Staff Unions Balloting For Strikes, with Possible Action Before Christmas

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As we speak, the trade union Universities and College Union (UCU), who represent a majority of University of Leeds teaching staff, are balloting on whether to carry out industrial action. 

As well as UCU, other trade unions which represent staff at the university, Unison and Unite, are also balloting on carrying out strikes with UCU running another ballot on pensions.

The three unions held a meeting on the 15th of October in order to discuss the issues of their members. These issues include increasing workloads, casualisation, pay, and pay gap between genders and race groups. The results, like the pension ballot which only UCU are balloting on, are expected in the first week of November.

All images in this article are credited to Sílvia Blanco Tejerina, March 2018

The UCU’s separate ballot is opposing the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) devised by the pension trust of Universities UK (UUK) which represents the voice of Universities in the UK. This would see staff having to increase their pension contributions compared to previous years. 

The University of Leeds is one of over 136 Universities who are part of UUK. As a result, negotiations take place between UCU and UUK and not between the University itself and the UCU organisation in Leeds.

The ballots close on the 30th of October. For UCU, if there is a turnout above 50% and a majority vote in Leeds in favour of taking industrial action, then strikes could potentially go ahead as early as mid-November even if nationally UCU do not vote for strike action. 

For Unison and Unite, the ballot is nationwide meaning that if a majority vote in favour of a strike in Leeds but this doesn’t happen nationally, then members of these unions will be unable to strike. Because of this, it is more likely the ballot for strike action will pass for UCU and not Unite and Unison.

Strikes would cause disruption for students preparing for Christmas exams as some lectures and seminars may be cancelled. 

The conflict over pensions is a continuation of the long-running dispute between the UCU and UUK. The last strikes were in 2018 where teachers and lecturers went on strike over the course of February, March, and April. After each week, teachers missed one more day of work, starting with two during the first week and culminating in missing five. Some Leeds staff did not go to work in protest against the USS which stated that staff would have to increase their contribution rates, from 8% of their annual salary to 11.4%. 

This caused a significant impact on student welfare leading to dissertation deadlines to be extended in various schools and extensive numbers of mitigating circumstances granted. If strikes occur this year, the University has put several plans in place to ensure that students are supported.

There have also been reports in recent weeks that UCU has instructed lecturers and teaching staff to not upload Lecture Capture recordings. They argue this is because the University is using lecture capture for disciplinary issues. However, this causes issues for students, especially those with accessibility issues, as they will not be able to access materials – especially in the event of a strike.

In response to the ballot and lecture capture issue, a spokesperson from the University of Leeds said:

“We won’t know the outcome of the ballot for industrial action until November, but in the event of strike action, we will do everything we can to minimise the impact on students. We would hope that most teaching will take place as normal, and would encourage staff who take action to rearrange missed teaching, supervision, and assessments.

“Lecture Capture is well-used, and a useful resource for all students. We are disappointed and concerned that UCU is encouraging lecturers not to use it, and this will potentially compound the impact of any strike action on students.”

Lecture Capture appears to be extremely popular with students. One student remarked how it was useful because she “has a lot of clashes so it means she doesn’t miss out on anything”. The student who is dyslexic didn’t realise she had it when she first started studying. Lecture capture helped her revise matierial and go back over it.

Another student who suffers from narcolepsy offered strong words to arguments that lecture capture is not useful telling The Gryphon “who’s shit argument is that?”.

“Who’s shit argument is that?”

One student’s opinion on the argument that lecture capture is not useful for students’ education

She pointed out that because none of her lectures are recorded and that if she has an episode, she can’t go back and revisit the matierial. Another student also noted the noise of people typing in lectures hindered her concentration in a lecture theatre.

Speaking to a PhD student, they pointed out that reportedly around 1000 students are based off campus and therefore rely solely on this digital platform. He said “the world of how people are learning is changing and it is important the University reflects that”.

All of the students The Gryphon spoke to were in support of more lectures being recorded as this helped with revision. One student told us that if her lecturers were to record, then she’d definitely use the resource. However, one student still offered support for strike action, arguing that “it’s not actually about the money but that an institution has the power to take that away”.

