23 September 2013

Solidarity Delivers Victory at University of Liverpool

On the 7 June this year the University of Liverpool broke off negotiations over a  new harmonised contract for professional, administrative and specialist staff with the UCU and other campus unions. In an extraordinary move the University’s negotiators announced that Section 188 dismissal notices would be issued to 2,803 staff to enforce the new contracts that contained detriment to some groups with respect to TOIL.

The implications of this threat of mass dismissals notices posed a threat to the national union. If any university was allowed to get away with such a tactic then contracts for academic and academic-related staff alike would be severely weakened in a situation in which employers could change it by the threat of dismissal: by force. For this reason the dispute was declared one of ‘national importance’.

Since the announcement the local branch has been on a campaign footing. Three mass meetings and one outdoor rally with other unions took place in June and July. A national petition was launched, signed by nearly 8,000 supporters. An open letter condemning the University for its actions was published in the Times Higher Education signed by 600 professors. The dispute was covered by the THE and by local press.

However, the most important aspect of the campaign by far has been the anger of UCU members and the new levels of engagement and activism within the local branch. In June branch membership leapt as new people joined. New activists came forward to help with the branch’s efforts.

The ballot for industrial action began on the 22 July and ran until 6 September. Staff from the UCU campaigns team were hugely helpful in coming up to Liverpool at the start and towards the end of the ballot period. During the ballot period an October series of lectures on the theme of neo-liberalism in the HE sector was organised by the local branch and announced. Despite the difficulties of balloting over the summer the result was a tremendous endorsement of the stance taken by the branch leadership with 82% supporting industrial action.

Faced with the prospect of strikes in October the University finally climbed down to allow a resolution of the contractual dispute. All existing local TOIL arrangements are maintained. No ‘end-dates’ will be used: all contracts will continue with the agreed variation rather than being terminated. Importantly, the University agreed a Memorandum of Understanding which includes a commitment to use negotiations to achieve change rather than ‘statutory processes’ (S188 dismissals) in the future. It expresses a renewed commitment to the local Recognition and Facilities Agreement’ that stipulates negotiation (rather than merely ‘consultation’) for any changes to Terms and Conditions’. Finally, it contains an assurance by the University that it does not seek to establish a ‘long hours’ culture.

Members unanimously agreed the new contract at a mass meeting on Tuesday 17 September.

At the heart of the dispute has been the question of solidarity. The contractual issues affected only non-academic staff. Academics were not directly affected. Yet clearly the ballot result shows that academic members are prepared to stand alongside their colleagues on the picket line. This principled stand augurs well for the future development, growth and resolve of the UCU locally and nationally.

Mark O’Brien

Membership Secretary

University of Liverpool UCU

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