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Taking action short of a strike (ASOS)

15 November 2023

FAQs for members on taking action short of a strike (ASOS).

Taking 'action short of a strike' (ASOS)

What does 'action short of a strike' (ASOS) actually mean?

While a strike is a concerted stoppage of all work, 'action short of a strike' (ASOS) is normally action which affects only certain aspects of your work. Under the Trade Union Act 2016 the union must (in England, Wales, and Scotland) indicate in advance and ballot members on the types of ASOS we are likely to call upon members to take. In Northern Ireland the union can ballot for action without specifying the types of ASOS.

UCU branches involved in the pay and working conditions and/or the USS pensions disputes were balloted on the following forms of ASOS:

  • working to contract
  • not covering for absent colleagues
  • removing uploaded materials related to, and/or not sharing materials related to, lectures or classes that will be or have been cancelled as a result of strike action
  • not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action
  • not undertaking any voluntary activities; and
  • undertaking a marking and assessment boycott.

Members should be clear that, if they are taking part in any of the ASOS described above, they should continue with their other normal duties.

Decisions over when different forms of ASOS are called are made through the democratic mechanisms of the union, including the higher or further education committees.

What does 'working to contract' mean?

Working to contract means abiding strictly by the terms that your contract of employment (or other formal documents relating to your employment) specifies as your hours of work; breaks; workload; or other matters.

For instance, in higher education, most contracts specify a nominal working week of 35-38 hours. In the case of many academic staff there is a further contractual stipulation that staff may be expected work beyond those hours as reasonably necessary to fulfil their duties.

Part of any action may be to expose just how much of our own well-being and free time is regularly sacrificed just to keep the system that exploits us afloat, by simply asking all UCU members to work to contract. Senior managers may need to be forced to confront the unsustainable and dangerous amounts of work created for us, by making our overwork their problem. See also our detailed FAQs on working to contact.

What does 'not covering 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 'removing uploaded materials related to, and/or not sharing materials related to, lectures or classes that will be or have been cancelled as a result of strike action' involve?

Members refusing to add further to the resources that were already available prior to ASOS commencing will be covered by this ASOS, so once the ASOS begins members should refrain from uploading teaching materials for teaching sessions that will be or have been cancelled due to strike action.  Members should not upload new material for use in relation to a specific lecture, tutorial etc. which is cancelled due to strike action, and which the individual member would normally upload for use by students on that day if it were not for the fact the member was on strike.

The situation regarding removal of materials already on a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or similar university system before ASOS commences will vary; whether such materials can be taken down from a university system will depend on several factors including ownership of the materials and, for example, whether ownership rights are explicitly covered in staff contracts of employment. If in doubt about removal of teaching materials present on institution systems before ASOS begins, please contact your branch reps for advice.   

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

By 'lectures or classes' we mean any activity between any UCU member and a student or group of students which involves any instruction, tuition, communicating or sharing of knowledge or guidance.

This includes teaching which would have taken place on one of UCU's strike days and covers instructional activities undertaken by UCU members who are academic-related professional services staff, as well as academic staff. You should, if asked, refuse to reschedule such sessions, stating that you are supporting UCU's action short of a strike. If you are under pressure from your employer or management to reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action, please contact your UCU branch and/or the relevant regional office.

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

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

What does 'not undertaking any voluntary activities' 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. See also the detailed FAQs: What is and is not 'voluntary'?

What does 'marking and assessment boycott' mean?

You can click here for a dedicated FAQ on what this entailed.

Do I have to tell my employer that I am taking action short of a strike?

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, including the various forms of ASOS currently being called. This is intended to minimise the effect of the action and can have the effect of misleading and intimidating members.

You are under no obligation to inform your employer/manager in advance as to whether you will be taking part in strike action or action short of a strike. UCU will have provided your employer with all the information about the action required by law.

If you are asked about whether you are participating in ASOS you should respond only in terms of what action you have taken/are currently taking, but not answer about future intentions regarding ASOS. This will mean that university senior management will need to keep checking for confirmation as to whether you have participated in ASOS and what forms of ASOS you have participated in and when.

If you are asked directly whether you participated in ASOS in the past, or are participating in it now (whatever the timeframe, be it last week, yesterday, or today) you should respond truthfully, but you should not declare your intentions regarding future action.

I am academic-related professional services (ARPS) staff; what do I do with regard to action short of a strike?

UCU produced a separate FAQ/guidance for academic-related professional services (ARPS) staff on action short of a strike.

Does participating in action short of a strike mean I can pick and choose what I do?

No, taking action short of a strike means refusing to undertake the duties/activities specified, it does not mean that you can refuse a reasonable request from your employer to undertake something, unless it is covered explicitly by ASOS.

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, you should temporarily suspend your action and contact your branch who will seek further advice.

Can my employer deduct my pay when I take part in action short of a strike?

Yes, your employer is entitled to make deductions from your pay if you participate in industrial action, including most forms of ASOS.

If the ASOS called consists solely of 'working to contract', then an employer cannot impose pay deductions when you are fulfilling your contract; where the union calls ASOS that goes beyond 'working to contract' and involves refusal to undertake particular contractual duties, such action involves members breaching their contracts of employment.

While an employer cannot lawfully dismiss an employee for participating in ASOS where that action and the consequent breach of contract is covered by a legal industrial action ballot, an employer can refuse to accept 'partial performance' of the contract, and to deduct pay in response to that breach of contract.

Deductions can be up to 100% of pay while you are participating in ASOS (with any work done being deemed to be undertaken on a voluntary basis), although to impose such deductions would be highly punitive and the union would then consult members over escalating industrial action in response.

UCU has produced guidance for branches in response to threats of ASOS deductions (100% deduction or partial deduction). You can read this guidance here (requires UCU membership number to log in).

My employer has made deductions for 'partial performance', can I claim from the UCU fighting fund?

Yes, you can claim from the UCU fighting fund if your employer has made deductions for 'partial performance'.

The criteria for accessing UCU's national fighting fund and the level of payment are determined and authorised by the elected UK officers—usually the immediate past president, president, president-elect, vice president, and honorary treasurer. Further information including how to apply for the fighting fund is available here. If you have any questions about the UCU fighting fund specifically, please contact the UCU fighting fund team.

UCU is also a partner of Education Support, which offers counselling, support, financial assistance to UCU members.

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 and data, please contact the membership department. For questions specifically about the UCU fighting fund, please contact the UCU fighting fund team.

Last updated: 11 January 2024