I’m Ben and I make cancer drugs.

By Ben Dickson

On Thursday afternoon I joined my colleagues as we stood outside the iconic University of Auckland Clocktower and chanted as one, demanding a fair pay offer. The day before I had commented on Twitter “I’ll be out marching, but I’d rather be in my lab continuing my research” and “I’m 9 years precarious - and if they won’t give me a real job, at least give me a real pay rise”. If this latter statement doesn’t make sense, don’t worry - I’ll try to explain it, but first, the final part of that pre-strike tweet - an introduction: Kia ora, I’m Ben and I make cancer drugs.

I graduated from the University of Auckland with a PhD in Chemistry in 2013 and after a brief stint making recycled paper, I joined UoA as a Research Fellow in 2014. The focus of my research is trying to make new cancer drugs that are selectively toxic to cancer cells, sparing the rest of the body from the toxicity associated with traditional chemotherapies.

I have worked on a series of projects related to this theme over the years, each one associated with contestable grant funding and therefore each one a separate fixed-term agreement. Fixed-term agreements are quite common in academia, for academic/professional research and teaching staff. One, two, three years (if we’re lucky) at a time we live our lives, dependent on well-timed funding to make long-term plans. In university terms, the financial risk is deferred to the individual rather than the institution. That’s where the precarious part comes in, if you don’t get funded, your agreement expires - not what I call a “real job”.

How does this intersect with the strike? When I walked out of my lab, the next four hours of my fixed-term agreement evaporated into the universe. Four fewer hours of my contract’s lifespan to get the work done that could lead to that next grant application, or publication. While we all lost those four hours, I argue that the cost of those four hours is higher for precarious staff - “I’d rather be in my lab…”.

For each collective agreement we actually have two distinct classes of people - the ‘permanent’ (or open-ended) staff and the precarious staff. We share collective agreements, but in some ways the reality of those agreements couldn’t be further apart. This perceived conflict kept me from joining the TEU for many years, and based on conversations with my peers, I was not alone. To be honest, it was this conflict that was on my mind as I considered the strike and what we are bargaining for.

I considered a strike for fair pay and how it relates to precarity. It became clear to me that the root of both issues is the same - it’s how our institutions value their people. The power of the union is that we can stand in solidarity and argue our value to our institutions. So, as I stand with the union in solidarity in the current bargaining, I do it in the hope that when the time comes, we will stand together and push back at the ongoing casualisation of our workforce.