UCU Left ‘Four Fights’ Negotiators’ statement, 6/3/2020

Lobby of Woburn House

Lobbying UCEA HQ in December

Dear colleagues

We are writing as UCULeft ‘Four Fights’ negotiators who have been engaged in complex negotiations which are ongoing.

It is important to note that these negotiations have not yet resulted in an offer. Nothing is on the table and nothing is agreed.

The current situation is that after constructive discussions on the pay-related elements of the claim, the employers’ representatives were sent away to consult with their members.

In this context we are concerned that the General Secretary put out a statement on Thursday that was neither discussed nor agreed with the negotiators. In that statement she says that “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.”

Negotiators are elected by members to engage directly with the employers to attempt to settle a dispute. During the course of negotiations we make proposals to the employers, knowing that whatever we might negotiate, there is a democratic process that holds us to account.

Offers, deals and accountability

HEC has agreed the following process for dealing with any offer from the employers. We have not had an offer, but were we to get one this is what would happen.

  1. First, negotiators would discuss it as a package and consider whether or not to recommend it for consultation as the best that could be achieved through negotiations. If it were not ready to go out, we would go straight back to the employers to negotiate further.
  2. Once it was sent out, members would see the offer, consult over and debate it in branch meetings or strike meetings, and elect delegates to a UK-wide meeting of branch reps.
  3. At that meeting, branch representatives would debate the offer at a UK-wide level, and vote on it (in a weighted vote) to decide whether to recommend to HEC as to whether or not to put it out to members.
  4. HEC would then take a vote on whether or not that offer should be sent out for a consultative ballot for members to vote on. HEC’s decision will be based on the recommendations of branch reps from the delegates meeting.

It is also strange to see a General Secretary proposing to recommend a deal that has not yet been made. It is standard practice in negotiations to say that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. The assessment of whether an offer is acceptable cannot be made until all the details are confirmed. This is not yet the situation.

Negotiating on Pay

The second issue concerns headline pay. On Tuesday, UCU negotiators adopted a negotiating position of putting 3% on the table to give UCEA the chance to consult their members about the potential for a rapid resolution of the dispute in the context of a serious global health crisis that could engulf us all.

Let’s not forget that UCU’s claim is for RPI+3%. The employers are sitting on reserves of £44bn. They can afford to meet our claim in full.

This was, and is, a genuine offer to try to resolve the dispute, but it is for members and delegates in the process outlined above to decide whether or not it is sufficient to resolve it.

It is difficult to discuss an offer that does not exist! But were we to get an offer we would have to make a serious decision as to whether we as negotiators, collectively or individually, can recommend it to members to be decided on by the process outlined above.

All the negotiators are strengthened by every single striker and picketer. We now need to sustain and strengthen the action.

Our strikes are our strongest leverage. We can win this together.

Mark Abel
Marian Mayer
Jo McNeill
Sean Wallis

Let’s push on to victory

London College of Fashion Dundee Picket
After the first five of our 14 strike days, the employers are looking for ways to settle. There were talks last week in both disputes and more to follow this week.

Both sides know that the future direction of higher education is at stake. The employers’ commitment to marketisation means that only the bottom line counts in the scramble for dominance or survival. Students are palmed off with an increasingly inferior educational experience as they are crammed into lecture halls and their contact time is cut.

While for staff, the imperative is driving down the wage bill by whatever means available. Wave after wave of voluntary severances push workloads to levels incompatible with healthy lives. A reliance on the cheapest possible employment arrangements – zero-hours contracts, worker and agency contracts which don’t come with employee rights, and short-term contracts – keep people guessing about how long they will be earning.

Riches

None of this is because the sector is impoverished. Only the contrary, higher education is richer than it has ever been. Even after the splurges on new buildings and the grasping of Vice Chancellors enriching themselves, universities are sitting on billions in reserves.

Our strike has put the employers on the back-foot. They did not expect the level of support for the demands that we have put forward.

Our demands are necessary and urgent for our members, but also counter the fragmentation and marketisation of the sector. Reinforcing the national mutual agreement to maintain the USS pension scheme and creating a new national agreement to set a floor for employment standards would limit the scope for dangerous speculation at the expense of the sector, students and staff.

How are we doing so far?

