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Taking strike action

15 November 2023

FAQs for members on taking strike action.

Taking strike action

Who decides on taking action?

UCU is a member-led organisation where decisions are made by UCU members themselves. The democratic bodies of the union (including the annual Congress, sector conferences, and the national executive committee which is subdivided into the higher education committee and the further education committee) decided on what forms of action to take, when to take it, and for how long.

All strike dates/patterns are authorised/signed off by the elected HE or FE officers who are the relevant subcommittee chairs, vice-chairs, and the president.

By law, fourteen days' notice must be provided to all relevant employers before industrial action can begin. Note that a successful ballot only provides a legal mandate for industrial action for a period of six months, starting from the date when the ballot closes. Once the legal mandate expires, trade unions are required to ballot again if members wish to continue industrial action.

When we take strike action, what am I expected to do?

Your union only takes strike action once every other avenue of influence has been exhausted and when the democratic decision-making bodies of the union believe there is no other way to make employers change their position.

It is a very serious sanction and that is why we ask that every member observes the strike. Every member who does not observe the strike is directly undermining the union's bargaining power and making it harder for the union to protect all its members. Every member who does observe the strike is helping to advance the interests of all staff throughout the sector.

When we call a strike, we ask that members do not do any work for all of the days specified by the union. This includes, for instance, time before 09:00 and after 17:00 (if your normal working hours are 09:00-17:00), and includes any activity which is part of your work such as teaching, administration, meetings, emails related to work, marking, 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 you strike. In a nutshell, if you are employed at one of the institutions on strike, do not do any work at all on strike days.

Print materials and paraphernalia will be delivered to any branch involved in action. Your branch will have a plan for action at a local/institutional level, so please volunteer to support your branch in activities.

On strike days, the best possible thing you can do is contact your UCU branch and volunteer to help at the picket lines—and ask colleagues in your department to join you. Picketing is a vital opportunity to demonstrate to the employer the scale of the disruption that the union is able to cause, and get support for your action from students and other colleagues.

What about my students?

UCU is a union of education professionals and we know that our members do not relish taking industrial action that affects our students, to whom you have dedicated so much of your energy, even during extremely challenging conditions like the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown. It is the same for many public services—doctors and nurses for instance.

However, if you take industrial action, you are making a case for greater investment in or defence of the quality of the education and research you provide. In the case of job cuts and rampant casualisation, for example, the union rightly argues that our students are hurt far more by management's actions than by our own. Participating in an industrial action ballot and observing industrial action are defending the interests of staff and students alike—staff's working conditions are the students' learning conditions. Undermining the industrial action ballot and strike action might feel like the right thing in the short term, but will only serve to embolden management and staff and students will all suffer even more in the longer term.

Formally, it is your employer's responsibility to explain to students if classes are to be cancelled on strike days. However, you may wish to talk to your students before any industrial action, explaining why the union is taking this step and asking them to write to management to voice their concerns. You may also wish to discuss some of the practicalities which your students may not be familiar with—in particular, the fact that when you go on strike you will not be paid by your employer, or the fact that legal, official industrial action is preceded by a statutory industrial action ballot of trade union members.

Do I have to tell my employer in advance that I am taking industrial action?

No. It is often the case that management will send out emails/letters demanding that you declare in advance whether you will be taking industrial action. This can have the effect of misleading and intimidating members, and will enable your employer to minimise any disruption.

You are under no obligation to inform management in advance as to whether you will be taking part in strike action or action short of a strike. UCU will provide 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.

Once 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 industrial action on specific days. You should not, however, respond to any such query while you are on strike.

If I have external commitments on the day(s) of industrial action; should I attend them?

If your external commitments arise from your employment with the institution where a strike is taking place, whether they are offline or online, then you should not fulfil them. For example, if you were due to attend a conference in your capacity as a lecturer at a strike-bound university you should not go.

I am not a UCU member; can I take part in industrial action?

On strike days, we would like everyone to respect the picket lines and not go into work. Non-union members (but not members of unions other than UCU) who take part in legal, official industrial action have the same rights as UCU members not to be dismissed as a result of taking action. However, our strong recommendation is that you join UCU so that you have the protection of a trade union before you take part in industrial action.

