Casual UvA: how to organise a grading strike with 200 lecturers

Last spring the organisation Casual UvA (University of Amsterdam) staged an impressive grading strike involving over 200 university lecturers on temporary contracts. Lecturers refused to submit their students’ grades into the administrative system as a way of putting pressure on university management. Casual UvA’s main issue was the successive one-year contracts that temporary contract workers received, only to be fired after three temporary contracts. We talked to Casual UvA representative Alex Lopez about the strike, and about how Casual UvA itself is organised.

What is Casual UvA?

Casual UvA is a collective of university employees from different departments, the majority of whom are on temporary contracts. Some members are also on permanent contracts and are sympathetic to the cause. In general our objectives are to address systemic overwork and exploitation, to promote the visibility of issues experienced by those on temporary teaching contracts, namely precarity, and to petition for and demand the implementation of better working conditions for temporary contract staff.

Here’s a translation in Dutch: “Casual UvA: hoe organiseer je een nakijkstaking met 200 docenten”

We are part of the national organisation Casual Academy, and the overarching advocacy organisation is 0.7. 0.7 consists of Casual Groningen, Casual Leiden, Casual Erasmus, Casual Maastricht, Casual Utrecht and Casual UvA.

When did Casual UvA start and how are you organised?

We established our chapter of Casual Academy around the time that we initiated the grading strike. Because of this we had to develop an infrastructure to support the action and the organisation developed as the action went on. The two developments were parallel.

Organisationally, we are fairly horizontal. We had representatives from each of the striking departments. I myself took up a rather central, leading role. My counterpart and I both worked with these delegates and discussed with them what their priorities were, or the specific struggles of their department. We relayed messaging through them, and they were also responsible for circulating communication and representing the departments’ interests.

We had various meetings with the delegates. We discussed our respective demands, our action and our concerns. The delegation would then have conversations with the Dean of the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, where many of the striking departments were.

I would say though we had a fairly loose structure. Those who were interested, or showed significant motivation for the action, were open to working with me and the others. Now, we’re in a place where we’re trying to identify new department representatives and trying to figure out if this system still works.

In terms of how we made decisions, it was democratic. The representatives weren’t elected, but sourced encouragement or authorisation from their colleagues informally: “Are you chill with me representing the department?”. When we voted to decide whether or not to go on strike, we circulated the votes and gave all those participating several days to cast their decision.

So, since we are already talking about the strike: what was the tipping point, what made you decide to go on strike?

This has been growing for about ten years. Unfortunately, people have been in this position, facing similar tribulations for a long time. Our timeline – I would say – can be traced back to almost two years ago. In the sociology department there was a lot of unrest among the junior lecturers, and they were increasingly vocal about it. There were discussions of organising, of strikes, but nothing really came of it.

When I joined the department in 2021, I joined in these conversations, and learned a bit more about the struggle as it predated me. I was pretty motivated to support any kind of action and any kind of discussion. We started having these meetings in September 2021 on a monthly basis, when we decided to release a public letter to the executive board of the UvA outlining our concerns and requesting a response or action. We did receive a response, and in January we were invited to an audience with the president of the Executive Board of the UvA to discuss our concerns. At this point, there were a number of sociology junior lecturers as well as lecturers from other departments.

We held this meeting with the president and shared our concerns. They told us about a preliminary version of a new lecturer policy. We recognised that it was promising but were still concerned. There was no sense of urgency on their part and we also disagreed with some of the decisions in this new policy.

So, following this meeting, we requested a public statement acknowledging the conversation, and requested regular check-in points with updates as to how the policy was developing. They did follow up this meeting and released a statement. In terms of regular check-ins, however, there was no communication following that meeting.

In March 2022, we had another Casual UvA meeting. It was a small group, but we were determined to investigate this, we really needed to talk about what it would mean to strike. The reason being that at the national level the CAO (collective labour agreement) was scheduled to expire at the end of March. We felt it was appropriate and necessary to organise some kind of action around the time of the CAO negotiations. Therefore, we decided: we’re going to do this now. We’re going to strike.

In the following weeks, I had a couple of meetings with union members of AOb and FNV; I met with the legal counsel of UvA; I met with permanent staff in sociology; I met with representatives of 0.7 and Casual Academy. I did my own research on the implications of a strike action and how we would go about organising it.

I put together a pitch and asked those involved in the movement to spread the message. “We’re thinking of a grading strike action; would you like to be involved?”

Why a grading strike?

Some educators in the UK had done a grading strike before, and a colleague mentioned it, but none of us had been involved in such an action before.

We felt that a grading strike located accountability in and at the institution. Upper management has the responsibility to their stakeholders – which are the students – to get grades out. So, we felt a grading strike would encourage them and motivate them to respond. We acknowledged that this action would have to impact students in order for management to care.

