Latest from UCU
LETTER FROM JO GRADY, 11th March, 2020
Thanks for all your replies to my update announcing further negotiations and reballots on Monday. I thought I would write again now to address some of the most common questions which you've raised and provide more information about our ongoing talks with employers.
Four Fights negotiations
Our negotiators met employers on Monday for talks in our 'Four Fights' dispute. Discussions followed a similar pattern to previous meetings: constructive dialogue and good progress towards a possible resolution on equality, job security, and workload, but employers remain very resistant to making an improved offer on pay. It's clear that your continuing strike action is pushing them a long way on the non-pay elements of our demand, but my view is that further progress on pay will probably require a strong performance in our reballots. A fuller report from the pay negotiators can be found here.
What is UCU doing to consider the effects of coronavirus on our industrial action?
Understandably, Covid-19 is at the forefront of members' minds, and many of you have asked me about its implications for any potential action. The union, and in particular the higher education committee (HEC), will need to consider this very carefully, putting the safety of staff and students first. The HEC may wish to consider scheduling different kinds of industrial action and/or with different timings, depending on how the situation develops – but at this point it is too soon to say what will be the best thing to do.
What is beyond any doubt, however, is that we need to prepare for a potential wave of campus closures over the next few weeks, along with restrictions on work-related travel. This will have knock-on effects on our reballots. It may become difficult for members to access their ballot papers. If necessary, we will make it possible for you to change your primary postal address from your work to your home address in our membership database, and get a replacement ballot paper ordered there.
What are our options for industrial action next term?
As I said in my last email, the summer term provides a range of new opportunities to cause disruption. We are already making plans to expand our use of action short of a strike (ASOS) and, as I explained in my last email, we have to consider a potential marking boycott if other options do not produce a good offer from employers.
I've had a lot of feedback via email and on picket lines and I have also seen more than one branch debate options for further action and pass motions at members' meetings. I really appreciate your feedback – scheduling industrial action is always complex and involves trade-offs but I want the union to do everything it can to take members’ thoughts and proposals into account.
I am particularly keen to hear from colleagues in academic-related and professional services posts, because I know that strike action and ASOS can work in very different ways for you. We need to make the best use we can of the unique contributions you make to your institutions and identify the leverage you can give us over employers.
Branches are being invited to provide further feedback on what kinds of disruption members are best placed to take during the summer term. This may vary quite a lot from branch to branch. Now is the time to start thinking, discussing with your colleagues, and looking out for emails and invitations to meetings where you can have your say and inform the HEC's plans for further action.
Can we try disrupting the REF?
A lot of you have asked about the REF and other forms of research-related disruption. We have already listed some REF-related activities in our current guidance on ASOS and on 'voluntary duties', and we plan to adopt as expansive a list as possible in institutions that renew their mandate for ASOS from next term. We are also taking further legal advice on a range of other non-teaching activities that could be included in our guidance.
What about waiting until the new academic year?
Several of you have asked whether it might be better to wait and schedule action at the start of the autumn term – especially given the threat posed by coronavirus. We will have to see how the situation develops, and action coinciding with the beginning of term could be effective – but it would mean prolonging our disputes, and potentially having to reballot again once our mandate runs out at the end of October.
Please continue to get in touch with any other questions you may have. I will email you again soon with more updates on negotiations and related matters.
UCU general secretary
LETTER FROM JO GRADY, 5th March, 2020
With further talks having taken place this week and seven days of action left for most branches, we are at a pivotal moment. Our negotiators believe that we are in reach of agreements that could put this union and the sector on the right footing and bring about real long-term change in the way staff are treated.
We have made it crystal clear to employers that we are not inflexible. In the interests of securing that long-term change, we have extended an olive branch to employers by offering to compromise on some of the demands which we started our industrial action with.
In our Four Fights dispute, our negotiators have concentrated on pushing the employer representative, UCEA, to make significant improvements to the offer which they tabled at the end of January, covering the three non-pay elements of the dispute: workload, job security, and equality. For more information on what our negotiators have been asking for in these areas, please refer to my email of 24 February.
UCEA have been receptive in principle to many of the additions and amendments which we have asked them to make to their offer, and we have been doing everything we can to keep the pressure on: through negotiations, and through external campaigning, such as the leaked document on casualisation which we published on Tuesday and which has generated significant press coverage.
What really matters, however, is the power which you give us through your withdrawal of your labour. It shouldn't be this way, but sadly strike action is what moves our employers, and it is continuing to have an effect on them.