We are making real progress on USS. The employers are increasingly learning to accept they cannot assume they can pass on escalating costs to staff and accepting that ‘de-risking’ – a strategy they pursued since 2014 – is a non-starter. We have not won yet, but if we do win, we will complete unfinished business from 2018.

We are also making progress in the Four Fights, with the employers realising they are going to have to reach a national agreement of minimum standards of some sort. Our negotiators are making some progress. The employers are trying to say that they ‘have no mandate’ to enter into such an agreement. But they have gradually made concessions.

UCU negotiators are seeking from UCEA the following:

  • a UK level sector wide agreement establishing a series of expectations of employment rights and working conditions for the Higher Education sector, including abolition of zero-hours contracts and ‘worker contracts’ (apart from genuine one-off engagements).
  • a set of core principles for tackling race and gender inequality on pay outcomes and an implementation timescale.
  • a set of commitments on workload review that reinforce the Pay Framework 2004 principle of Equal Pay for Equal Value is properly realised in terms of time and bring workloads under control.
  • to a meaningful pay increase based on RPI that meets the joint unions’ claim of ‘keep up and catch up’.

If we want to defend academic freedom in every university, we have to set minimum employment standards for the sector. A national agreement will have to be backed up by local negotiations that enforce minimum standards at each institution. There can be no slippage of national minimum standards. We have to stop a race to the bottom.

Inequality

The sector is institutionally racist and sexist. The further you go up the payscale in departments and management structures, the smaller the proportion of women and BAME staff. Appointing a few professors or senior managers won’t cut it – the universities are structurally discriminatory.

Addressing casualisation and the two or three tier workforce is a basic necessity to address inequality. It is no accident that the universities with the greatest gender pay gaps are medical and research-intensive universities. Casualisation and poor promotion prospects are the ‘glass ceilings’ – the structural impediments to addressing inequality.

The money is there

So far the employers have made no meaningful improvement on the pay offer. That has to change. Our pay has fallen 20% in real terms while university incomes from student fees have skyrocketed. Staff costs are now 55% of budgets – a record low (in the 1970s they were 70% of budgets). The sector has reserves in excess of £44bn, with surpluses of over £1bn a year coming in. The money is there. We need to force the employers to rethink what they do with the money that is sloshing around the sector.

It was strikes that broke the employers’ determination to trash USS in 2018, and it has been our strikes that have dragged the employers to concede further.

We have to strengthen our action, and we have the advantage of having our students on our side. We know our action is impacting on them, but they also appreciate we are fighting for the future of the sector. We are fighting for them, whether they wish to have a future in academic employment or not.

We have to organise to win. This is not the time to let the picket lines dwindle. But we also need to reach out to the rest of the trade union and labour movement for moral and financial support. Whenever we do so we get a great response.

Sector-changing deals are within sight provided we keep the pressure up!

The Results Are In – Members are Ready to Fight!

  • Members vote more than 3:1 Yes
  • 14 more branches join the fight, 8 post-92
  • Over 50,000 HE members in 74 universities able to strike

The latest round of ballots in Higher Education were reported on Wednesday 29 January.

Another 12 institutions have joined the “Four Fights” dispute, 8 of which are post-92, and 6 have gained a strike mandate in the USS pensions fight.

It brings the total number of universities taking part to 74, 14 of which are post-92.

Two institutions have mandates for both disputes, and the University of Oxford, which won a mandate on pay but narrowly missed the threshold on USS, also crossed the threshold. Similarly University of East Anglia gained a mandate on pay.

In total, 14 additional branches have gained a mandate for strike action over one or both disputes, including Imperial College London, which also balloted locally over pay (they are outside national pay bargaining).

The figures are impressive. Slightly more than 4,500 balloted members have joined the USS fight, taking the total percentage of balloted members eligible to strike to around 87% of the pre-92 USS sector.

In the pay dispute, the total number of additional strikers is slightly more, which increases the strike coverage from 60% to 67% of the entire HE sector.

Using 2019 balloted membership figures*, the number of balloted members in branches able to participate in strikes now exceeds 50,000.

GTVO success

Some branches raised their turnout very substantially between October 2019 and January 2020.

Bath Spa, the University of the Arts London (UAL) and the University of Worcester all increased their turnout by 20 percentage points. For example UAL (with nearly 700 members balloted), increased their turnout from 34% to 54%.