The University plans to update students in the event of any form of industrial action and how this might affect studies directly through School-level liaison as well as student communication channels such as www.students.leeds.ac.uk

We know students might have a range of thoughts and feelings about any lecturer strike action, and we currently don’t know what the outcome of the UCU ballot will be. However, if strikes go ahead, LUU’s priority will be supporting our members. We will strive to make sure students have all the right information on what’s happening and are aware of how they can express themselves on the issue.

Our Help & Support team are always on hand in the LUU foyer to answer questions or concerns, and we’ll be working closely with School Reps to make sure we’re always thinking about how the situation is affecting students from faculty to faculty.

Statement by a Leeds University Union spokesperson

In a statement on the lecture capture issue, UCU said:

UCU has recently advised members to opt out from lecture capture, over concerns that the university has used it to gather evidence for disciplinary purposes, to show lectures by staff who have left instead of replacing them, and to show lectures by staff who are taking strike action. 

We have asked management for reassurances that this is not the intention of the lecture capture policy and won’t happen in future. We hope those assurances will be forthcoming. In the meantime, staff have been advised to continue to support individual students (e.g. those with disabilities) following best practice.

Statement from UCU on lecture capture issue

“UCU members don’t want to strike or harm students’ education. We want to be doing our jobs – teaching, researching, running libraries or IT etc. But employers take advantage of this by upping workloads, maintaining inequalities and precarious employment, implementing real terms pay cuts and increasing pension costs. 

Staff are stressed, our mental health is suffering, and this isn’t good for students. Sadly, experience tells us the only way to make employers negotiate properly is threatened strike action. UCU negotiators are trying to get sensible agreed national frameworks on these issues so students and staff don’t have to go through this every year. We hope our strike ballot results will make this happen.”

Statement from UCU on ballot

The Gryphon also reached out to Unite and Unison for comment.

Some students we spoke to were not supportive of possible strike action. One student argued “I’ve paid a tuition fee. I’ve paid for a service and so I expect a service in the form of an education” but went onto add “I don’t care if they strike as long as it doesn’t affect me”.

UUK argue though this was necessary considering a 2018 valuation of their budget deficit reaching £3.6 billion as their evaluation took into consideration other factors.

The 2018 strikes ended with a temporary cease-fire whereby it was agreed that a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was to be set up to make proposals on how the UUK should cut its deficit. Its subsequent report published in September stated that members should only have to increase their contributions to 9.1% and advised the UUK to carry out other cost cutting policies.

However, the UCU claim that the UUK has ignored the JEP’s report as members contributions have risen to 9.6%, 0.5% more than the JEP’s advice. According to the UCU, this leaves teachers on average £10,000 worse off over the course of their career. However UUK did offer UCU a proposed adjustment of 9.1 with the Employer picking up the extra 0.5%. This proposal was rejected by UCU and not put to members.

The JEP explores various options for UUK and UCU to consider and did accept, similar to UUK’s own evalutation of the pension fund’s state, that there was a deficit. A second JEP report was due for September 2019 but has been delayed.

Under the UUK trust, all of its Universities have also increased pension contributions from 18% to 21.1%. This is in line with a longstanding cost-sharing principle of 65% and 35% between Employer and Members.

As a result of being part of a collective, the University itself cannot decide whether to change pension contributions for employees in Leeds as it is a decision made by all UUK Universities on a national level. 

Furthermore, once any agreement made between UUK and UCU has to be run through the USS trustee whose duty it is to act in the interest of all parties. After this, all pension funds have to then be approved by the Pensions regulator to check whether it is economically sustainable. This is to ensure that the pension fund will continue to exist in the future and can be sustained by those currently employed.

UCU are also balloting on action short of a strike. This means that if only this passes, lecturers and other UCU members can stop doing any work that is not defined in their employment contract. This would cause less disruption to students than strike action.

All images credited to Sílvia Blanco Tejerina, March 2018