Given the prospects of progress on the three non-pay elements, and given how much we know they matter to you, our negotiators have signalled to UCEA that they are willing to make significant concessions on the other element of the dispute, relating to pay. They have indicated that an offer of a 3% increase in pay to members could resolve the dispute. This is significantly lower than the 3% plus RPI (a total of at least 5.2%) which we initially demanded and
which would still not go far enough to compensate for a decade of persistent wage suppression by employers.
Thus far, employers have not closed off all discussion of an improved pay offer, but they have been less open to it than they have to making concessions in the other three areas. If we can get an offer that represents the kind of movement I have set out here on all four parts of the dispute, I will recommend that our higher education committee (HEC) should consult members on whether to accept it.
Support your negotiators - stay out on strike
Our negotiators have been willing to alter and reduce our demands on pay in the name of getting good agreements that will protect our working conditions and benefits over the longer term. It could not be clearer that our position is reasonable and we are anything but stubborn. What we need you to do is demonstrate your support for our negotiating position by continuing to take effective strike action over the next few days. Make it clear that we will do what it takes to achieve meaningful change for staff in our sector.
We expect to have further talks with employers as the strike action continues. I will update you as soon as I have more information. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about the negotiations or anything else, please email me and I will endeavour to answer them.
UCU general secretary
LETTER FROM JO GRADY, 2nd March, 2020
The employer representative in our Four Fights dispute, UCEA, is meeting UCU for further talks tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon. I will update you on these negotiations as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, in case you needed a reminder of the extraordinary student support for our strike action, a large group of student unions have written a letter stating that they 'agree with the UCU's aims' and calling on our employers 'to deliver a resolution that is agreeable' to the union.
The letter is addressed to Mark E Smith, chair of UCEA; Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK; David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham and chair of the USS trustee board; and Michelle Donelan, the minister for universities. It is signed by sabbatical officers from the NUS and 26 local student unions, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of students they represent. I have written a follow-up letter to the minister to request a meeting and urge her to back the students' demands.
Our message is getting through. When we work with student organisations and explain the issues we face, they understand why we are taking action in spite of their anxiety about the disruption it causes. Students are perfectly capable of seeing through our employers' claims that pay increases in line with inflation or equal pay for women and black and minority ethnic staff are 'unaffordable'. They realise that insecure contracts and unmanageable workloads degrade the quality of their education as well as our jobs.
Both groups, students and staff, face similar challenges brought about by the new higher education funding regime and our managers' destructive business practices. It is a massive boost to have students on our side and we must not take it for granted. Now let's keep up our strike action and push to get a good resolution so we can create a fairer working and learning environment for all of us.
UCU general secretary
LETTER FROM JO GRADY, 26TH February, 2020
On Monday morning I announced that talks were resuming with UCEA, the employer representative in our Four Fights
dispute. I am pleased to report that the meeting was positive and constructive and talks are set to continue.
These talks are a result of your continuing strike action - it is making a difference. Employers do not want to have to deal with 14 days of strikes. They would not be wavering and reconsidering their position if you were not continuing to withdraw your labour so let's keep going and force them to make a better offer.
At the same time we have to remember how much they have dragged their feet and made us wait before coming back to the table. Most of the time they would rather do that, in an attempt to test our mettle, than reach a settlement that benefits all of us.
Our demands in our Four Fights dispute are not too difficult for employers to meet as I pointed out on Monday. The fact is that they simply don’t want to do it. Employers think that they benefit from the marketised system of higher education that emerged in the wake of the financial crisis and they don't want to lose their power over it.
Do not let your employer get away with claiming that our demands are unaffordable. If giving hourly paid staff a living wage is unaffordable; if paying women and BME staff as much as their white, male colleagues is unaffordable; if employing staff for the whole academic year rather than ten months or less is unaffordable – then we need to change the business model which universities operate under. We're not even asking for that to happen immediately – we just need employers to start working with us rather than against us.
I am speaking at a post-picket rally in Bristol today and will keep visiting picket lines for as long as the action continues. If you see me please come and say hello, and if not, please get in touch with any questions about the industrial action via email or on Twitter.
Finally, if you are not in a striking branch, don't forget that any offer we get will benefit you and your colleagues, too – so please support the action by donating a portion of your salary to our Fighting Fund.
UCU general secretary
LETTER FROM JO GRADY, 24TH February, 2020
As we start the second week of this wave of strike action, I would like to give you some more detail on where we are in negotiations in the Four Fights dispute.
Further talks scheduled for today
UCEA, the employers' representative body, have scheduled a meeting with our negotiators today, but only on the understanding that they will 'nuance' and 'clarify' the offer which they made at the end of January rather than changing its substance. This is not good enough.
I will update you after today’s meeting, but unless our employers' position changes significantly, we are very unlikely to have any reason to suspend our strike action.
In the meantime I would like to explain to you what our negotiating targets are and set out what a victory might look like in this dispute.
