“These are hard times for community spirit and collegiality”

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When Steffen Junker, associate professor of biomedicine, was elected as union representative at AU in 2003, he had never heard about anyone burning out because of stress. Now he witnesses colleagues breaking down under pressure virtually every week. After 17 years, he’s decided to step down from his union duties to become an emeritus professor.

2020.01.28 | Marie Groth Andersen og Roar Lava Paaske (foto)

Steffen Junker was awarded the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs union representative prize for 2019 – an honor he shared with OHS representative Charlotte Bonde from University College Absalon. Junker has been nominated for the prize a few time, and feels humbled by this compliment from his colleagues. Photo: Roar Lava Paaske

Steffen Junker’s plan was originally to take one for the team as a union rep for a couple of years before stepping down. That was 17 years ago. 

“I suppose it’s because of my indignation about people not always getting treated the way they should – that there are colleagues who aren’t treated decently when they need a helping hand. And not least because I don’t find it easy to say no.”

In a few weeks, Associate Professor Steffen Junker (biomedicine) will step down after 17 years as union representative for the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs. He represents about 300 university degree-qualified employees in this capacity, as well as serving as joint union representative for about 700 university-degree qualified employees at the Faculty of Health.

In his own words, he’s not the type to pound on the table, slam doors or raise his voice. Not even when he’s deeply indignant on behalf of a colleague.

“The blustering style is foreign to me,” as he puts it. 

On the contrary, he follows the path of dialogue, with respect for management. And during his time as union rep, he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of what he calls ‘non-meetings’.

“This is a chat that takes place under the radar, for example before a negotiation. Where I can draw the manager’s attention to issues he or she should take into consideration, in private. This makes the atmosphere of the negotiation so much less tense.” 

Colleagues buckling under the pressure every week

For 17 years, Junker has been pleading his colleagues’ cause in all kinds of negotiations – hiring and firing; salary; departmental mergers; sick leave interviews; and other aspects of employment conditions. And he’s noticed how increasingly heavy workloads and greater competition for research funding have worn down not just the individual employees, but community spirit and collegiality as well. 

“Since the big departmental mergers (in 2011, ed.), the number of hires has exploded, and along with them the number of sensitive personnel cases. This is deeply concerning. In the past few months, I’ve had colleagues of all job descriptions crying in my office – virtually every week – because they can’t take the pressure any more. Pressure that’s partially caused by priorities and structural conditions that are imposed on the universities by the government. For example, a significant reduction in basic funding per researcher. And when the researchers have to attract even more external funding to be able do their jobs, the pressure increases across the board,” Junker explains.

“When I started here at AU, I’d never heard of anyone burning out – not even in my early days as a union representative.” 

“And despite the fact that we’ve never attracted as much external funding as we do today, and are also admitting more students at the same time, this hasn’t yet resulted in more permanent academic positions to do the research, or in more basic funding either – on the contrary,” he says.

“Instead, a lot of academic staff members are brought on as as assistant or associate professors on short-term contracts for 5-9 years, without any prospect of permanent employment. And it’s necessary to work with career development so our colleagues’ careers don’t end in a blind alley.” 

Junker notes that permanent positions are not only important to the career of the individual researcher; they are also central to the identity, culture and history of the departments. This applies equally to  academic and to technical and administrative staff. For the same reason, he’s opposed to the plan to outsource cleaning – or other operational tasks, for that matter.

Union rep work is pure overtime 

Competition for researchers for research funding doesn’t exactly promote team spirit in the workplace, Junker says.

One of the consequences of the increasing individualisation of work at AU is that it hasn’t been easy to find someone else at his faculty to take over his duties as union representative. He’s had to nudge is colleagues to encourage them to step up. He’s succeeded at a few departments. But there are still departments where he hasn’t yet found a successor to represent the interests of about 300 employees.

Although he finds this lack of interest worrisome and disheartening, on the other hand, he understands its motivations: 

“People ask: What’s in it for me? My answer is that it’s time-consuming work that requires a lot of energy. And where I’m concerned, it’s been a full-time job, because I’ve done it alone. This means that in relation to what I’m most passionate about – teaching and research – serving as union rep has been pure overtime.”

But nonetheless, Junker doesn’t regret his choice.

“I’d do it again.”

Off to a fumbling start

Steffen Junker wasn’t actually particularly interested in getting elected union representative when he stood for election in 2003 at what was then called the Health Sciences Faculty. He was urged to do so, and was voted in after a contested election. He had no prior experience with union politics, and got something of a baptism by fire a few months later in the salary negotiations on behalf of the 100 or so colleagues he represented at the time:

“My predecessor didn’t introduce me to my duties, and I hadn’t had time to take any of the courses for new union reps offered by my union. I was completely blank. So the dean, who at the time conducted the annual salary negotiation, ran circles around me – or at least that’s how I experienced it, in any case,” remembers Junker.

