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UCU at Ulster Committee ballot guidance for members

April 12, 2018

We apologise for not arranging a members’ meeting to discuss the ballot which closes this Friday. The timing was unfortunate for us given Ulster University closes during Easter week. In the absence of a meeting, we are instead publishing our thoughts through our social media channels.

The UCU at Ulster committee communicated with each other by email last week and met this week, and have discussed at length our individual approaches to the ballot. The committee has not come to a consensus or a clear majority position on the ballot and as such cannot recommend an approach to members.

Of course it is each member’s individual choice how to vote, but the committee believe we have a responsibility to offer some guidance to you.  We have decided, therefore, to present briefly to you the arguments of your committee members who take each position.

We have no doubt many of you will have engaged with the debate on twitter and/or read a lot on the issue via other means. The points we make here are our own specific approaches, and reflect the discussions we have had in the absence of being able to share these with you at a members’ meeting.

We had also hoped that information from the USS meeting on 11th April would have been shared with UCU to shed further light on the situation. This has not happened.

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Arguments for voting ‘yes’.

When we began our strike action we had two main concerns. We questioned the assertion that the USS pension had a significant deficit and wanted a commitment from our employers to ensure that our defined benefits pension would be retained.

Through the strength of national industrial action UUK have moved their position considerably and have now agreed to convene a Joint Expert Panel, with equal representation from the unions and UUK to complete a valuation of the scheme.  UCU will be able to appoint members to sit on this panel, as well as a jointly agreed chair and will be working hard to secure our best interests.

Secondly there is a commitment in the UUK proposal to ‘provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements’. Whilst this is not a cast iron guarantee that defined benefits will be retained forever and certainly some members are concerned that the wording in the statement is not strong enough for their liking, it nevertheless provides a commitment to maintaining similar arrangements to what we have now.

It is only through our strong industrial action that we have come this far and a ‘Yes’ vote means that we can bank these gains and move forward. If any of the stakeholders in this process (UUK, the Pensions Regulator or USS) act in bad faith, we have proved that we are strong enough to oppose them and can reinstate our strike action if necessary. By accepting the current proposal, we will retain the support of our students and the wider public who will be more willing to support us again if our trust is subsequently broken.

Through our industrial action we are now a stronger union and the employers have seen our collective strength. The pensions debate has also focussed attention towards critical concerns of marketisation of education, casualisation of our workforce, REF, TEF as well as transparency, values and governance.  We can congratulate ourselves of achieving major concessions in this first round of the pensions debate and will continue the fight if necessary, whilst focussing our efforts now on these other crucial elements of our working conditions.

That is why we should vote ‘yes’.

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Arguments for voting ‘no’.

There is no doubt that UUK have shifted their position very significantly directly as a result of our first phase of strike action. However, the very fact that we are in a strong position means that we should not be unnecessarily settling for an offer that is less than it could be.

We are being asked to vote on a UUK proposal, not a negotiated position. UCU leadership should not have presented this to members, but should have sought more clarity or a negotiated position before doing so.

The proposal, whilst promising, uses vague language that leaves it ambiguous. For example, it talks about a pension ‘broadly comparable to current arrangements’ and says that UUK ‘does not intend’ to follow through the abolition of defined benefits that is currently planned for April 2019. The proposal suggests positivity of spirit, but guarantees us nothing.

Nor does the proposal contain the timeframe and deadlines it would need to make a difference. The last position stated publicly by USS was that the USS trustee intends to proceed without reference to the expert panel, and to finalise a schedule of revised contributions and benefits in line with the November valuation by the end of June, that is, to do what they were planning to do prior to our strike action.

The majority view of branches’ input to the last branch delegates’ meeting was to ask for the proposal to be ‘revised and resubmitted’ to improve the clarity of the proposal, yet the Higher Education Committee (HEC) were not given the opportunity to discuss or vote for this approach due to the way the HEC meeting was structured. Therefore neither the decision to ballot nor the options that appear on the ballot were arrived at democratically.

The ‘revise and resubmit’ approach of this branch, and many others, has been communicated incorrectly in the preamble accompanying the e-ballot. Some branches asked for ‘no detriment’ but many, including our own branch, did not. We simply asked for further clarification of what was being proposed. This was not the unrealistic approach likely to put UUK on the attack that it has been presented as.

If members vote to accept, we will be in a better position than we were before our strike action, but we could get, and deserve the right to fight on for, something better again.

We should therefore vote ‘no’.

