Mission to unionise academics faces legal, cultural hurdles

As a professor of education at Lampang Rajabhat University in northern Thailand, Pinyapan Potjanalawan is thoroughly familiar with the process of teaching. But in recent years he has a new endeavour: trying to teach his colleagues to stand up for themselves.

Pinyapan and a handful of fellow professors are pushing for a labour union for academics – a phenomenon virtually absent from Thai universities, unlike the situation in many Western countries.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘impossible’, [when it comes to unionising] because maybe we haven’t tried hard enough,” Pinyapan told University World News, noting the limited success, “but I can say this: it’s tough.”

Efforts to unionise have been thwarted by obstacles ranging from legal restrictions to widespread disinterest among Thailand’s most educated and brightest minds who find it difficult to understand the need for a labour union because they do not view themselves as ‘labourers’.

The absence of any legal backing for labour unions on campuses is another hurdle, though the right to form and belong to a union are protected by the Thai Constitution as well as the Labour Relations Act of 1975, which recognises labour unions as legitimate tools of collective bargaining.

However, Section 4 of the labour law also exempts organisations belonging to “central administration” from its jurisdiction. The clause is widely interpreted to include public universities and their employees, dismissing any hope that university employees could be protected under the Labour Relations Act.

The same exemption clause is enshrined in a 2003 law that governs private higher education institutions.

“It’s a wholesale rejection of a labour union,” Pinyapan said.

Legal overhaul

Thai public universities underwent a legal overhaul, starting from the late 2000s, which granted them greater autonomy from the government. While they maintain their status as state-affiliated agencies, university administrations run their own affairs as they see fit, including decisions on hiring and spending matters.

The autonomy enjoyed by universities also means working conditions vary greatly from one institution to another; what may be a pressing matter for some academics at one university may not exist in another. “Lecturers have different kinds of hardships,” Pinyapan acknowledged. “Our job security is different from one another. Our problems are different from each other.”

By contrast, there are fewer impediments for school teachers to speak as a single voice and push for changes, because they live and work under a highly centralised system. Every public school teacher is an employee of the Ministry of Education, and therefore subject to similar grievances.

Lack of collective bargaining

With no recognised platform for negotiations between university administrations and staff, critics say many academics simply have to put up with low pay and job insecurity. Starting salaries for lecturers holding a PhD can be as low as THB30,000 (roughly US$866), while a growing number of lecturers are hired on yearly contracts – a deviation from the long-term employment opportunities typical of Thai academia.

Proponents of unions say a lack of collective bargaining power helps perpetuate a culture of unfair pay, job insecurity and poor transparency in how university administrations decide their spending or impose new regulations on academic staff.

“The awareness about collective bargaining among university lecturers is very low,” said Pinyapan, who started to seriously explore the possibility of a university union several years ago. He wrote about unions, hosted social media discussions and gathered like-minded academics into a loose network, which expanded by word of mouth.

Others began to hear about his efforts, including Sirasak Tepjit, a robotics engineering professor based in Bangkok, who was introduced to Pinyapan after expressing his interest in a union.

“We’re trying to organise ourselves,” Sirasak said in an interview. “We try to gather people across different universities and build on shared values. We have to figure out how to organise ourselves, and we need a strategy first,” he said.

Top-heavy management

“The current power structure in Thai universities is unbalanced. It gives too much power to the executives. There’s no channel for lecturers to challenge the policies, regardless of how unreasonable or unfair they might be,” Sirasak said.

Thai universities can also impose other demands on professors unrelated to their field of expertise. To illustrate the problem, Sirasak said his university makes it compulsory for lecturers to instil a love for Thai culture in their students, aside from imparting academic knowledge.

“We had to take students to visit some temples. It was a total bull–” Sirasak said with a laugh, using an English expletive.

Staff are rarely consulted, he said. “All these rules aren’t based on hearing opinions from the staff. They all come down from university boards. Whatever rules they design, we have to follow.”

Pinyapan also voiced concerns that without a labour union there is almost no mechanism for staff to scrutinise or suggest how university administrations, known formally as university councils, manage their massive budgets.

For instance, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok reportedly oversees an income of up to THB20 billion per year, 9 billion of which comes directly from state coffers, and the rest from the university’s own for-profit ventures.

Pinyapan and Sirasak argue that the existence of a union could democratise the distribution of such funding by highlighting the need for better welfare, benefits and salaries, as well as speaking out against any nepotism or irregularity.

“Universities are acting like private companies, but they don’t want to be regulated by labour laws either,” Pinyapan said.

Separated in siloes

The legal vacuum is not the only hurdle. Pinyapan and Sirasak said the culture within Thai academia makes it difficult to organise a collective movement.

Scholars are often ‘siloed’ in their own fields of study with little to no close contact with those outside their faculties, let alone with academics from another university. The overwhelming workload routine and constant need to produce academic papers or conduct research – a major source of income for Thai academics – also keeps them from personal pursuits.

“We see the students more often than we see our colleagues in the same university,” Pinyapan said. “The only other occasion when we get to socialise is at funerals.”

Some academics associate labour unions with blue collar jobs. Sirasak pointed to his own experience where many engineering or science professors gave him a blank look when he tried to inform them about the need to form unions.

“They have this image that labour unions are only for labourers, and they don’t position themselves as labourers anyway,” Sirasak said. “They are not familiar with the idea of collective bargaining, so they don’t see why labour unions would be a solution.”

He added it was often difficult to explain. “Some professors get it immediately. But for those who don’t, no matter how hard we try, they only come up with more questions.”

Some, especially those on short working contracts, are simply too frightened to rock the boat; they fear universities could decline to renew their contracts if they’re found to be ‘conspiring’ with union agitators, he said.

Long road ahead

Labour union advocates say they are prepared for a long battle and do not anticipate significant gains soon.

“We [still] don’t have a clear picture yet about what our biggest problems are,” said Pinyapan, who recently gave a talk about unions to a group of high school and university educators.

“In my talks, I always try to give examples about how Western and Eastern education systems solve their problems. We need to have knowledge first, and then we communicate to each other what our problems are, and how to solve them.”

Once a union is formally established, one route would be to file a legal challenge to the Administrative Court to argue that the numerous bans on university labour unions are unconstitutional.

The priority for now, though, is to spread the idea to fellow scholars, start conversations, and find an overarching issue that they can rally behind, advocates say.

“The universities are trying to divide and rule us,” Sirasak said. “That’s why we have to get organised.”