Staff at Leeds undertook industrial action this week, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Members of the University and Colleges Union are protesting against a proposed change to University Statutes. The new policy, dubbed the ‘Sacker’s Charter,’ would allow employees to be dismissed under the reasoning:
‘Some Other Substantial Reason.’
Picket lines were held across all university entrances, from 7am to 11:30 am every day of the strike. Members of the University and Colleges Union, who had announced the strike, held signs and chatted to students outside the Parkinson Building on Wednesday. There were placards pronouncing the ‘Official Dispute’ with University manage- ment, in addition to homemade cards bearing slogans such as ‘substantial reason to strike.’
There has been a noticeable presence of UCU members getting actively involved, including displaying posters in lectures, in a bid to engage students with the strike action. A student briefing on the strike claims the new statutes are: “a threat to the very heart of what a University is about.”
A petition calling on the University to withdraw the changes has reached more than 1,500 signatures at the time of writing.
The UCU also have support from the Green Party, who voted in their conference to stand in solidarity with the strike action.
Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, also expressed his support for the strikes in a letter to the UCU. He said the “proposed changes … worsen protections for staff.”
The University of Leeds UCU President, Vicky Blake, who was talking to striking members of staff outside the Parkinson Building, previously described the amendment as “a catch-all power to dismiss staff.” She later added in an interview with Leeds Student Radio, that the introduction of SORS would “jeopardise academic freedom”.
The UCU argue the new amendment could leave dismissal procedures open to abuse, citing a number of occasions that could fall under the SORS amendment, such as ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘breakdown in trust’. UCU also argue that it leaves staff jobs vulnerable and “even less secure.”
For many staff taking strike action for these three days, the issue is an ethical one. The worry is that the new policy could threaten academic freedom.
The Leeds UCU website lists a number of examples where they say the SOSR policy has already been used against staff, for example a UCU member at a South of England University who raised claims of racism and was later dismissed under SOSR.
In detailing information for students, the University said it expected most lectures and seminars across the three days to proceed as normal.
However, many students have faced cancellations in classes, sometimes leading to an entire day without any teaching.
In replacement for missed lectures, UCU staff members held a series of events called ‘Teach Outs, allowing students to engage in academic classes, ranging from politics to poetry, which were run by volunteers.
A University spokesperson said:
“Whilst we are taking all possible steps to minimise disruption, we deeply regret any impact on students. We are perplexed by the UCU’s suggestion that we would prevent academics from pursuing new, challenging or controversial ideas – which is core business of any research-intensive university – neither would we dismiss staff for trivial or vexatious reasons. Such actions would simply not be in the University’s interest.
“We’ve consulted, listened and spent considerable time and effort trying to reach accommodation with the UCU and, as a result, have reached agreement on almost all of the changes proposed to the employment procedures. The University is not introducing any new grounds for dismissal, it is simply modernising the procedures it would follow, in the interests of openness and transparency.
“Checks and balances that prevent any abuse of procedures have been included, and the principle and protection of academic freedom – a cornerstone of our constitution – is explicitly enshrined.”
(Photo Credit: Anna Daggett)