money have been better used to employ academics and non-academics instead of employing expensive lawyers? Have they asked Hall and Graves to pay it back out of their own pockets? Does Mr Justice Eady's view that Hall and Graves claim was a Jameel Abuse or an abuse of the court process raise questions about Hall's professional judgement in his capacity as Vice Chancellor? These questions and more must surely be addressed by the UCU at Salford before the UCU at Salford suspend action, embark upon any 'new working relationship' or engage in future regular meetings with Vice Chancellor Martin Hall?

Notes and Resources

1. Its alleged by some that there have been more strikes on the Empire State Building (average of 25 times a year.) than there have been at Salford. Incredibly, Roy Sullivan, a US park ranger, is reputed to have been involved in more strikes  than the UCU at Salford University, being unlucky enough to have been struck seven times by lightining. See

2. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed: The soul, uneasy and confined from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come." Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

Usual disclaimer: This work is and expression of opinion on a matter of public interest and contains the opinions of the author. It is intended to report current events that are of public interest and public concern. The reproduction and use of any documents, photos and video images herein is to provide humour and accuracy in order to avoid civil litigation and claims of misquoting. In reporting current events they are used within the context of Fair Dealing or Fair Use. The author is happy to provide further acknowledgement if requested (email below). The author also suggests that before embarking upon expensive civil actions for libel, contact the author. We have reams of documentary evidence which we are happy to provide. A right of reply also operates. We are also happy to make corrections and if necessary provide an apology. Email