At the same time, we felt that a grading strike mitigated the impact on students. We could still teach classes and they could attend classes, they could still receive education, we could support them, take meetings, respond to their emails. It would just be the grades that would not be released.

The impact on students was something we laboured over, because many us in this position really care deeply for our students and we have a good relationship with them. Management knows this, and they tend to use that as a way to exploit us.

How many people joined the strike?

There were 8 striking departments: anthropology, sociology, political science, interdisciplinary studies, future planets studies, beta-gamma, human geography and communication science. That’s almost all the departments in the Social Sciences Faculty, except for psychology and child development. We felt this was pretty significant.

It was a grassroots campaign and spread through by word of mouth. Pretty much everyone on temporary contracts in those departments joined the strike. In total, upwards of 200 people participated in this action.

Towards the end of the strike, colleagues from other departments came out in solidarity. The media studies, PPLE (Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics) and psychology departments showed their solidarity – and I think there were actually a few more departments.

What were the risks for those involved?

The risks for striking staff was definitely one of the biggest challenges. The worst case would be being sued by the university or by students, and that our contracts would not be renewed. But, we talked to a legal representative of the university, who said that suing is not that common in the Netherlands, and that as long as we fulfilled all our duties – such as teaching classes and replying to emails – the risk would not be that big. It would also help us if permanent contract staff would lobby for us.

Another safeguard was that all communication came from the Casual UvA email account, without names, only “Casual UvA”. We tried to only be visible as a collective to the outside world. I was a bit more visible, but I was willing to take that risk.

Did you get support from students?

We realized we had to improve the visibility of our issues in the classroom. Many of our colleagues, including myself, didn’t discuss our working conditions with our students. Mainly because we thought it was not their problem, we didn’t want it to impact them. But ultimately of course, our working conditions do impact them, it impacts their education. If we are not well supported, if we don’t have good working conditions, then we can’t show up for them and ensure the best education that they ultimately deserve.

So, with our movement came an encouragement to talk with students, engage them, tell them what’s going on with casualisation. We created PowerPoint slides for lecturers to use for this purpose. We tried to be transparent with our students, in order to convey to them that this action was not malicious or with the intent to hurt them. If anything, it was to lobby for them as much as for us.

We received quite a lot of support and solidarity from students early on. Students from different departments submitted petitions, and letters of support, without our intervention whatsoever. We also created email templates and asked our students to send emails to the president of the Executive Board as well as the dean and department heads. The emails basically said, “HeyI want my grades, but what’s more, I want good working conditions for my tutorial teachers. So, do something.”

In the beginning, students were very supportive and showed solidarity. Towards the end of the strike, however, they grew stressed about the impact it would have on their trajectory and on their studies. And, of course that’s understandable. We knew this when we went in.

Although we tried to be very transparent, we felt that university management and upper leadership weren’t being transparent in terms of updating students. That was very frustrating. Unfortunately, some media coverage also that featured students who were frustrated by the lack of grades.

It was not unfortunate that the students felt this way; they had all the right to be concerned and frustrated. What was unfortunate, however, was that media coverage made it seem as if it were a majority of students who had this sentiment, whereas actually I think it was a minority. Others seemed okay with the grading strike and we did our best to communicate to the students that ultimately it was up to management to come up with a solution.

This was very intentional, since often the onus falls on us – those in very precarious positions. For instance, if overtime occurs, managers will often say, “Why did you do that extra work? You shouldn’t have done that.” Well, I needed to do it in order to be prepared for this tutorial or to facilitate education! We were really trying to ensure that the pressure was where it needed to be: with management, to develop solutions.

All in all, I would say the students were very supportive of our action.

Did colleagues on permanent contracts join the strike?

Our aim was for permanent staff to also join the strike, but it was primarily the staff on temporary contracts that did. But permanent staff did not go over our heads, publish the grades, or contact other people to do the grading. They respected the metaphorical picket line.

However, our ultimate ambition would have been to have a full grading strike where permanent colleagues would participate and also refuse to mark.

Did you get solidarity from other groups?

We worked closely with ASVA, the student union in Amsterdam. We got support from ASS (Autonomous Students Struggle). They made a picket line. Additionally, our permanent contract colleagues were quite supportive, as were our Casual Academy colleagues in different cities, of course.

The unions AOb and FNV couldn’t call on their members to strike, because they can’t call a strike if their employer is reasonably executing the current CAO. But, we did have union members who were quite supportive. The unions also covered the strike in their newsletter. So, they were aware of the action and disseminating information, but they couldn’t take a stance on it.

When did you end the strike?

We announced the strike on April 1st at a demonstration and were on strike for eight weeks. We decided to end it when we did, because the new lecturer policy of the UvA was going to be published then. The new policy – sort of – addressed many of our concerns. It didn’t respond to all of them though. Nevertheless, we recognised this opportunity and wanted to maintain the action and the pressure up until that point. We announced that we were ending the strike on the day that it was published. That was strategic.

