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FAQs on the Northern Ireland industrial action in FE

23 March 2021

Answering frequently asked questions on the industrial action in Northern Ireland further education.

What action is UCU taking?

We are taking one day of strike action on 24 March 2021 followed by continuous Action Short of Strike (ASOS) in all six of Northern Ireland regional colleges to secure a fair pay deal for lecturing staff.

What does taking strike action mean?

Strike action means not doing any work for all of the days specified by the union. This includes, for instance, time before 9am and after 5pm and includes any activity which is part of your work such as teaching, administration, meetings, emails relating to work, marking, completing registers, research or conferences where you are directly or indirectly representing your employer. It also means not doing any preparation for work that you are due to do when you return to work after your strike. In a nutshell, if you are employed at one of the institution on strike don't do any work at all on strike days!

What does action short of a strike mean?

While a strike is a concerted stoppage of work, action short of a strike is normally action which affects only certain aspects of your work. The UCU has called the following forms of ASOS:

  • withdrawal of goodwill
  • working to contract
  • no overtime
  • refusal to engage in additional duties outside of those agreed in your programme of work/professional discussion/local agreement.

Action short of a strike begins at the same time as the strike action and continues until the union calls it off.

What does withdrawal of goodwill mean?

The removal of good will refers to those activities that ordinarily members might voluntarily agree to do to ensure the smooth running of the workplace. Examples could be attending meetings that you are not contracted to, undertaking additional support work on a voluntary basis, completing a survey, consultation or a questionnaire, volunteering at open days or away days that had not been previously agreed, attending meetings or events outside of your working hours or during the lunch hour, agreeing to cover for absent colleagues, changing previously agreed annual leave to accommodate a specific work request.

We are asking that members say NO to anything which does not form part of your formal roles and responsibilities or seeks to vary those roles and responsibilities outside of the professional discussion/agreed programme of work.

What does working to contract mean?

Working to contract means abiding strictly to the terms that your contract of employment (or other formal documents relating to your employment) specify as your hours of work; breaks; workload; or other matters. For further guidance on working to contract click here.

What does refusing to provide cover for absent colleagues mean?

This means that unless your job is wholly or predominantly about covering for other staff, you should refuse to provide cover. An example of this might be where a colleague is unwell and you are asked to take on their teaching or other work.

What does refusing to reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action mean?

This includes any scheduled teaching activity which would have taken place on one of UCU's strike days and applies to all UCU members not just those directly responsible for the relevant lecture or class. You should refuse to reschedule this activity or share materials that would have been covered in the class or lecture when asked stating in response that you are supporting UCU's action short of a strike.

What should I do if I have already rescheduled strike hit classes or if someone else such as my head of department has already rescheduled them?

Once the action has started you should not teach rescheduled classes whoever has rescheduled them.

Do we have to leave work for students?

No, leaving work for students or providing them with work completion instructions will undermine the impact of the strike.

What does refusing to undertake any voluntary activity mean?

Not undertaking any voluntary activity means that where you have a choice as to whether you undertake some work, you should not do it. Contracts differ but, for example, weekend working is voluntary for some staff. In some departments, certain roles are also voluntary.

If you are in any doubt about what you are required to do under your contract, check your contractual documents which may include your offer letter, statement of main terms and conditions and any staff handbook and talk to your UCU representative.

Does participating in action short of a strike mean I can do what I like?

Taking action short of a strike does not mean that you can refuse a reasonable request from your employer to undertake something, except those matters (working to contract, not covering absent colleagues, not rescheduling classes lost to the strikes, and not undertaking voluntary duties) which are specified parts of the action. How reasonable any request is will depend on the terms of your contract and custom and practice. If in doubt or if your actions are challenged by someone senior to you, temporarily suspend your action and contact your branch who will seek further advice.

What does refusal to engage in additional duties outside of those agreed in the professional discussion/programme of work/local agreement mean?

The lecturer contract requires your "student contact time and other associated duties are set out in the agreed programme of work." The professional discussion to agree the programme of work should take place at the beginning of the academic year and adjustments may be made to meet the needs of the service during the first 6 weeks of the first semester. There will be a further review prior to the commencement of the second semester which may also lead to programme adjustment. Outside of these two occasions programme change will be by agreement. We are asking members not to agree to any changes or additions.

This does not apply to the assessment changes examining bodies have made in response to the pandemic to substitute for the absence of examinations.

Arrangements for Ads vary from college to college. If you are unsure as to whether you should be undertaking an AD request by your line manager, please check with your local branch.

How long will the dispute go on for?

The dispute will continue for as long as it takes to secure a fair pay award and acceptable conditions of service for FE lecturers.

Do I have to tell my employer I am going on strike or intend to take action short of a strike before the action begins?

No. You do not have to tell your employer whether you plan to take industrial action in advance of the date when action begins. Doing so will enable them to minimise any disruption the action is aimed to cause and therefore undermine the dispute. UCU has already provided your employer with all the information about the action required by law including those categories of members who we are calling on to take action.

