So your University and College Union got a mandate for Industrial Action, what now?
You will have heard that UCU, the University and College Union, has achieved a mandate for industrial action. The questions below should help to give some information about what we already know this means.
- What is going to happen?
- What is industrial action at university?
- Will there definitely be a strike?
- What is the dispute about?
- Can’t you protest in a way that doesn’t affect students?
- Can students do anything?
What is going to happen?
The University and College Union, the trade union that represents over 120 000 university workers in the UK, announced the results of a nationwide ballot of members on possible future industrial action. Members voted to support strike action by an overwhelming majority, based on a historically high voter turnout.
The Union has gone through democratic processes and outlined a plan of action:
- Strike dates on 24, 25, 30 November
- Marking boycott in the new year
- Escalation of indefinite action in February
None of these dates and actions have to take place. The November days are to show university management that staff is serious that the current working conditions are unsustainable. Employers, in the case of the University of Worcester, Vice Chancellor David Green, now have the opportunity to negotiate meaningfully. The Vice Chancellor is the one who can stave off disruption.
Action under this mandate can take place until April 2023, as any mandate is for six months.
What is industrial action at university?
Industrial Action is a collective agreement to organise among employees as a way to compel a powerful employer to negotiate, usually as a position of last resort after conventional attempts at negotiation have failed. Striking is lawful. Historically, strikes have played a major role in securing workers’ rights, safe working conditions, and fair rates of pay in many kinds of employment around the world.
Industrial Action can take many forms:
- When it is a strike, that means employees withdraw all labour and lose all pay the time they are on strike. For students, this will be most visible in teaching activities not taking place. But UCU’s membership also includes librarians, technicians, administrators and other university staff, so various other activities are also affected.
- Industrial Action can also be ‘Action Short of a Strike’ (ASOS), which includes working to contract (most UCU members normally work well beyond the full-time hours they are paid for).
- Another form of ASOS is the refusal to mark assessments. At the University of Worcester, Senior Management has threatened a policy of 100% pay deductions, for a ‘marking boycott’. So, if staff work the hours their contract says they should work but don’t mark assessments, they still don’t get paid.
Will there definitely be a strike?
Not necessarily. The point of announcing strike action is to put pressure on the employers to negotiate when they are refusing to do so. Union organisers will typically suspend or cancel a strike action if the employer shows signs of negotiating constructively. The ideal outcome is that this happens early enough to avoid the strike completely.
What is the dispute about?
The dispute ties together a number of problems that are fundamentally reshaping the nature of higher education in the UK:
- Casualisation: many staff are living on precarious, short-term contracts and often don’t know in the summer whether they’ll have an income in September.
- Rates of pay: have fallen steadily in real terms and are now worth around three-quarters of their 2009 value. This makes embarking on a career in universities the privilege of the independently wealthy.
- Systemic inequality, with a particular focus on the longstanding gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps
- Workload and working conditions, with a focus on manageable hours and reducing levels of stress and ill health. Spiralling workloads and out-of-balance staff-student-ratios means students in 2022 do not receive the kind of attention and education staff would want to provide and which they were able to provide a mere couple of years ago. Staff have less time to:
- support you through your studies
- advise you on coursework
- to deliver smaller classes sizes
- to prepare teaching material
- to spend time assessing your work & providing feedback
- to providing academic and pastoral support
- to developing our teaching materials and methods to include the latest thinking and teaching practices in your subject area
Can’t you protest in a way that doesn’t affect students?
Practically speaking, no. Students are at the heart of the university, and whatever we do to try to improve university will affect students – and we’ve already been doing a lot of work to prevent students from feeling the worst of the impact of managerial decisions, but that is not tenable. Not a single UCU member wishes to disrupt students’ learning experience. And all UCU members recognise that many students have experienced a lot of disruption in recent years.
The UCU view is that the quality of the student learning experience is already badly affected, nationwide, by the problems we’re trying to address, with stressed, underpaid and precarious staff often teaching to excessively large classes amid dysfunctional admin structures. We cannot give the support we want to give.
Unfortunately, it’s clear from long experience that university employers do not acknowledge staff’s alarm cries about unworkable working conditions and the elitist university that’s being created by not paying staff enough and slashing pensions – leaving university careers only to those independently wealth. Only disruption – or the threat of disruption – to teaching or assessment has helped bring employers to talk.
Since we have not been able to achieve meaningful dialogue any other way, we now believe that effective industrial action is the best path to achieving lasting improvements to both the working conditions of staff and the learning conditions of students, this cohort and future cohorts.
Can students do anything?
We all, staff as well as students, want to either avoid industrial action, or, if needed, make it as short as possible.
- Write to the Vice Chancellor – Professor David Green – asking him to urge fellow VCs to resolve this long running dispute firstname.lastname@example.org
- Follow us on Twitter, like share and retweet our posts @WorcesterUCU https://twitter.com/WorcesterUCU
- Come and talk to us on the picket line to learn more about the union and the dispute and show your solidarity with striking staff
Our strike dates are November 24th, 25th and 30th so please join us to talk to colleagues about how our deteriorating working conditions are impacting your education.