Topping the list of ‘gainers’, the Royal College of Art (100 members) increased their turnout by 28 percentage points.

Unfortunately Worcester just missed out of 50% — another victim of the Tory Anti-Union Law.

Members vote Yes to action

But this is turnout. What matters democratically is whether members are voting Yes. The Yes votes are highly impressive. The average Yes strike vote on the Four Fights claim was 76%, and on USS, 79.4%.

The ballots also cover Action Short of a Strike, where numbers and mandates are very similar (Four Fights: 85% Yes, USS: 83% Yes).

Members are expecting to be asked to take 14 days’ strike action over USS, and possibly over pay. Anyone who thinks that members are not prepared to take hard-hitting action, or want yet another “consultation” needs to look closely at the ballot results.

The results are in. Members are ready to fight, and members in 15 more branches have proved it.

Balloted institutions

The institutions which achieved a turnout of 50% or more are:

USS
1. King’s College London
2. Imperial College London
3. Keele University
4. University of Oxford (already has live ballot on Pay)
5. SOAS, University of London (also on Pay)
6. Birkbeck College, University of London (also on Pay)

Pay/four fights
1. SOAS, University of London (also on USS)
2. The University of Huddersfield
3. Birkbeck College, University of London (also on USS)
4. The University of Winchester
5. University of the Arts London
6. De Montfort University
7. University of East Anglia (already has a live ballot on USS)
8. University of Greenwich
9. University of East London
10. Leeds Trinity University
11. Bath Spa University
12. Royal College of Art

Total number of institutions now able to strike over USS or pay/four fights: 14 + 60 = 74.

Not a single branch balloted voted No. But thanks to the Tory anti-union laws, thousands of members are not permitted to strike.

Note

*Membership has grown since, in some branches by as much as 20%.

The fight is on

Build the HE strikes: organise to win

UCU has called eight days of strike action over Higher Education pay and USS pensions before Christmas, one full week: 25-29 November, culminating with the next school student climate strike day #29November, and three days: 2-4 December, ending on UCU’s Disability Day of Action.

Once again, UCU Left members on the HEC were instrumental in ensuring that the union stayed on track. Our strategy of balloting on pay and pensions together has paid off, with the biggest ever vote in HE for action over pay, casualisation, workload and equality. Now the strategy is to bring members out, united, on the same days over both disputes. A work to contract begins at the same time.

Across UCU, in branch after branch, members voted overwhelmingly YES for action. The reason that some branches will not be on strike is only that their turnout was below 50% of their membership (the anti-union threshold). For example, De Montfort University got a 74% yes vote but a 49% turnout. King’s College London got 81% yes on a 48.7% turnout, and so on. Before the Tory Anti Union Law, these votes would be considered outstanding!

Despite this, this strike call means that 80% of members in USS institutions are being asked to come out on strike. On the Four Fights dispute (pay, equality, casusalisation and workload), more than 60% of members across the sector pre- and post-92 are being called out.

At the same time, UCU agreed to reballot members in branches whose turnout was 40% or over, with other branches choosing to opt in. Ballots can begin after re-notification to employers, so can coincide with the start of this round of strike action. A second wave of strike action can begin next year.

The fifth of the nominated strike days coincides with the date of the next mass Friday climate strike called by school students. Striking UCU members will now be able to respond en masse to the call by young people for trade unionists to support the movement for urgent action on the climate emergency.

We may also be joined by postal workers in the CWU, who have already voted for strikes before Christmas in defence of jobs and against plans to dismember the postal service.

Our strikes will also take place in the run-up to the most important general election for decades. The outcome of the December 12 poll will determine the future of post-16 education for years to come. The issues we are fighting over – pay, pensions, equality, casualisation and workloads – have all been brought to crisis point by the marketisation of the HE sector driven by the Tories’ neoliberal agenda. Our strikes can bring the issues of the student debt burden and the corrosiveness of competition between institutions to the forefront of the election campaign.

Branches and Regions need to begin preparation for the strike now.

We need the big lively picket lines which characterised last year’s USS dispute. We need imaginative teach-out events which can involve students and UCU members in joint discussion and activity.

And we need striking branches to help with the reballoting effort in neighbouring institutions that didn’t make the threshold the first time around.

The last USS strike saw the union grow by 50% in the branches that took strike action. Members joined to take part in the strike in large numbers, some joining on the picket line. This strike will be a fantastic opportunity to recruit more members to the union and further strengthen branches.

