UCU members reject UCEA offer on ‘four fights’ dispute

UCU general secretary said future industrial action was necessary if members wanted to achieve further concessions

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) have voted to reject employers’ latest offer on pay, workloads, equalities and casualisation in a decision which could pave the way for more industrial action next year.

UCU had lobbied members to reject the University and College Employers Association (UCEA) package because it did not offer “binding commitments” to address the union’s demands. Turnout for the ballot was 30.4%; 61.2% supported the UCU and voted to reject the deal. 

In a statement posted online before the results of the ballot were released, UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady said decisions on future industrial action were for the union’s sovereign democratic decision-making body – the higher education sector conference (HESC) – but it was her belief “that we will not make significant progress in this dispute if we are not able to threaten another wave of industrial action”. 

The UCU chief continued: “If we want an offer with firm, binding commitments and a clear timescale for delivery, we will need to be willing to take more industrial action. 

“The action will need to be on a larger scale – not necessarily in terms of days, but in terms of the number of branches and members taking part in it. We need all branches covered by our collective bargaining framework to be involved in any action we take, so that every employer will be under pressure to offer us what we want.

“We also need to creatively rethink our tactics and use an even wider range of methods to put pressure on employers.” 

The union’s so-called ‘four fights’ dispute – which demands sector-wide pay rises, an end to ‘insecure’ employment, reduced workloads, and an end to gender and ethnicity pay gaps – could be reignited if a ballot in the autumn extends the legal scope for strike action into 2021. Dr Grady said strike action last winter had forced UCEA, as the representative of universities in the dispute, to make meaningful concessions to the union’s demands. 

It is frustrating that we have not been able to begin working together on these important issues. Although it is too soon to predict the full impact of Covid-19, we remain deeply concerned about the anticipated financial shortfall facing our sector
Raj Jethwa, UCEA

UCU – as well as GMB, Unite, Unison and The Educational Institute of Scotland, which also represent employees in the HE sector – submitted their joint union claim in March.

In response, UCEA promised it would examine data on casualised staff, and gender and ethnicity pay gaps, and compile a report with help from the five unions. The UCEA said it could not monitor progress at an institutional level, because individual providers are responsible as autonomous employers to devise their own solutions. It said, however, that it expected “HEIs to be transparent about their action plans by making them publicly available”. 

The UCEA offer also recommended that institutions “determine their own approaches to managing workloads that are appropriate to their specific contexts”.

In its offer to the union, UCEA said it “would expect HEIs to minimise the use of hourly-paid employment to situations which are genuinely short-term and unpredictable or where such arrangements are mutually agreeable to both parties. We recommend that HEIs have arrangements whereby contracts are reviewed for transfer to a fractional contract once an agreed hours threshold is exceeded”.

UCU said these non-binding commitments were “not acceptable”.

Responding to the latest ballot result, Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s chief executive, said: “The employers are naturally disappointed at the result of UCU’s consultative online ballot of members over UCEA’s full and final offer. This was a dispute about a pay uplift implemented a year ago, with increases of between 3.65% and 1.8% for the academic and professional services staff covered.” 

“UCEA’s extensive proposals followed more than a year of discussion with UCU in an attempt to address the challenges relating to casual employment, workload pressures, mental health and wellbeing and the gender and ethnicity pay gaps. 

“It is frustrating that we have not been able to begin working together on these important issues. Although it is too soon to predict the full impact of Covid-19, we remain deeply concerned about the anticipated financial shortfall facing our sector. UCEA and its employers are committed to constructive dialogue with the sector’s unions on the financial challenges facing the sector. Fundamental to that dialogue is a recognition that we all need to work together to protect our sector.”

Read more: USS pension fund deficits double to £13bn

Image via Flickr.

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