Strike ballot opened by UCU over pay dispute


A ballot opened in January could see strike action return to higher education centres if the result is in favour.

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By Eloise McMinn Mitchell

Photo Credit: UCU

The University and College Union has opened ballots across 143 universities in the UK regarding whether to have strike action in reaction to a dispute concerning pay and conditions. The ballot began on 15 January and will close on 22 February. This comes after universities failed to improve on a two per cent pay offer that was made during talks last May.

The ballot will be open to around 70 000 UCU members, with the University of York amongst the institutions being balloted alongside the University of Cambridge, University of Leeds and Lancaster University. Pay rows also saw strikes at six colleges in November 2018, with 16 to have two days of industrial action in late January after they saw a 25 per cent decline in the value of their pay within the last decade.

The UCU said that the offer had been made by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) but did not provide enough of a movement to solve the problem of the decreasing value of salaries in higher education, which has seen a 21 per cent decline since 2009. The UCU contacted vice-chancellors and principals in July of 2018 seeking an intervention in the negotiations, with the hope that they would ask the UCEA to produce an offer that better matched  the demands of the UCU. No such offer was made by the UCEA which the UCU felt it could present to its members and
therefore they decided to ballot for industrial action. Their concerns also included guarantees that universities would focus on the issue of the gender pay gap amongst other concerns alongside the fall in the value of pay.

A previous ballot on this issue took place last year and failed to secure the number of votes required to strike. The  ballot, which closed in October 2018, received a result of 69 per cent in favour of striking but with a turnout below 50  per cent, it did not pass the trade union law threshold that allows for strikes to go ahead. Students from 61 universities
and colleges in their second or third year will have already been affected by strike action last year, where 14 days of  striking took place over reductions to pensions of lecturers which were going to decrease by £10 000 per year. Students at several institutions demanded refunds from the pay withheld from staff striking. The University of York announced that students graduating in 2018 and January of 2019 would have their gowns paid for with the held back pay of striking lecturers, despite cohorts graduating for the next three years having been similarly affected.

YUSU President James Durcan told Nouse “We are concerned that this comes on the back of previous industrial action ballots on pensions and pay, one of which did result in action here in York. We will closely monitor and respond to the situation so that we can ensure that the interests of our student body are actively considered by all parties. It is important that our students receive clear, early and effective communication, and this will be a priority for us should any industrial action take place.”

Matt Waddup, UCU head of policy, said “Staff have concerns about spiralling workloads, pay inequality and the  continued casualisation of the workforce. Yet universities have failed to engage with us in these negotiations which has undermined the credibility of national bargaining and left us in a situation where we have no alternative but to ballot our members. Staff want these important issues to be taken seriously, and that includes the 21 per cent loss in the value of their pay since 2009, which the recently imposed 2 per cent pay offer does nothing to address.”

The UCU has 120 000 members across the UK, with a huge proportion being balloted. The strike action that affected the University of York last year continued over a period of four weeks in the second term of the academic year 2017 – 18. If strikes were to take place again this year, they would likely take place at the end of this term. The ballot outcome should be announced in February.