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Colleagues, we hope that these arguments, in addition to other materials we have circulated, are useful to you in coming to your own decision on how to vote. We urge you to use your vote and ensure your voice is heard.

Yours in solidarity

The UCU at Ulster Branch Committee.

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Message to members following phase 1 of USS strike action

March 16, 2018

Hi all, now that the strikes are over (for now) I just want to record my thanks to all of you for all your support throughout the strike period. We have surpassed all expectations and have had pickets on every campus, at every entrance, every day. We have had staff from across the university, at every level, from every school or department, striking with us and have been supported by our students and the Student’s Union. We have shown that we are united, principled and can influence decision making at the highest level.

We realise that it has not been easy for many of us and I will circulate details of the national strike fund and local hardship fund as soon as I can. Locally we particularly want to support hourly paid staff and those who will be disproportionately affected by financial loss. If you have supported us, then we want to support you.

Now that we are back to work, you may have pressure put on you to reschedule work or take on additional duties to make up for time lost to the strike. Please DO NOT do this. You should notify your line manager that you have been on strike but you do not have to supply any additional information about your course or assessment arrangements put in place to cover strike days.

The following are forms of words you can use or draw on and amend.
If asked for information:

‘Dear whoever, thank you for your email. I have supplied all necessary information to meet my legal obligations regarding strike action. I will be unable to answer any further detailed enquiries until I receive further advice from my UCU representatives’.

If asked to go to a meeting:

‘Thank you for your invitation to meet regarding the impact of strike action on my course. I have already supplied all necessary information in line with UCU advice and legal requirements and will therefore be unable to attend’.

You do not need to answer emails retrospectively and you should certainly not try to fit lost work into one day, or work this evening of over the weekend. As you know, the union is on ongoing action short of strike (ASOS) which includes working to contract and not undertaking voluntary activities. If you are faced with any issues please get in touch on t.irwin@ulster.ac.uk.

We will call meetings next week on each campus to update you on developments and to plan for phase 2 of this solid, national action. Look out for our emails and those from UCU HQ.

Thank you once again for your ongoing support. We have not yet got the deal we require but we are much closer than we were four weeks ago.

Open letter to Ulster University VC, Paddy Nixon

February 26, 2018

Dear Professor Nixon

As you are aware UCU members at Ulster University are taking industrial action to defend their USS pension.  We stand together with 64 other universities across the U.K. in demanding a fairer deal.  As we enter a fourth strike day tomorrow and Universities U.K. (UUK) meet with our UCU national negotiators (27th Feb), UCU members at Ulster University seek to know what your position is regarding the UUK proposals that have triggered this dispute?

The UCU Ulster Committee previously wrote to you on 19th January 2018 about this matter and your reply did not address the questions we raised on behalf of members.  As you are Ulster University’s voice within UUK, the UCU believe it is only fair and reasonable that you state what view you put forward at that forum concerning your staff’s pension arrangements.  Nineteen Vice Chancellors have now publicly called for fresh negotiations, do you stand with those Vice Chancellors and if so, when can Ulster staff expect to see a public statement from you to that effect?

If you continue to remain silent on the matter your staff, and UCU at Ulster, will assume the worst, that you support the aggressive stance taken by UUK.  Such an assumption is likely to adversely affect the esteem in which your workforce holds your leadership.

As talks at national level about the dispute take place tomorrow I shall be grateful for a response from you by return.

Kind regards

 Dr Tracy Irwin

UCU@Ulster Branch President

League table musings: Ulster is plummeting, but not because of the staff

February 21, 2018

Well, the Guardian league tables are out and they make for eye-watering viewing. We came 96th out of 121 institutions, down from 79th in 2017, with an overall score of 49.6 down from 53.9. Meanwhile, Queen’s is up 10 places from 48 to 38.

What is most striking is the breakdown of the various evaluations that led to this overall ranking.

We are much higher up the table for the scores that arise from the work we staff on the ground are responsible for – the work that universities are all about, like teaching and providing good courses. Sadly, UU is heading staggeringly close to the bottom for areas that come within management’s control such as student staff ratios and spend per student. The statistics appear to indicate our management are failing our students and us to an increasingly dramatic degree.

We are 40th for students’ satisfaction with their course and 66th for satisfaction with teaching, both much better than our overall position of 96 illustrates. But we are 107th for spend per student, and 108th for student staff ratio. Yes, you read right, 107th and 108th out of 121.