Do you think the strike was successful?

Overall, we consider it a success, even though management did not recognise us as a governing body and did not negotiate with us. We do feel that we increased the visibility of the temporary contract issue and definitely applied pressure on the new lecturer policy. We also brought about more of a sense of urgency to execute it. I tend to say that we are cautiously optimistic about the new policy. It is promising: it awards fixed contracts and communicates a renewed commitment to professional development and ending overwork, which addresses our demands.

It’s going to take a culture shift and that’s going to take time. But all in all, we consider the grading strike a success.

What changed with the contracts?

What changed was that the new standard is required to be a four-year fixed contract. Colleagues who were hired this year got a four-year contract. Previously, you would get a one-year contract three times and then get fired. Now you get fired after four years, which means there’s a sense of security within those four years, at least.

This was a policy change of the UvA specifically. The national CAO that eventually was voted on last year was quite disappointing. It didn’t really do anything for those on temporary teaching contracts. It simply suggested that they were going to carry out a study, to disseminate a survey and to collect hard data on the working conditions, so that they could use that for negotiations in the upcoming year. They just want to postpone it.

We were quite unhappy nationally, but locally we were very pleased.

Of course, we were also disappointed that some of our colleagues couldn’t get the four-year contract. For example, I had completed one year at UvA, but because I hadn’t received an extension yet, I was eligible for a change of contract. Which meant that I could receive an additional three-year contract so that it mounted up to four. They tried to grant those when they could, but unfortunately legally they could not in some cases.

Do you think the change would have happened without the strike?

I think that the new policy would still have happened, but I don’t think that those who were most impacted by it would have been as empowered as they are. They were already on track developing this policy, but we put pressure on some decisions they were making. For instance, there was discussion of a three-year fixed contract, which we disagreed with and said should be a four-year contract. So, I think, they couldn’t technically take on our advice since we were not a governing body, but I do think that our action put some pressure on the decisions that they were still finalising.

The action increased awareness and visibility of our issues and empowered those who were on temporary teaching contracts. It made them aware of the CAO and that UvA’s new policy was in development. Once the new policy came out they felt more confident in their respective positions, knowing how policy would impact them and how they could move forward.

What is your organisation like now? How are you evolving?

We’re like a crouching tiger: we’re there, we’re paying attention to how things are developing, but we don’t necessarily have anything in the pipeline. We do intend to organise demonstrations, maybe at the national level with Casual Academy specifically. For now, Casual UvA is not as active, but it’s ready to activate when needed.

In the future, we want to position ourselves as a resource for people on temporary teaching contracts. So that they can approach us and discuss issues with us: if they don’t know what is included in their working hours, if they don’t know about the unions, if they aren’t familiar with the CAO, if they don’t know about the details of the new lecturer policy.

We want to continue to increase the visibility of casualisation and combat it. We want to tailor new actions to account for the new lecturer policy. Our employer has this policy that is meant to benefit us or is meant to afford us certain things, but if it’s not doing that we want to hold people accountable.

Can you tell us a bit more about your organisation, and your political background?

I was asked before if I have previous experience with actions, and I do not. I learned a lot through practice and became very versed in legal matters. I developed press releases, I made presentations and took interviews.

As Casual UvA, we don’t really have an ideological basis, to be honest. Mostly casualisation is the cause, so we’re trying to end these temporary contracts and the precarity that’s associated with them.

But this question got me thinking… Right now, it does feel a bit ephemeral. The collective is there but who constitutes the collective? Casualisation is out there. But casualisation feels like an individual threat: I received this contract, this contract is impacting me personally, and I don’t necessarily know the struggles of others on a similar contract.

I think this is one of the biggest struggles: conveying to people that “Hey, we’re in different departments, but guess what? I’m over here struggling just as much as you are, because this temporary contract fucking sucks!” I think that was a challenge in general: making connections between different departments and sectors, understanding what the struggles were, where the similarities were, and how they could then participate in the cause with casualisation.

What is the composition of your group, in terms of gender, ethnicity, etc.?

I think it was pretty diverse in terms of gender. It was fairly representative of the UvA and its demographics. But, I don’t have the numbers to back it up precisely.

We tried very hard to take all voices into account. We tried to consider all contributions very seriously and to include them. It was important for us to have everyone feel represented and seen, because not feeling appreciated or seen is the difficulty we face in this precarious position.

In terms of race, we have one colleague of colour in the sociology team, and the rest is white. There were some people of colour participating in the strike, but the UvA is so fucking white. So, I think in that way our group also represented the demographics of the UvA – which means it was very white…

Do you have plans for a new strike?

As Casual UvA, we don’t, but by the end of our strike we had received support from several other departments and I know that colleagues from other departments and faculties remain frustrated. I think they are considering actions of their own. So, we’ll see! As Casual UvA we’re trying to be a resource for them.

Toros Dagman
Joris Hanse