“I was embarrassed and so angry at myself afterwards, and I thought: I’ll be darned if I let that happen ever again! So I got all my colleagues’ CVs and lists of publications, talked to them and was prepared up to my eyeballs before the next salary negotiations. And that totally changed the game, because suddenly I knew more about the circumstances of the individual employees than the dean.”

Systems were more flexible back then

After that fumbling start, there was a run of good years, marked by closer cooperation between management, union reps and employees than is the case today, according to Junker.

In the early years of his tenure as union rep, he could stop by the HR office or poke his head into the dean’s office to wrap up or clarify an issue; today, there’s less flexibility and personal contact.

According to Junker, the procedures he’s involved in are now full of time-consuming steps involving HR as a mandatory link between management, union representatives, employees and in some cases the unions. 

An eye for detail

Another important element in his long career as a union representative has been his eye for detail. An ability that clearly stems from his long history in the world of medicine.

“We have to get the details right, otherwise we’ll kill people, as I tell my students. But the details also have to be right when it comes to employment conditions, for example in the case of a dismissal.” 

Unfortunately, it has become more difficult for him to check all the details in recent years. For example, union representatives at AU no longer automatically receive a copy of the letter of appointment when new staff is hired.

J.S. Bach and the great outdoors as therapy 

When Junker looks back on his 17 years as union representative, he recalls some pretty unpleasant cases – in addition to mass dismissals – that affected him deeply.

 “In situations like that, J.S. Bach is a necessary companion. And I also use spending time outdoors as an effective and mentally restorative form of therapy – that’s also completely without side effects!”

But he’s also had positive experiences and victories during his tenure. 

“In general, I’ve found the negotiation climate to be respectful and egalitarian, and I’ve succeeded in achieving good results for my colleagues. To take a concrete example, I helped raise the salary level for my colleagues who have a natural sciences degree. Twenty years ago, they were viewed as advanced lab technicians, which was clearly reflected in their salaries. Today their pay is significantly improved.”

Not a workplace I’d recommend to my daughters

Beyond a doubt, his experiences as a union representative have shaped Junker’s perspective on the university as a workplace.

“AU is an exciting place to work, and I’ve felt happy as I’ve walked through the main entrance of the department every day since the first time I sat foot in the Department of Human Genetics (now Department of Biomedicine, ed.) ages ago. But I wouldn’t recommend a job in the university sector to my daughters without reservation today – because they’re women.” 

The explanation is simple, according to this experienced union rep.

“Making a career at the university and maintaining that career has become such a colossal challenge that the pressure is simply too much for many. What’s more, it’s extremely difficult for women in particular to achieve the recognition and the professional respect they deserve. I’ll have to tell my daughters this – and give them guidance.”  

Women are still left high and dry

“Admittedly, there have been attempts to introduce quotas for women and other similar measures. But when push comes to shove, this doesn’t help women that much in the here and now. They’re still left high and dry. And they still have frustratingly far to go.”

One of Junker’s younger female colleagues once said that she was looking forward to maternity leave so she could get the peace and quiet she needed to write two articles, he remembers. And has observed that it’s often women who step up and take responsibility for teaching students in a tight spot.

“And it’s not easy to confront male colleagues, because criticism is often swept aside as ‘women’s chatter’,” Junker says. 

To make real progress, he says, more women need to be included in the university’s most influential forums, such as the board and the appointment committees.

Back in the lab

When the 2020 salary negotiations start this spring, Junker will do his best to turn a blind eye. Because on February 1st, he’ll be opening a new chapter as emeritus; and the 72-year-old scientist plans to spend at least the first year catching up on some lost research time. In his own words, he’s going back to the lab like a PhD student.

“I have two specific projects that both focus on the mechanisms that result in an unusual deviant genetic regulation in Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cutaneous lymphoma. My findings will have immediate diagnostic applications.”

“Both projects are still extremely relevant. I’m going to do some supplemental experiments and write the whole thing up. I’m glad to have this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to getting started!” 

And last year, Junker’s colleagues showed him their appreciation for his 17 years of work on their behalf: he was awarded the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs union representative prize for 2019 – an honor he shared with occupational health and safety representative Charlotte Bonde from University College Absalon.

“I’m humbled by this compliment from my colleagues,” Junker says.

Translated by Lenore Messick

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