If you have recently joined UCU and have provided the details requested on the UCU member application form, your UCU 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.

How late can someone join the union and still take part in strike action?

Individuals can join UCU at any point up to and including on the picket line on the day of strike action and lawfully participate in the strike.

I am not a UCU member; can I refuse to cross the picket line?

We would like everyone to respect the picket lines, whether they are a member of UCU or a member of another union. If you are eligible to join UCU we recommend that you join the union, on the picket line if necessary, and do not cross the picket line. We will support any member who is subject to disciplinary action for refusing to cross a UCU picket line.

I am academic-related professional services (ARPS) staff; what do I do with regard to industrial action?

If you are academic-related professional services (ARPS) staff, working in for example (but not limited to):

  • IT/Information services, libraries and archives
  • public affairs, outreach, alumni and fundraising
  • student recruitment and admissions
  • human resources, personnel and health & safety
  • student services such as student unions, mental health and counselling services
  • student learning support including learning technology, disability support and language services
  • facilities, catering and events
  • governance including academic registry, compliance and legal
  • departmental, faculty or school admin
  • museums, galleries and culture
  • careers and employability
  • estates and planning
  • educational, academic and curriculum development
  • international partnerships
  • sustainability
  • technicians
  • widening participation

If the union is calling you to participate in industrial action, then on strike days, this will involve the concerted stoppage of all work. For the duration that the union has called for action short of a strike (ASOS), UCU produced a separate FAQ/guidance for academic-related professional services (ARPS) staff taking part in ASOS.

I am a researcher and my salary is fully funded by external bodies but do not wish to cross the picket line; what should I do?

If you are a researcher—for instance a postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA), research associate or research fellow—although your funding might be from an external body, your contract of employment is usually with the university or college. In this case, if your branch is being called out on strike and taking action short of a strike (ASOS), you should join the industrial action. If you are directly employed by an external funding body or with a body/organisation that is not part of the industrial dispute, you should not take action but try to arrange to work from home. If you need further advice, contact your regional office.

I am a postgraduate/PhD student/researcher but do not wish to cross the picket line; what should I do?

You can legally take part in industrial action (striking or action short of a strike) for research, teaching, and other paid work that you do outside of being PGRs/PhD students (e.g. if you do paid work as a graduate teaching assistant, research assistant, or professional services at or above the salary band often referred to as 'grade 6'). If you do not undertake such work for your institution, you cannot legally take part in industrial action from your postgraduate research work, however you can and should still support this action and work from home if you can.

UCU believes that postgraduate researchers should be considered as staff for all their work. Please see the PGR as staff campaign; further updated guidance for PGRs and industrial action will be released soon.

I am a clinician and a UCU member, and I have clinical commitments on a strike day; what should I do?

We fully understand and respect that clinical staff including medics and psychologists have professional commitments to provide clinical cover. Clinicians are advised not to withdraw from any commitment to direct clinical care and activities. Any clinician concerned about the definition of these terms is advised to contact their own professional defence organisation, and ask them to liaise with the relevant professional body (e.g. the General Medical Council) on their behalf. A clinician who intends to strike should be aware that this will only count as lawful action as part of the UCU strike and if they are a UCU member.

I am an agency worker; what should I do?

If you are employed to work at a university through an agency, then you could not be covered by the industrial dispute and could not legally take part in any industrial action. However, there are still ways you can support your colleagues:

  • send messages of solidarity to striking colleagues
  • explain to agency colleagues the reasons for the dispute and why you support it
  • visually show support e.g. badge wearing, posts on social media
  • work from home / alternative venues if you can on strike days and join the pickets before work
  • do not work outside of your contract or take on work you are not trained to do to cover the work of any staff on strike
  • do not volunteer to cover teaching or other work for others undertaking industrial action if approached
  • do not engage in voluntary activities outside the formal requirements of your contract
  • if you are able, make a donation to the UCU fighting fund.

I am on probation; can I participate in striking?

