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. Check our Instagram for a more visual digest in infographics. And together with the Queen Mary Community Solidarity group, we made this booklet with information about industrial action, and a informative booklet about trade unions in general.

  1. What is going to happen?
  2. What is industrial action at university?
  3. Will there definitely be a strike?
  4. What is the dispute about?
  5. Who benefits from successful strikes?
  6. Can QMUL staff really influence this dispute?
  7. Can’t you protest in a way that doesn’t affect students?
  8. Can students do anything?

What is going to happen?

The University and College Union, the trade union that represents over 130 000 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. There were three days of action in November, and UCU has notified employers of 18 days in February and March. There will be a big national Walkout Wednesday on 1 February where university staff joins with action by nurses, rail workers, teachers, firefighters. The other dates (though all of these can be avoided!), matched onto the QMUL term week ares:

  • Week 2 – Wednesday 1 February
  • Week 3 – Thursday 9 and Friday 10 February
  • Week 4 – Tuesday 14, Wednesday 15, and Thursday 16 February
  • Week 5 – No action*
  • Week 6 – No action*
  • Week 7 – No Action
  • Week 8 – Wednesday 15, Thursday 16, and Friday 17 March
  • Week 9 – Monday 20, Tuesday 21, and Wednesday 22 March

None of these dates and actions have to take place. The November days were to show university managements that staff is serious that the current working conditions are unsustainable. Employers, in the case of QMUL, the Principal, now have the opportunity to negotiate meaningfully. The Principal is the one who can stave off disruption. 

That strikes are about ensuring negotiations are taken seriously is manifest in the fact that the strikes that had been planned for week 5 and 6 have been suspended, precisely in response to negotiations going in the right direction. Employers showed willingness to move on key issues, precisely because of the immense pressure of the strike days. Suspending the strike for a fortnight is to show the unions are also in these negotiations in good faith.

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 – as the booklet created by the QMUL Community Solidarity group explains clearly.

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), not covering for absent colleagues. As this is working to contract, that should not affect pay, but at QMUL, Senior Management has imposed a policy of 100% pay deductions, indefinitely, for ASOS. So if staff work the hours their contract says they should work, they still don’t get paid. 
  • Another form of ASOS is the refusal to mark assessments. The ‘marking boycott’ threatened graduation and shut down progression in the summer of 2022. QMUL management could not ignore workers’ calls for negotiation this way, and for the first time in years they engaged meaningfully with staff.

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.

Unfortunately, in recent previous disputes with UCU, the employers’ representatives have followed a hardline policy of refusing to engage, resulting in large numbers of days lost to strike action. The hardline approach has failed to break the UCU’s challenge, however, and so it’s at least conceivable that the employers will take a different line this time and co-operate to settle the dispute.

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.

Technically a separate dispute – but likely to be coordinated alongside the other one – is an attempt to resolve long-running problems with the management of USS, the pension scheme used mainly by UCU members at older universities, including QMUL. That pension scheme has slashed pensions by roughly 35-50% based on a valuation of the fund from March 2020, when the world had crashed. Members have been challenging this sham slashing in multiple ways, including via courts, but USS has refused to reverse its cuts. Thus far.

Who benefits from successful strikes?

In short: everyone. The university as a whole would improve by engaging meaningfully with the collective unions’ proposals. Announcing action is to encourage employers to talk about proposals submitted in spring by all university unions – UCU (as the union for teaching and professional service staff) as well as Unison, Unite, GMB, and EIS. Concretely, university life would be improved in the following ways:

  • We’d get pay justice: the negotiations with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) are on behalf of all university workers: lecturers, administrators, cleaners, porters, maintenance staff, lecturers, Teaching Associates, post-graduate students who teach: everyone who keeps universities running. Under the current UCU mandate, teaching and professional service staff withdraw their labour and sacrifice their salary in this action to may pay better for everyone, in UCU or not. Improving pay will end pay injustice and close the gender, race, and disability pay gaps
  • Unison, who at QMUL represent cleaners, porters, library staff, maintenance, and many other departments that keep the university afloat, is also balloting members to undertake action in support of these proposals. In the past, collaboration between UCU and Unison has led to important improvements, such as the realisation that QMUL had been dramatically underpaying the London Living Wage for years, in particular affecting the pay of those in the lowest pay band. Thanks to collective action, there is improvement, but the pay is still not enough, nor the historic injustice addressed.
  • Universities would be more inclusive and representative of the population at large and student body in particular. The current real-term pay cuts and pension cuts mean that soon only the independently wealthy will be able to afford to work in higher education. This would undo the years of work that staff and student groups have spent attempting to democratise universities. Fighting these cuts is to prevent entire groups from being excluded from participating in Higher Education, either as workers or students. Higher Education, raising the future generations of leaders, should be open to workers from all backgrounds, not in the least because students deserve and need to see themselves and society represented. 
  • Workload would be sustainable, and learning conditions improve. To secure tuition fees, universities have increased student recruitment exponentially, while the number of secure contracts have not grown in the same line. The spiralling student-staff ratio results in staff not having the capacity nor time to ensure students receive the attention which staff would like to give them, which students mere years ago did get, and which students had been promised as they registered. Manageable workloads mean adequate attention to students’ development, assignments, wellbeing, and futures.  
  • Putting a halt to the creeping casualisation and precarity is needed to ensure graduate students and Teaching Assistants stop spending entire summers worrying about whether or not they’ll have any teaching in September, let alone pay. The revolving door of short-term contracts harms students. Teachers on more secure contracts support students developing educational relationships with their teachers in the long term and ensure their access to teachers’ expertise is not dependent on the caprices of (non-)renewal of short-term contracts.

Can QMUL staff really influence this dispute?

Yes, because our immediate boss is on the key national boards. The Principal, Colin Bailey, sits on the boards of Universities UK (UUK) and of Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). The former is the body that has to negotiate to restore pensions, and the latter is the body that should take seriously a detailed claim submitted by higher education unions (not only UCU).

In both bodies, Bailey is an outlier in the intransigence and vindictiveness of his approach to staff: indefinite 100% pay deductions until staff reschedule labour withdrawn as part of industrial action (which would effectively render any industrial action meaningless) and trying to get students to report directly on the withdrawal of labour by their own teachers.

Bailey’s role in the two key boards, and his hawkish position on both means that staff at QMUL cannot but put pressure on him to use his position on the boards for good, and to show his VC colleagues that his is not an effective management style.

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. In previous years, the Principal has tried to turn staff and students against each other to demoralise staff. We have learnt that this time, the Principal will even try to make students report on the action of their own teachers. As an effective learning experience is built on trust, this active undermining of relationships will be harmful to the project of higher education. 

As students in previous years put it: ‘My message to staff involved in the strikes is to not back down. […] My message to senior management at Queen Mary is about as straightforward as it gets: look around you. The staff are the university.’ – read the full The Print article here.

The stronger the solidarity, the more the Principal can’t just wait this out and hope staff gives up before he has to negotiate. Students showing solidarity with staff and engaging in rethinking the university sends the strongest sign to the Principal that he cannot let this drag out but rather has to negotiate with the people who make this university run. Students can help in various ways:

With enormous thanks to UCU members at the University of Manchester who shared the template that forms the basis of this blogpost.

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