All out for USS

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HE action - FAQs

HE disputes: industrial action FAQs

This is the latest version of UCU's FAQ on the industrial action called in the USS and pay and equality disputes.

If your query is not answered here please contact Jon Hegerty direct.

What action is UCU taking?

There are currently two disputes involving UCU members in higher education. One relates to the USS pension fund and the other is about pay and working conditions. UCU members in 52 institutions have voted to take strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS) about USS. Members in 70 institutions have voted to take strike action and action short of strike about pay and working conditions. In total, 74 institutions are affected.

Which institutions are affected in each dispute and when will the action take place?

UCU has called strike action in both disputes for a total of 14 working days. Strikes will take during February and March 2020. Other days may be determined at a later date.

Click here for a list are affected by the two disputes.

Action short of a strike (ASOS) began with the first round of strike action in November 2019 and continues.

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, 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 (ASOS) is normally action which affects only certain aspects of your work. Since the changes introduced by the Trade Union Act 2016 we have to determine and ballot members regarding the types of action short of strike we are calling. Action short of a strike in these disputes means we are asking you to:

  • work to contract
  • not cover for absent colleagues
  • not reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action
  • not undertake any voluntary activities

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

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.

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. For further guidance on working to contract click here.

How long will the disputes go on for?

The USS and pay and equality disputes are distinct and involve UCU negotiating with two different bodies - UUK and UCEA respectively. Both disputes are kept under constant review by UCU's higher education committee (HEC) who will determine UCU's next steps.

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 dsipute. 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. This is part of the action short of a strike that members voted to undertake. Rescheduling classes will dilute the impact of the original strike action.

Will the union be paying strike pay?

Yes. The union has agreed to provide strike pay as follows: members earning £30,000 or more will be able to claim up to £50 per day from the third day onwards; members earning below £30,000 will be able to claim up to £75 per day from the second day onwards.

The maximum currently claimable by any one member is £500. Priority will be given to those on insecure contracts, low earnings or with special circumstances.

I am an hourly paid lecturer who is paid for their teaching, preparation and marking in one payment - how will the strike fund help me?

The union will pay appropriate strike pay, subject to the rules governing the Fighting Fund, for each strike day upon which you would have worked based on your normal working patterns, as ratified by your branch.

I have external commitments at another institution not affected by the dispute on a strike day - should I fulfil them?

If the external commitments arise from your employment with the institution where the strike is taking place, 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 a UCU member at a non-striking institution. What can I do to support my colleagues?

You can let colleagues know you support them by sending a solidarity message here or on social media using #ucustrike. You can also donate to the UCU fighting fund to provide direct support to striking members here.

What can I tell my students about the strike?

You can tell them that NUS is fully supporting UCU. See the joint UCU/NUS statement here. UCU produced a video for the first round of strike in November 2019 and there are leaflets you can share with students on the USS [34kb] and the pay & equality [139kb] disputes.

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 higher 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, 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. In recent years, most employers have not deducted salary in respect of action short of a strike.

How will taking strike action affect my pension?

In previous strikes it has been the experience of UCU that most employers do not withhold superannuation contributions and therefore participation in strike action has not generally affected pensions. Institutions that do choose to withhold contributions often make provision for members to make up pension and AVC deficits from their pay. In terms of your final pension, the impact of participating in the industrial action called by UCU is minute compared to the benefits that the union has protected through action in the past. For example, a member earning £50,000 who supported the eight days of strike action called in November 2019 would see a reduction of around £100 in their annual pension as a direct result of the strikes.

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 USS 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.

What is the law on picketing?

Please note UCU has suspended all picketing for any remaining strikes days due to the coronavirus crisis.

Peaceful picketing is allowed and members are encouraged to get involved. Picketing should be carried out at or near an entrance or exit from a site at which the pickets work. When others who are not in dispute come into work or use these entrances or exits, pickets must not interfere with them. UCU's picketing guidance is here [184kb].

I am not a UCU member. Can I refuse to cross the picket line?

We would like everyone to respect the picket lines, but if you are a member of another trade union you should seek their guidance before refusing to cross a picket line. 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 a research fellow fully funded by external bodies but I don't want to cross the picket line. What do I do?

It depends upon who your contract is with. If it is with your home institution and that university is on strike you should join the action. If your contract is with a body who is not part of the dispute you should not take action. If you need further advice contact

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 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 will be working outside the UK during the strike - what should I do?

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

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 Jon Hegerty for further advice and guidance.

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

If your leave is unpaid you have no labour to withdraw and cannot join the strikes. If you 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 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: 3 June 2021