Presidents’ Report for AGM 2020-2021

Presidents’ Report for AGM James Burton & Pamela Karantonis


To make an understatement, since the last AGM a lot has happened.

Before the pandemic hit, early in 2020, we had been engaged in the national strikes, and fighting against the Warden’s plans to reshape the institution under the “Evolving Goldsmiths” banner.

By the time of our AGM last summer, Evolving Goldsmiths had been ditched, largely thanks to our collective resistance with other cross-campus groups. But it had been replaced by what was and is called the Recovery Plan, and in the meantime certain elements of Evolving Goldsmiths continued to go ahead – primarily those which SMT did not feel the need to consult unions or the majority of staff over – changing/removing the crucial role of Departmental Business Manager, cutting casualised staff, planning for new projects such as the Enterprise Hub. 

The wildcat strike undertaken by a group of associate lecturing and fixed-term contract staff last year offered further resistance to these changes and managed to save some jobs. By then Health & Safety had also become a core battleground, with SMT bringing the discourse of economic “recovery” into Covid communications and strategy. (There is a separate report on H&S specifically). In these different contexts, of course, it is important to understand the extent to which the burden falls disproportionately on certain groups of staff with protected characteristics, and for this understanding to underpin all our efforts to resist. 

As we all know, SMT’s cynical use of the term “Recovery” sought to create a narrative of financial decline, and to instrumentalise the pandemic to pursue the pre-existing aims to transform Goldsmiths. This is disaster capitalism at its most blatant – using the narrative and sense of crisis to push through reforms while everyone is too physically and emotionally exhausted to resist them properly. 

It’s a testament to everyone in our community that, in fact, they did maintain the fight to the extent that they did under these conditions, including maintaining an assessment boycott for several months. 

The Warden, via the current SMT, has been pursuing an agenda since her arrival, one that has never been fully articulated or rationalised, but several of whose trends have become clear: making Goldsmiths primarily a teaching factory; increasing managerial control over all areas; cutting professional and academic staff to save costs. Meanwhile, managerial agency has been consistently disavowed, with the Warden repeatedly stating that there were no plans for redundancies, whereas it is now abundantly clear that SMT seeks to save £millions by cutting large numbers of staff – and has done all along. Now they have tied the College into a punitive set of terms with their “banking partners” as yet another way of seeking to deny responsibility. 

At each stage, SMT’s efforts to bring about this transformation have been met with resistance from Goldsmiths staff and students, and at each stage they have been disrupted and delayed. Our dispute, declared almost a year ago and enacted through the assessment boycott we undertook for the first few months of this year, was the latest spanner in the works, successfully avoiding redundancies for a guaranteed period – although it has since emerged that staff on fixed-term contracts are being dismissed in increasing numbers, contrary to our understanding of the dispute resolution agreement. This is being and will need to be fought on several fronts, including casework, negotiation and public campaigning. The resolution of the dispute also resulted in commitments from SMT regarding the treatment of hourly paid staff, addressing excessive workloads, and the negative effects of recent and ongoing “recovery” policies on equalities at Goldsmiths, which have exacerbated long-running systemic failings. Joint negotiations are ongoing between GUCU and SMT to see these commitments enacted, and will continue through the year ahead, with dedicated working groups focusing on particular areas. 

Each act of resistance to the Warden’s plans to transform Goldsmiths has been valuable and has had an effect. Short of ejecting the Warden and some of her team from the College, none of these in itself could have succeeded in stopping the current agenda entirely. This is in part because, at every stage, we were facing plans that were vaguely stated. At each stage the plans were upset, but it was always possible for them to shift and reshape in response to opposition. 

In September the “transition phase” of the Recovery Plan will take fully concrete shape. Mass redundancies will be announced and consultations will begin. This time we will not be fighting ill-defined future plans, but concrete actions. This period, between September and 1 March, the date on which our employer feels it has a licence to get rid of staff, is crucial, and the one in which we must mount the firmest and most resolute opposition yet. 

It is notable that, as might be expected, the most effective resistance over the past year has taken place when it has been underpinned by real solidarity and collective, cross-campus action. This year has seen us develop stronger connections with various groups across campus, with members and officers engaging and working more directly with the Students’ Union, GARA, Justice for Workers, Fees Strikers, Rent Strikers, Universities Resisting Borders, Collective Change, the Professor’s Forum and many more. Conversely, the moments we have been least effective have been where solidarity has been damaged or undermined – for example, when students and the SU felt they were not given sufficient warning of our industrial ac

tion in January. I am confident the incoming Exec will do everything possible to avoid such pitfalls, and to strengthen these relations with groups and allies across our community over the coming period and beyond. 

To this end, one area in which we have historically struggled to build effective solidarity is between professional and academic staff members – despite concerted efforts on the part of some exec members this year, and some new positive lines of engagement in limited areas. Such solidarity will be of great importance in fighting off redundancies in the coming academic year, hence the all-staff open meeting we are holding together with UNISON on 20th July. Again, we’re certain that the incoming exec team (which we hope to remain part of – James in the role of VP, Pamela as H&S officer) will continue to build and develop this collective approach. We need to understand job security and threats, like all workplace and campus issues, intersectionally, recognising and acting on the basis of multiple and convergent lines of oppression. At the same time, we will need as collegial and empathetic an approach to protecting one another as possible in the months ahead, in which every job should be defended as though it were one’s own. 

We would like to acknowledge the personal toll this past year has taken on all of us. We send condolences to those of you who have lost loved ones due to Covid-19 and whose own health has been damaged by the infection. 

Many key officers and those engaged in negotiation with SMT and arguing against College’s financial projections and measures had small children and were simultaneously shouldering the burden of homeschooling, with no access to the government furlough scheme, thanks to one of several tactics employed over this period to reduce trade union stamina. We acknowledge all carers and those shielding and whose disabilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the workload crisis.