A member of staff, regardless of probationary status, has the right to participate in official, legally sanctioned industrial action. It should have no negative impact on employment or 'confirmation in post'. If your employer or manager has threatened to fail your probation as a result of participating in official, legally sanctioned industrial action, please contact your UCU branch and/or the relevant regional office.

I am on sick leave or health-related absence during the strikes; what should I do?

If you are on sick leave or health-related absence during the strikes, you should continue your recuperation at home. If you are under pressure from your employer or management to return to work from sick leave or health-related absence early (e.g. in order to cover for striking colleagues), please contact your UCU branch and/or the relevant regional office.

I am on study or research leave during the strikes; what should I do?

If your leave is unpaid, you have no paid labour to withdraw and cannot join the strikes. If your leave is paid, you should join the strikes.

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 consider donating to the fighting fund. If your leave is not essential, you may wish to move it so that you can participate in industrial action alongside colleagues.

I will be working outside the United Kingdom during the strike; what should I do?

While the legal position varies depending on where you will be, UCU's advice is that, if you are working outside the United Kingdom on a strike day, you should work normally and donate to the fighting fund. If you are due to travel as part of your work on a strike day, you should not do so.

I am precariously employed or on a casualised contract; what should I do?

UCU has released guidance on strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS) for members on casualised contracts. This guidance looks at how our members who are precariously employed can support current industrial action in higher education, but it is aimed at all members and branch activists.

I am retired or retiring soon; what should I do?

If you are fully retired, and you have no contract of employment with any institution, then you have no paid labour to withdraw and do not participate in industrial action. You can however support striking staff in the following ways:

If you are retiring in the future or planning your retirement, but you are not yet fully retired, then you continue to be an employee at your institution (holding a full or partial contract of employment). You should therefore participate in industrial action to support your colleagues. There are no exemptions from striking for staff who are near retirement.

I am a member of staff applying for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or a Tier 2/5 visa holder or a Tier 4 visa holder. What is the law regarding industrial action for migrant workers?

In recent years, 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 ongoing concerns about the issue and so we have produced a separate briefing/FAQs which explains your legal rights if you are a staff member or student on a visa or who may apply for an indefinite right to remain in the UK. UCU is committed to supporting all our members in industrial action so if, having read the briefing, you are still concerned about the impact of the strikes upon your immigration status, please contact the UCU national head of equality and policy.

What is the law on picketing?

The purpose of the picket is to persuade workers peacefully not to cross our picket lines i.e. not to go into work. Picketing is a legal activity and picketers should wear an armband indicating that they are on duty.

Picketing should be carried out at or near an entrance or exit from a site at which the pickets work; placards and posters should be displayed stating 'OFFICIAL PICKET'. When others who are not in dispute come into work or use these entrances or exits, pickets must not interfere with them. Please be sensitive towards students who may not be familiar with trade unions, industrial disputes, or picket lines. Note that it is a criminal offence for pickets to use threatening or abusive behaviour to people crossing the picket line. You can read UCU's picketing guidance here.

I am a UCU member in a non-striking institution; how can I help?

If you are a UCU member at an institution that is not involved in current action, or, for national disputes, if you are a UCU member employed in a different sector, there are still many ways that you can help.

You can raise awareness of our disputes by disseminating our campaign materials to your colleagues, you can send messages of solidarity to the UCU branch of a striking institution or on social media using the relevant hashtags, and you can also make a donation to our fighting fund to provide direct support to UCU members at striking institutions.

Note that it is against the law in the United Kingdom to take part in 'sympathy action' or 'secondary action' (going on strike in sympathy with people who work for a different employer).

What is the so-called 'virtual picket line' or 'digital picket line'?

On strike days, UCU members will be involved in the concerted stoppage of all work--this includes any online or electronic work carried out via email and the internet (e.g. answering work-related emails, planning lectures/teaching, any online administrative activities, delivering/attending work-related webinars/training sessions, online research, writing papers and processing applications).

As social media engagement has become a major part of members' lives, on strike days, many UCU members also do not publicise anything work-related or promote any activities at their institutions on social media (e.g. not sharing any college or university news, events, conferences, seminars, research, teaching, publications, grants, projects,  job openings, studentships). This is sometimes referred to as a 'virtual picket line' or 'digital picket line'.

