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Employers' last chance to avoid summer term disruption - will they act?

9 March 2020

As we enter the last few days of this wave of industrial action, I am writing to brief you on what is likely to happen over the coming days and weeks.

Further talks have been scheduled with employers this week. We are meeting UCEA, the employer representative in our Four Fights dispute, on Tuesday. We are also continuing to talk to Universities UK about the USS pensions dispute - particularly the implications of the 2020 valuation document which USS published today and which I will give you a fuller update on soon. 

As I updated you last week our negotiators have tabled proposals that they believe would represent a reasonable settlement. However, employers have consistently dragged their feet throughout this process in the hope of outlasting us. If that pattern of behaviour continues, we have to be ready to renew our mandate for industrial action and consider all our options. 

What happens after this wave of action? 

Your elected reps on the UCU higher education committee have decided that we need to be ready to extend our industrial action into the summer term if necessary. Because the law only allows a mandate for action to last for six months, that means that most branches that have been on strike will need to reballot.

Your branch has already been informed about the reballots and a full list of the branches participating is available here.

The reballots will start on Tuesday 17 March and close on Tuesday 28 April. We will see what happens in negotiations over the next few days, but if employers drag their feet and we stop making progress, we need to be ready to renew the union's mandate. 

If we have to schedule more action, what will it look like? 

If we do have to consider further action after next week, we will need to have a serious strategic conversation about the form it should take. The new ballots and the arrival of the summer term will provide new opportunities to increase our leverage over employers - up to and including a potential marking and assessment boycott.

Targeting summer examinations is not something we can take lightly, but I believe it could be the best way to get the outcome we deserve and finally put these disputes to bed. This is something which we need to debate and decide democratically, with a view to making our action as effective as possible. The more effective we can be, the better the offer we can extract from employers. 

If we target exams and graduations, will students still support us? 

The message which I will give to the student organisations that have supported us throughout our industrial action is this: we have already tried every other avenue. We have tried negotiations. We have withdrawn our labour from teaching and research. We have proposed to compromise on several of our demands. On our headline pay claim, our negotiators have said they would be open to an offer of 3% - which represents a great deal more movement than we have ever seen from employers.

The employers' stubbornness has forced us to reballot and consider every option at our disposal. Their expressions of concern about the 'disruption' of students' education have proved hollow. 

If you want more evidence of just how entrenched employers are, look at the University of Oxford. Oxford said 'No' to making an improved offer to cover USS members' pension contributions. Despite the longest industrial action in the sector's history, one of the wealthiest institutions still refuses to pay another penny to help staff stay in their pension scheme. 

Employers have underestimated us - let's prove them wrong again 

Before our ballots opened in September, an employer representative told me we wouldn't get more than 20-30 branches over the 50% turnout threshold for taking action. In the end, we got 74. We have thousands more members than we did when we started. We have seen progress in negotiations, gained overwhelming support from students and generated unprecedentedly sympathetic press coverage highlighting how tough things have got for staff in this sector. 

Employers have not had a coherent response - all they have done is sit on their hands. This industrial action has highlighted the lack of imagination, understanding and leadership on the part of our senior managers. 

I know that many of you will be anxious about what comes next. Striking is difficult and I do not underestimate the toll which it can take, emotionally as well as financially. 

Your elected reps on the higher education committee (HEC) have consistently called bold and ambitious strike action, but that kind of action means nothing if the union as a whole does not work to carry it out. The HEC could not have asked for more commitment at every level of UCU, from the full-time staff through to your elected branch reps and above all you, the members. Whatever happens next, you should be proud of the way you are standing up for our sector. 

If you have any questions about the negotiations, our plans for the reballots and potential further action, or anything else, please email me and I will do my best to answer them.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

Last updated: 6 May 2022