More information on our Four Fights
Every year we submit a set of demands to employers. The demands are a combination of concrete, specific ones and more open-ended, long-term aspirations. Click here for an accessible breakdown of all the demands we submitted to employers in March 2019, which formed the starting point of our current dispute.
Employers offered very little of what we asked for until you gave the union a strong mandate for strike action in our ballot last term. After we called the first wave of strikes they agreed to reopen negotiations.
During the talks we have had since then, UCU's negotiators have been willing to compromise on several aspects of our original demands. It is the employers who are being stubborn. The offer which employers tabled at the end of January represented a step forward which we could never have achieved without your industrial action - but it still falls short of the reasonable and achievable targets which our negotiators have set for this dispute.
Most importantly, our negotiators have said to employers that we are willing to devolve the implementation and enforcement of national agreements on workload, job security and equality to the level of individual institutions. For instance, we would expect every institution to have a rigorous action plan to close its pay gaps for BME staff, but the specific steps which they take to do so might differ from one institution to the next. We are glad that employers have finally agreed to sector-wide expectations on these issues, but they need to be implemented locally in a fair and consistent way.
Employers will claim that we have been inflexible, but this was a major concession on the part of our negotiators. There will be national working groups for monitoring and comparing institutions' progress, but a lot will depend on branches' ability to make sure that their employers are upholding our national agreements. The sticking point that remains is that employers are not offering to create reliable mechanisms and procedures which we can use to hold them to account.
Here are some of the key priorities our negotiators have set out and which employers still refuse to incorporate into their offer to us:
on pay, our negotiators have indicated that they are open to an offer that falls between the employer offer of 1.8% and our original demand of 3% plus RPI (5.2% as of December).
all institutional action plans on job security, equality and workload should be implemented by working groups with clear deadlines
all action plans should be implemented in collaboration with recognised trade unions
all action plans should be publicly available
unions should be given more detailed, reliable information on equality, workload and job security than employers currently provide via the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and other outlets.
Alongside these there are extra targets on workload and job security in particular which our employers still refuse to meet.
workload models need to be realistic, accurate, comprehensive reflections of the hours which staff actually work
staff should not be assigned more work than their annual workload quota permits
institutions should provide campus unions with data on staff reporting to occupational health for workload-related reasons.
On job security:
employers should commit to abolish zero-hours contracts. Most employers do not use them and other countries (e.g. Ireland) have effectively banned them
procedures for converting fixed-term staff to open-ended employment should be faster than the statutory minimum of 4 years
there should be clearer and firmer criteria for conversion of hourly paid staff to fractional contracts.
We have given employers a lot of room for manoeuvre. The fact they have not agreed to these simple demands indicates how wedded they are to exploitative business models that intensify precarity and inequality and cause burnout among staff. That is what we are trying to change and that is why the union's higher education committee has called you out for a second, longer wave of action.
Employers could resolve this dispute now and it would cost them hardly anything. In fact, many of the things we are asking for could save them money over time. It is a tragedy for the sector that they are permitting the largest strike in its history to continue. The blame lies solely with them – do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
UCU general secretary
LETTER FROM JO GRADY, 19TH February, 2020
Tomorrow members in 74 UCU branches will start the largest strike action in the history of the higher education sector.
This follows our first eight days of disruption, which shook employers. Our students, the public, and even some employers are on our side, and press coverage has continued to be favourable to us. Students in particular have remained unwaveringly supportive, both through the NUS and through local student unions.
We are taking more action because your union believes that we need one more push in these disputes. Members took eight days of action last term and we have already seen some movement from employers - but not as much as we deserve.
Employers are sitting on their hands. They believe they can avoid making any bigger concessions, in the hope that we will falter and lose our resolve. They are wrong. What we need to do in the next few days is show them that we are not going away. It is really unfortunate that our employers are testing us in this way, as opposed to working with us to make higher education better. But we have been here before in previous disputes and our strength and unity got us victories.
Don't forget that this time we are not just escalating the number of days taken, we also have more branches and members involved. 60 branches took part in the last wave of action. Now, thanks to a successful round of reballots, there will be 74 branches taking action. This is the best opportunity we have had in years to improve conditions for staff throughout the sector.
Extra support from the UCU strike fund
To show how serious we are about supporting you through these disputes, UCU's national executive committee has agreed to increase the cap on the amount which members can claim from the fighting fund to cover lost pay. The cap is now £1,100 for members earning under £30,000 gross, and £800 for members earning over £30,000 gross. Click here for more information and to submit claims.
If your branch is not on strike, please support your colleagues' efforts to win better terms and conditions for all of us by donating as much as you can to the fighting fund.