Strike committees & democracy

UCU’s last protracted strike, over USS, was sustained by strike committees in many branches. Strike committees were the backbone of the strike: they organised pickets from day to day, gave members a place to express their concerns and debate the way forward with fellow-pickets, and took initiatives like lobbying UUK and talks – and even protesting outside the union HQ during the #NoCapitulation moment.

Some branches have organised strike committees before, but for others the idea is new. Strike committees are simply open democratic fora, open to all strikers, to conduct the business of the strike. Ideally they should be run daily during the strike – that way strikers know when and where they need to go to debate the lessons and decide on next steps.

NB. Ahead of the strike, branch reps will need to book warm, sizeable rooms for strikers to come to!

There will be a Higher Education Sector Conference on USS in Manchester on Friday 6 December – two days after the strike, to which branches can send delegates. Note that to book delegate space, branches must submit delegate names (may be provisional and swapped later) to UCU by Friday, 22 November.

UCU’s Democracy Congress will take place the next day. (NOTE. The deadline for booking delegates is this Thursday, 7 November.) Many of the issues of how such strikes should be run will be raised at that conference as well.

Teach-outs & themed strike days

The last USS strike showed tremendous enthusiasm for protests and initiatives. Teach-outs with students and staff were extremely popular. These can also generate material for distributing on themed strike days.

In this strike we can also bring back themed strike days – something that UCU did very effectively in the HE pay dispute in 2016.

To be clear, a themed strike day is not a day when we only strike over one issue. (We will strike over pay and pensions each day in USS branches.)

A themed strike day is simply a day when branches or regions adopt an issue and promote it actively on that day – in banners, leaflets, press material etc.

In addition to strike days over pensions, for example, we must have a strike day themed on the Environment on 29 November, linking up with the climate movement!

We can also take actions highlighting pension poverty, poverty pay and long hours, casualisation in its many forms, the gender pay and pension gap, race inequality and migrant rights, and disability inequality and access – the last day of strike action is UCU’s Disability Day.

Running through the core of the disputes, we will spell out our alternative: What the University is For. We all know the market madness lies behind most of the evils we are striking against.

We can invite MPs and prospective MPs to participate in teach-outs. The election is a chance to put a spotlight on the crisis in post-16 education.

Strike funds

Members will be concerned about their personal finances. So we will need an effective communications strategy from Head Office outlining the financial support available and how to apply for it.

UCU has already announced national fund criteria:

  • £75/day for every union member earning under £30,000 a year from Day 2.
  • £50/day for union members earning £30,000 or more from Day 3.

Branches should also set up local strike funds (guidance from Head Office will be available shortly), and should reach out to sister unions and supportive organisations to add to these local funds. Many pre-92 HE branches already have local funds, but the same is not true for many post-92 branches. Either way, local funds should prioritise the casualised and lowest paid.

In the run up to the General Election there are likely to be lots of political meetings. Organise strikers to do delegation work. Try to attend and speak at some of these and ask for donations. Ask for a speaker slot at your local Trades Council meeting and at local constituency Labour Party meetings. Contact active pensioner and anti-austerity groups.

Most meetings will be happy to hold a bucket collection for our cause, and every penny will help towards ensuring our members don’t struggle financially while fighting these disputes.

Solidarity & reballots

Both disputes are national disputes with the employers, over pay, casualisation, workload and equality with UCEA; and over USS, with Universities UK. Both employer organisations are supposed to represent the interest of the employers collectively in negotiating with the union. All branches are in dispute, even if they are not on strike.

Branches taking strike action will need solidarity from the wider UCU. They will be striking as a first wave, with the expectation that their colleagues in other institutions will be joining them in a second wave. But for this to work we will need a renewed effort to win the turnouts needed in universities and colleges.

Strikers can visit and enthuse branch meetings, department meetings and even floor-walk with reps to Get the Vote Out – and collect for strike funds.

NB. Venues for strike committee meetings and teach-outs can in principle also be booked in these colleges.

We are one union – and we are united to win these two disputes.

We won the vote – Now let’s start the action

Picketing UCL, March 2018

The ballot results are in. UCU members throughout Higher Education are ready to fight to defend their pay and pensions, and to stand up against inequality, unmanageable workloads and casualisation.

