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UCU accuses universities of 'playing games' after they offer to talk about anything but pay

19 November 2019

UCU has accused universities of 'playing games' after they ruled out talking about pay, less than a week before its members are due to walk out on strike for eight days at 60 universities.

The universities' representatives have written an open letter to all members of staff that explicitly refuses to talk about pay. The union has responded* saying it will meet for talks, but that pay needs to be put back on the table.

UCU members are taking strike action from Monday in two disputes. One focuses on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme and one is about pay, casualisation, workloads and inequality.

UCU said it was impossible not to talk about pay when other elements of that dispute were so clearly linked to it. The union said if universities met UCU's carefully weighted pay claim that would help alleviate pay inequality, as there are disproportionate women and black and minority ethnic staff on lower pay.

The letter says that in recent years 'pay has been pegged to the lowest measure of inflation as a ceiling not a floor' and references UCEA's own recent pay report that found that staff pay has fallen by around 17% in the last 10 years.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Universities' refusal to talk about pay smacks of game playing, as they must know an offer like this creates real difficulties in trying to resolve that dispute. Nobody wants to take strike action, but we need to be talking about all the elements if we are to solve all the problems.

'You cannot refuse to talk about pay yet say you want to talk about closing pay gaps that exist for women and BME staff. Our disputes cover the key problems for staff working in universities and they must all be properly addressed.

'We are always keen to negotiate and will attend talks to try and avert the disruption the strikes will inevitably cause. We hope the employers will rethink their approach and we can actually work to try and find a resolution.'

Earlier this month, UCU members backed strike action in the two separate disputes, one on pensions and one on pay and working conditions. Overall, 79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot over changes to pensions. In the ballot on pay, inequality, casualisation and workloads, 74% of members polled backed strike action.

As well as eight strike days, union members will begin 'action short of a strike' from Monday 25 November. This involves things like working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.


* Letter to Helen Fairfoul, UCEA Chief Executive

19 November 2019

Dear Helen

Thank you for your email of 18 November.  I share your disappointment that yet again the outcome of New JNCHES has resulted in a failure to reach an agreement. I note that the proposed offer from UCEA has met with resounding rejection by UCU members, as well as members of the other four trade unions.

New JNCHES negotiations are under strain. The restrictive scope which UCEA has sought to put in place with respect to areas for meaningful negotiation and progress frustrates UCU members' genuine desire to make sector bargaining effective and relevant.

UCU members would prefer not to enter disputes with such frequency. There are serious questions here about how we have ended up in such a position annually, and it is very clear that UCU members have voted in such substantial numbers for something to be done.

It is disappointing to learn that UCEA are lukewarm about a committed approach to negotiation as a way forward. In particular it is very concerning to learn that, although claiming to be open to talks without pre-conditions, UCEA are trying to introduce pre-conditions by attempting to exclude pay from any talks with UCU.

In our recent pay claims, UCU has repeatedly pressed for real progress at a UK level on pay equality, workload stabilisation, and a reduction in the sector's dependency on casual contracts, and we have been repeatedly disappointed by UCEA's response that there is "no mandate" to progress beyond working groups and recommendations that lack compulsion for UCEA member institutions.

Indeed, this exact discussion formed a significant part of our dispute resolution negotiations this summer, and we do not accept the assertion that these issues "were not extensively discussed." UCU's position is clear: we have long pressed very hard on these issues, and we are prepared to meet to discuss all the issues of dispute in an attempt find a solution to them all. We continue to welcome the opportunity to re-open negotiations on these issues, as long as such negotiations do not include a pre-condition that excludes discussion of pay.

We reiterate that New JNCHES should also result in pay increases. In recent years, staff pay has been pegged to the lowest measure of inflation as a ceiling not a floor. UCEA's own recently commissioned work on the decline in staff pay indicates that over the last 10 years staff pay has fallen approximately 18%.

Pay is a significant factor in the dispute. Employers need to understand that imposing a rejected offer, as they did again this year, only compounds members' frustration and determination. In your letter, you identify affordability as a central concern for employers. We agree that it is a central concern. We take the view that strategic choices are made which determine how affordability is framed. This is the space that can and should be further explored in meaningful negotiations.

I note that you request that we suspend the notified strike action as a gesture of towards constructive talks. UCU would be prepared to actively consider such a request if we had something meaningful to put to members in regards to the issues of dispute. Therefore, I strongly suggest we arrange to meet soon as possible, without pre-conditions, to seek to resolve the dispute.

We wish to attend talks that will allow explorations of all connected grounds of dispute further: our members want talks to happen, and they are determined we need to achieve a more comprehensive solution to this dispute than that which has been imposed without agreement.

Yours sincerely

Vicky Blake
UCU Vice President (higher education)

Last updated: 8 February 2022