Signs that employers are reconsidering their position
In the past week Universities UK, which represents USS employers, ran a consultation on how much employers would be willing to pay to cover contribution increases that have been forced on members. A significant number of employers, encompassing just over a quarter of active USS members, wanted to make an offer. This represented more movement than we had seen previously, and it's all because employers were facing the threat of more strikes. If we can continue this wave of action the way we ended the last, that number will increase and it will not be long before it reaches 50%.
Throughout the negotiations, it's become clear to me that the stubbornness of Universities UK is largely down to a few influential employers - including some of the wealthiest institutions in the sector. This is not about affordability - it is about a group of employers that are ideologically fixated on minimising their commitments to their staff. We shifted their position in the last USS dispute and saved defined benefit pensions. Now we must rally again to ensure we get the long term changes we need, and an interim contribution rate that doesn't price members out of the scheme.
The same goes for our 'four fights' dispute. Since we obtained a mandate for strike action employers have not offered a penny more than the 1.8% offer they made last year, which fails to keep up with the cost of living. This sector has suppressed wages over the last decade while its income and reserves have increased immensely. What we are asking for is reasonable, and it is shameful that employers would rather force more disruption than make any concessions in this area.
Picket line visits and further questions
When the action starts I will be visiting branches throughout the UK, starting in London on Thursday. Every time I visit a picket line I talk to members who are passionate about the work they do and about defending their sector, and it makes me proud to be general secretary of UCU. Please make every effort you can to join the pickets, support each other, talk to colleagues and students about the action, and represent the union as powerfully as you did last term. If you cannot join the physical picket - as many can't, for various reasons - please demonstrate your solidarity and support on the virtual picket, with the #UCUStrike hashtag.
In the meantime, please contact me if you have any questions, or watch the recording of the live Q&A about the strikes which I hosted last week.
UCU general secretary
Letter from Jo Grady, 10th February, 2020
What prospects are there for further negotiations before the strikes start?
The union is working very hard to resolve the situation before the action starts. In fact, the threat of action has already led to the possibility of progress in our USS dispute. This morning we learnt that Universities UK has launched a fresh consultation of employers on whether to cover USS pension contribution increases that have been imposed on members. The ball is in the employers' court: they are being given an opportunity to resolve the USS dispute now, before any more action has to happen. I will let you know the outcome of the consultation as soon as possible.
At the same time I have made clear to employers that if they want to avoid any further action, they need to make us an improved offer in our 'Four Fights' dispute as well. As I pointed out two weeks ago we have made some progress on job security and equality, but almost none on workload and none whatsoever on pay. If we are to rule out all further action that needs to change.
Preparing for 14 days of action
Some members have asked me about the scale of the action voted for by the higher education committee (HEC). We know from experience that large-scale industrial action is the only thing that causes significant change in our sector. If the action is successful we could see immense short-term and long-term benefits for everyone who works in higher education.
Don't forget that there is only one party to blame when staff are forced to go on strike like this: the employers. Employers have already faced one wave of action but they still have not offered us any financial concessions whatsoever - not a penny. All they have offered is verbal commitments to work together on the issues we are in dispute over.
Better offers are likely to come if we apply more pressure. We have to be ready to follow through on our threat of strike action and take all 14 days, but we may not need to. If the start of the action is effective employers will be more likely to come forward and make improved offers. If we receive a credible offer you will get a chance to have a say about whether we call off the dispute.
This wave of action will be spread out and staggered over four weeks. That leaves employers more time to negotiate with us before the 14 days are over. My advice to you is to be ready to take 14 days if necessary, but take the action one day at a time.
Employers didn't make an offer after the first wave - what has changed?
The employers were surprised by the commitment which you showed in the first eight days of action. This time they will have a better idea of the amount of disruption which your withdrawal of labour can cause. They will also know that there are now even more staff ready to participate. Thanks to the success of the reballots that closed on 28 January, there are now 74 institutions in a position to take action, compared with 60 in the last wave of strikes.
We have to remember that many people had similar doubts about the possibility that the USS strike in 2018 would cause employers to shift their position - but it did. Employers will always tell you that industrial action is futile, but that is because they know how effective it can be.
Facebook Live Q&A
I will be hosting a Facebook Live Q&A on Thursday 13 February from 1pm to 2pm. I am hoping to answer a wide range of questions from as many of you as possible about the disputes, developments in negotiations, and the planned action.
The live stream will be available on the UCU Facebook page and it will continue to be available for viewing after the session has ended. You do not need a Facebook login to view it. Questions can be submitted via Facebook or to this email address, either in advance or during the session. Your questions will be read out during the Q&A but any sensitive personal data will be anonymised unless you specify otherwise.
UCU general secretary