On pay, 73% of members voted yes to strike action, on a 49% total turnout. 55 university branches declared with a turnout greater than 50%. On USS, 44 out of 64 USS institutions hit the threshold. Herriot-Watt topped the poll at 71.59% turnout.

Branches in Northern Ireland do not have to beat the 50% threshold, so Queens University Belfast, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College Belfast are also able to strike.

Pay (Four Fights) Ballot USS Ballot

62.33% of balloted UCU members are in branches eligible to take strike action over pay. In the USS pre-92 universities, the equivalent figure is 80.62%.

These are the highest votes ever in a UCU national pay campaign, outstripping those in last year’s pay ballot.

The votes were overwhelmingly for action. But thanks to the Tory Anti-Union Laws, turnout is the key. 55 branches exceeded the 50% threshold required. Given the obstacle that this represents for trade unions, our results are very positive. The union decided to conduct disaggregated ballots precisely so that some branches would be able to fight even if we didn’t reach the threshold overall.

What must happen now

It is time to name the date for action.

The 55+ branches with legal mandates must begin escalating action in mid-November (see list below). The other branches need to continue the campaign to reballot – see below.

The pension action will begin to put pressure on the employers in UCEA and UUK and on the pension bosses at USS. We know they won’t shift their positions without it.

The pay action (including equality, workload and casualisation) unifies members young and old, and unites us with our colleagues in other unions in each university or college. Pay also unifies the sector, pre- and post-92.

Successful pay ballots allow other workers who are not in UCU to participate in strikes. (It is unlawful for employers to discriminate by union membership and branches can extract statements from HR to that effect.) It also means that post-92 institutions will be able to take strike action alongside pre-92, offering mutual solidarity and presenting a united front in defence of HE and the staff who work in HE.

It is time to lift the lid on local issues of casualisation and gender and race pay inequality – and show they are endemic to our sector.

We can take action alongside postal workers defending their jobs and school students fighting climate change.

General Election

The general election gives us the perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on the future of Higher Education.

If we want to insist that government has a responsibility to ensure that universities pay their staff properly, address the scandals of rising casualisation and unequal pay, and protect the USS pension scheme for future generations with a government guarantee, we could not ask for a better moment to take action!

Reballots and organising solidarity

Meanwhile, branches who reached 40% or more should be reballoted with the aim of joining a second wave of action in January. Many branches are only a few dozen votes short of the threshold and have a very good chance of breaking through on a reballot. Bringing out more branches would be an excellent way for our action to escalate in the new year. See the graphs above. Branches which fell below 40% should have the right to opt in to the reballot.

All those not in a position to strike yet can support striking members by contributing to a strike fund levy.

UCU in Transformation – One Year On
#UCUTransformed2019
London, Sat 2 Nov 11-5
Called by London Region UCU

In the meantime we face a major organising task. Regions have a crucial role to link up branches striking with those balloting, organising regional demonstrations and encouraging demonstrative action.

The first step to linking up activists and reps will be the #UCUTransformed2019 one-day conference called by London Region UCU on Saturday 2 November.

This will be the first chance to debate the next steps in the struggle with other reps and activists. Reps in branches that missed the threshold will want to discuss the Herriot Watt GTVO strategy. Other regions should call activist meetings as soon as possible to do the same.

Branches with live ballot mandates

The institutions in which members can now take action are:

  • Aston University
  • Bangor University
  • Bishop Grosseteste University
  • Bournemouth University
  • Cardiff University
  • Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Durham University
  • Edge Hill University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Glasgow School of Art
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Liverpool Hope University
  • Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA)
  • Loughborough University
  • Newcastle University
  • Open University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Queen’s University, Belfast
  • Roehampton University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • St Mary’s University College Belfast
  • Stranmillis University College
  • The Institute of Development Studies
  • The University of Aberdeen
  • The University of Bath
  • The University of Dundee
  • The University of Kent
  • The University of Leeds
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The University of Sheffield
  • The University of Stirling
  • Ulster University
  • University College London
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bradford
  • University of Brighton
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Essex
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Leicester
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of London, City
  • University of London, Goldsmiths
  • University of London, Queen Mary
  • University of London, Royal Holloway
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Reading
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Strathclyde
  • University of Sussex
  • University of Wales
  • University of Warwick
  • University of York