When is it OK to tell my employer I am taking industrial action?

Once the industrial action has begun and you are back to work following the strike action you should respond truthfully to any query from your employer as to whether you have taken or are taking industrial action. You should not, however, respond to any such query while you are on strike.

Are there any exemptions from having to take industrial action?

No. All UCU members employed at the institutions affected are asked to take action.

Should I reschedule lectures or classes that are cancelled due to the strikes?

No. Rescheduling classes will dilute the impact of the original strike action and the employer cannot insist you teach classes that they have made a strike pay deduction for.

What can my colleagues do to support the action who are members of support staff unions?

You can let colleagues know they can support you by sending a solidarity message here or on social media using #ucustrike.

What can I tell my students about the strike?

You can tell them that the president of NUS-USI is supporting the action and ask them to send this letter to Minister Dodds.

I am not a member of UCU, if I join can I then take part in the action?

Yes, if you join UCU you will be able to participate in the action with the protection of the union as soon as you are signed up. While non-UCU members have the legal right to participate in strike action at their workplace our strong recommendation is that you join UCU so you have the protection of a trade union before you join the action.

If you have provided the details requested on the form your membership will be active from the date of application. This means that you are able to take part in any strike action while awaiting your membership number.

Am I in breach of my contract if I go on strike?

Yes, taking any industrial action is a breach of contract. However, UCU has carried out a legal ballot and complied with all legal formalities, the law protects workers from dismissal whilst taking part in lawful industrial action or at any time within 12 weeks of the start of the action and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place later. This kind of dismissal has never happened in further education.

Can my employer deduct my pay when I take part in industrial action?

Yes, your employer is entitled to deduct your pay if you participate in industrial action. For strike action, the union contends that any deduction should be at 1/365th of any annual salary or equivalent. For part-time staff or those employed on a session by session basis, deductions should only reflect the pay normally due for the work not undertaken and no more.

For action short of a strike we are asking members to work to contract. Therefore your employer cannot effect pay deductions when you are fulfilling your contract. Should the union escalate ASOS to boycotting particular activities, your employer has the right to refuse to accept the partial performance of your contract and to deduct up to 100% of your pay while you are participating in the action so long as they make their intentions clear.

How will taking strike action affect my pension?

Absence on a day's strike will not count towards pensionable service. So, in the same way that you will not be paid for a strike day, the pension contribution will not be made for that day. The pay lost will reduce the average pay used in any calculation of benefits. It may be possible to buy back service lost, but in reality the amount is usually so small it is not worthwhile.

It is important to bear in mind that the increases in pay won by UCU through taking industrial action over the years have boosted the final pensions of thousands of members. Without union intervention, pension benefits would all be lower today.

My employer has told me that I will lose core pensions rights such as death in service if I take part in strike action, is this true?

From time to time, individual employers seek to bully staff by saying that if they should die while taking strike action they will not receive a death in service payment. We understand that TPS themselves are not aware of any such case. You should notify UCU if you are threatened in this way and our local branch will take the issue up on your behalf.

Will participating in strike action affect my entitlement to statutory maternity pay (SMP)?

You are entitled to SMP (subject to fulfilling the other statutory requirements) if you have been continuously employed for 26 weeks ending with the week immediately preceding the 14th week before the expected week of confinement (EWC). The calculation of continuous employment does not, however, include any week during which you participate in strike action. So, if you take strike action and have worked for your employer for less than 26 weeks up to and including the 15th week before your EWC you will lose your right to SMP. If you are in this situation, please advise your branch officers immediately. Or put another way, a woman needs 26 weeks of continuous service going into the qualifying week (15 weeks before the EWC), but a week in which she is on strike does not count (though it does not break continuous service). So the woman needs an extra week's service before the 15th week (assuming the strike does not affect more than one week of service, otherwise she will need more service to compensate). It will usually only affect recent employees, because if a woman has, for example, two years of service the issue would only arise if her service is broken for some other reason. There is further explanation and useful diagram on the Department for Work and Pensions website.

I am a UCU member in a non-striking institution and I have scheduled business at a striking institution, can I be dismissed if I do not cross a picket?

The position of UCU members who decide not to cross the virtual picket line is that while it is possible you could be disciplined or dismissed these are very rare occurrences. UCU will support any members from other institutions who refuse to cross official picket lines.

I am working on a visa - does this affect my right to strike?

Last year UCU won important protection for staff on visas so that they could take lawful strike action without affecting their visa status. However we recognise that many members who want to support the union have real concerns about the issue and have produced a separate briefing which explains your legal rights if you are a staff member or student on a visa or who may potentially apply for an indefinite right to remain in the UK. UCU is committed to supporting all our members in this industrial action so if, having read the briefing you are still worried about the impact of the strikes upon your status, contact Position vacant for further advice and guidance.

I am booked to be on annual leave during the strikes - what should I do?

If your annual leave is essential you should take it as planned and donate to the strike fund. If your leave is not essential you may wish to move it so that you can participate in the action alongside colleagues.

Last updated: 17 November 2023