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Employers table new offer in pay & working conditions dispute

28 January 2020

We have reached an important point in our 'four fights' dispute over pay, job security, equality and workload. Employers have tabled a new offer and I want to update you as fully as possible on it

When members took eight days of action last term our employers came back to the negotiating table and talks continued through December and January. Yesterday the employers' representative body, UCEA, tabled what they consider to be their full and final offer. We are now in a position to assess our progress so far and consider how to respond. 

The decision about what to do next is the sole responsibility of your elected reps on the Higher Education Committee (HEC), which meets on Thursday. It is HEC that will decide whether to accept the offer, call more action in pursuit of a better offer, or consult branches and members on what to do next.

As general secretary I do not have a vote on HEC and I don't intend to pre-empt its decisions, but what I can do is offer you a summary of the offer and an analysis of what it means. My overall judgement is that this offer is still some distance from fulfilling all the demands we have lodged with employers, but it is a big step forward.

What is in the UCEA offer?

For a fuller briefing on the UCEA offer, click here. In short, UCEA are offering us:

  1. on job security, a set of expectations that indefinite, rather than fixed-term or casual contracts will be the norm throughout the sector; that staff on fixed-term or casual contracts should have similar access to training, development opportunities and careers advice to staff on indefinite contracts; and that institutions will have a process for reviewing staff on fixed-term or casual contracts with a view to moving them to indefinite full-time or fractional contracts. Employers are also expected, where relevant, to sign up to the Researcher Development Concordat
  2. on equality, employers are expected to work with trade unions to develop and review action plans for addressing the gender pay gap; and to place a high priority on examining data on ethnicity pay gaps and making interventions to address the issues highlighted
  3. on workload, employers will be expected to work with staff representatives to investigate ways in which institutional cultures and behaviours may intensify pressures on staff, and develop procedures for ensuring that the demands placed on employees are achievable
  4. on pay, employers have not moved at all from the 1.8% offer which they tabled prior to our ballots and subsequent industrial action.

How much progress does the offer represent?

The fact that employers are now willing to set sector-wide 'expectations' for the three non-pay elements of our demands is a step forward. Before our industrial action they refused to do anything other than analyse existing data and, at best, make a few loose 'recommendations'. Now, they are finally starting to agree a more prescriptive set of requirements for individual institutions to live up to. They are also moving towards higher levels of transparency and detail in the data they are willing to share with us about some of the issues we are confronting.

However, this offer does not deliver on everything we have asked for. The employers have refused to put forward a clear set of mechanisms for policing and enforcing the expectations which they are signing up to. Your branch will need to put in a lot of hard work to make sure that your institution is acting in line with the expectations UCEA have set out. But that should come as no surprise - it always takes local pressure and organisation to hold employers to promises they have made. 

Finally, there are two areas of the offer where progress has been relatively slow: workload and pay. On workload employers have offered fewer concrete commitments than they have on job security or equality. The plans laid out in UCEA's offer will not do much to alleviate the stress and burnout which we know are caused by the unfair, often inhumane expectations employers place on us. And on pay, employers have not put any extra money on the table: they have not moved at all from their offer of a 1.8% increase that fails to keep up with the cost of living.

Less leverage across the sector, but a step in the right direction

What we have achieved so far needs to be set in the context of the very difficult environment trade unions are operating in. Since the 2016 Trade Union Act, we have needed to meet 50% turnout in postal ballots to be able to take industrial action. This year is the first time a significant number of branches - 56 in total - have beaten that 50% threshold in a pay dispute. But 56 is still only a minority of the 150 institutions covered by our collective bargaining agreement.

Before 2016 it was much easier for all of those 150 branches to take action. Almost every employer was feeling some pressure and therefore had some incentive to work to resolve the dispute. Since 2016, there is no doubt about members' desire to take action, and our picket lines have been stronger than ever - but the law has impeded our ability to maximise our leverage by getting every branch out on strike. 

In my opinion the best solution to this problem is an aggregated ballot, in which an overall turnout of 50% across all branches would enable every branch to take action regardless of its individual turnout. We achieved an overall turnout of 49.5% in this ballot, so we are very close to the point where an aggregated ballot would make sense - but this is something for the union to reflect on the next time we are heading into a dispute. 

In the current context, given that we have a minority of branches in the dispute on strike and therefore less leverage, what your action has already achieved is impressive and you should be proud. It is UCU that has stood up for action on equality pay gaps, precarity, and workload intensification. There are other big unions in our collective bargaining framework, but they did not make the threshold and so we have been forced to fight this alone. 

This is an important first step towards establishing the firm, binding, sector-wide agreements we need if we are going to reverse the severe decline in working conditions which higher education staff have experienced. However long it takes, and whatever HEC decides on Thursday, we are on the right track to achieving lasting change in our sector.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

Last updated: 6 May 2022