Industrial action: impact on pay and pensions

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

If you are on maternity or parental leave, or any form of long-term absence, please contact your UCU regional office.

How will it affect my pension if I participate in industrial action?

Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS): members taking strike action will see their scheme membership 'paused', but the scheme rules allow for members and employers to keep paying into the scheme for these affected days. In previous strikes it has been the experience of UCU that most employers do continue to make pension contributions and therefore participation in strike action has not generally affected members' pension benefits. Should the employer choose to withhold contributions, the scheme rules are clear that continuity of membership is not broken but pension benefits will not accrue for the days in question when membership is paused.

Teachers' Pensions Scheme (TPS): usually strike days are counted as 'days out' meaning that they, in effect, become invisible. You do not accrue reckonable service and you will not pay contributions for strikes days, but your pensionable service is not broken.

It is not possible to buy back those days lost but members may wish to increase their pension by buying 'additional pension' or additional voluntary contribution (AVC) arrangements.

Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS): In a similar way to TPS, you do not accrue reckonable service during strike days.  You can, however, buy back those days by paying Additional Pension Contributions.  The cost of purchasing the additional days would fall on you unless your employer agreed to contribute. Further details can be found here.

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 intimidate staff by saying that if they should die while taking strike action, they will not receive a death in service payment.

Teachers' Pensions Scheme (TPS) regulations are explicit on this matter and do not allow for this to be case. In fact the TPS website clearly states that TPS 'members remain covered for the "in-service" death grant if they die while on strike'.

For members in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), as with TPS, you remain an active member of the scheme whilst on strike action and therefore under regulations entitled to death in service benefits. For both TPS and LGPS death in service is calculated on normal pay.

The situation in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is different and if your membership is 'paused' (as above) you will be classed as a leaver for life cover and ill-health retirement. This means what you or your family members get will be based on what you have built up (without any enhancements). You can choose to pay a special contribution to keep your full life cover and ill-health benefits while your membership is paused. This would mean you will be entitled to these as if you were still paying into USS. If you wish to do this, you will need to speak to your employer and arrange with them how to make the payment.

You should notify UCU if you are threatened in this way and your local branch will take the issue up on your behalf.

Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action?

All industrial action—other than 'working to contract' as part of action short of a strike—is a breach of your contract of employment. Because UCU will have carried out a statutory industrial action ballot and the action has been formally called, the law protects workers from dismissal while taking part in lawful industrial action or at any time within twelve weeks of the start of the action and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place later.

Can my employer deduct my pay when I take part in industrial action, and how much money will I lose?

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.

UCU members can perform their own calculations and estimate how much of their pay might be deducted, by using online tools such as The Salary Calculator. Members can insert their own tax code (which usually appears in their pay slips), student loan repayments, pension contributions (for example TPS or USS contributions), and other details. Please note that users may need to look under 'Additional Options' to obtain the 1/365th of annual salary or equivalent.

What if I work part-time?

UCU believes that any strike deduction must be pro-rata for part-time staff. The deduction must only be for your contracted hours. Please contact your UCU branch for support in challenging any greater loss.

What if I am on a phased return to work?

If you are on full pay during a phased return to work, then deductions for strike action should be made at 1/365th of annual salary or equivalent.

If you are only being paid a percentage of your salary for your phased return to work, then UCU believes that any strike deduction must be pro-rata. Please contact your UCU branch for support in challenging any greater loss.

What do I do if I have a question that is not covered in this FAQ?

This FAQ will be continually updated by UCU staff. If you have a pressing question that is not covered here, please contact the UCU campaigns team and we will either reply to you directly or provide a response in this FAQ.

Please also note that it is generally not possible for a FAQ document to cover the often unique circumstances of every individual. For casework support or for advice tailored to your precise circumstances, please contact your branch or the relevant national/regional office. For questions pertaining to your membership record or personal data, please contact the membership department. For questions specifically about the UCU fighting fund, please contact the UCU fighting fund team.

Last updated: 3 January 2024