The Four Fights Dispute: Vote to Reject

Writing this blog as one of the UCU national negotiators who has met with UCEA prior to and throughout the dispute, I offer here my reflections on why we should reject the offer, and what next steps we can take to resist the ‘sack and slash’ position taken by so many Higher Education institutions towards their staff. I have written elsewhere, including very briefly on Twitter, about why we should reject the Four Fights offer. I argue that in and of itself the notion that is it an offer is a complete misrepresentation.

Often, in my experience, the discourse around membership of UCU and actions taken collectively nationally and even within institutions forgets, or omits to include the interests and needs of all of the membership. UCU represents academic, academic related, and professional staff. A significant proportion of our membership, the casualised precariat, has grown over recent years, paradoxically, whilst permanent secure staff numbers have not.  It should also be remembered that in both the USS and Four Fights dispute casualised staff, Postgraduate Researchers, Postdoctoral Researchers, and Teaching Assistants joined our union and took industrial action as an act of solidarity, which we are in danger of turning into an act of self-sacrifice.  These are the very members of our union who are suffering most from the savage attacks on HEIs, the list is growing daily, although currently includes: Liverpool, Imperial College, SOAS, Reading, Cardiff, Southampton, Portsmouth, Goldsmiths, Dundee, Sheffield, King’s College London and Roehampton.  

In this ever-growing list of HEIs it is casualised staff, with a disproportionate number of women and BAME members who are bearing the brunt of the sack and slash assault on our members and yet, the proposed UCEA offer asks us to believe that these same employers, or any others for that matter will fulfil the “expectations” of the resolution of our dispute, namely that work will be done to address casualisation and the gender and ethnicity pay gaps.  Given the actions of UCEA’s membership, and given the history and context within which went into industrial dispute, why would we accept an offer that sells out casualised, women and BAME (often one and the same), and why would we accept a further ‘real terms’ cut in pay?

Turning to UCEA’s offer, which purportedly proposes to “addresses concerns regarding fair and equitable employment arrangements, security of employment, workloads, and gender and ethnicity pay gaps.”

“Achieving fair and equitable employment arrangements within HE institutions

The contractual arrangements offered to employees will be for individual institutions to determine and we expect them to develop approaches that fit the issues and needs they have at each institution.”

We have already seen, with a wave of institutions serving S188 notices in UCU branches across the country that individual institutions are determined to reduce their workforces, in a number of instances, sacking staff and reemploying them on significantly reduced terms and conditions. And we now know what many institutions mean by reducing zero hours m fixed term and part time hourly paid contracts, they have simply sacked many of those staff, who may never be re-employed in the sector. Some employers are claiming these detriments to employment conditions will be only for a limited term.  Most members do not buy this.  If we make any concessions on conditions, employers will only hit us harder with job losses and pay freezes.

“Stress and Mental Wellbeing.”

Nothing exacerbates the already high levels of stress more, resulting in poor mental health amongst workers in HE, than sacking staff, leaving those left behind with increasingly unmanageable workloads.

Closing gender and ethnicity pay gaps

With the notable exception of a very small number of institutions, Bath University springs to mind, little, if anything, has been done to close the gender and ethnicity pay gaps over the last decade and longer.  I can discern no evidence to suggest that the “expectations” placed on employers to work meaningfully to address these long-standing gaps will come to fruition.  In particular, given that UCEA is proposing a pay freeze for 2021, this would be particularly clever act to pull off.

Next Steps

If as a union we are to resist the attacks on higher education and its workers, we need to join together as a coalition of grassroots activists, share ideas, and take action. Coronacontract,  Branch Solidarity Network, UCU Left, Convention for Higher Education, UCU Solidarity Movement     and other groups within UCU are working to defend our jobs our terms and conditions. We can, if we come together, change the landscape of Higher Education in the UK.  Industrial action is not our only recourse, although we will use it if necessary, however, our first step is to reject the offer and send a strong and clear message to the employers that we took industrial action to defend job security, achieve fair pay for women BAME workers, tackle killer workloads, and address serious impacts on our members’ physical and mental health and safety.

In the context of severe pressures facing the sector some members may think that if we back off or soft pedal on some demands, the employers will treat us more generously on other fronts.  It does not work like that.  If we retreat in some areas, the employers see this as a green light for a wholesale offensive.  So rejecting the employers’ offer in the four fights dispute also strengthens us to resist redundancies and attacks on conditions of service.

Our call to action? Reject the offer, strengthen the hand of the national negotiators, who already believe that UCEA, despite their attempts to convince the negotiators that pay cannot be part of our discussions for 2021, will negotiate. Let’s send that message loud and clear.

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