The detailed picture compared with last year is depressing, but it’s not surprising. On spend per student and student staff ratio we have fallen 30 and 31 places respectively.

We’ve also fallen in the area we have previously excelled in, down 34 places for satisfaction with teaching, and 32 places for satisfaction with course. You’re probably already ahead of us and have realised this means that last year, we were just on the cusp of the first quartile for teaching (32nd), and in the top 10 for course satisfaction (8th. Yes, 8th out of 121).

We were punching well above our weight in the past, and management should have been shouting their gratitude from the rooftops. But what did they do instead? Cut lecturing staff so severely that almost 150 of our colleagues had to go, many forced out by course closures and proportional cuts that lacked any rationale. Support staff restructured to within an inch of what they could withstand. Is it any wonder we’re plummeting to the bottom?

If our VC was a football manager the board would have given him a vote of confidence by now.

Ulster University management pays compensation late and accruing interest

February 21, 2018

Management failed to pay the 90 days’ salary ‘protective award’ on time to dismissed employees after being ordered to do so by an industrial tribunal. In some cases the payments were a week late.

Management did not acknowledge the delay until UCU members wrote to ask why they had not received payment. Management neither provided apology nor reasons for the delay to those affected. When payment was finally confirmed, they did not mention the interest payment, and members who queried it received an evasive response.

UCU now understands that interest payments have been made to some dismissed colleagues, but it seems they have not been made to all. Furthermore, we do not have reports of any explanatory communication around this.

UCU reminds management that they are liable to provide these payments to anyone who received their protective award late, and that legal recourse will be taken if they do not pay.

Tracy Irwin, UCU at Ulster president, said, ‘It is outrageous that, after already using over a £1m of Ulster’s budget on a wholly unnecessary court case, our management are still not taking care to get things right. We thought that, surely, after the damning tribunal judgement, we would at last see a shift in practices at Ulster. It is also disappointing management did not consider it necessary to apologise to the 143 colleagues who lost their livelihoods.”

The UCU understands those due awards were advised of the incorrect calculations that were based upon gross rather than net pay leading to all payments having to be recalculated thus causing the delay.

Talking pensions: conversations from the corridor

February 21, 2018

So are you going out on this strike then?

What do you mean?

I’m just wondering what your take on it is. I’m still deciding.

Well, I’m a union member.

Aye, so am I.

And you think you still have a decision to make?

Well, I didn’t vote for it.

I didn’t vote for Brexit mate, but I don’t get to stay in the EU when the country leaves just cos I didn’t vote for it.

What?

We voted in a democratic ballot. Well, I hope we both used our vote. The support for strike action was overwhelming. Therefore we are going on strike. All of us. It’s our responsibility as union members. Trade Unionism 101 mate. You’re undermining the union if you don’t. But you’re going to reap the benefits if we win. How’s that fair?

But 14 days mate. 14 days. That’s half a pay packet.

Yeah, it’s going to be hellishly tight for a while. I’m going to have to see about a mortgage holiday for a couple of months. But it’s worth it. I’m going to lose half a month’s pay now, but if we don’t fight I could lose up to half a year’s worth of my pension, every year. This is a drop in the ocean if you look at it that way.

But I literally don’t know if I’ll manage. You’re talking about mortgage holidays. I’m renting so I don’t have that option. Our childcare bill is astronomical, and I’m having to top up the cost of my mum’s care. We’ll be lucky if we’ve a tin of beans by the end of the month.

We’ll get strike pay. It’s not much, but it’s something. Bottom line, if the action was easy it wouldn’t be enough to win. Sometimes being a union member involves a bit of sacrifice.

But what about the students? As usual it’s them that’ll suffer. One of my modules this semester is final years. Are you expecting me to mess up their degree classification?

We’re not on different sides here, you know. I shouldn’t have to expect you to do anything. Get your students on board. Of course the students are going to be angry. But ask them to think about the bigger picture and direct their anger to the VC and UUK.

I hear you. But not all my students are that switched on and political. It’s going to be a nightmare convincing them.

But the Students’ Union have come out in support of the strike. Nationally and locally. The UUSU council is asking them not to cross picket lines.

Seriously?

Seriously.

OK then. But don’t expect me to be on a picket line.

There’s that ‘don’t expect me …’ again …

Sorry. In my heart I really want to do this right mate, but a picket line seems a step too far. All the ones that do that are a bit radical, like. 

You should come and check it out. The craic is mighty. And it feels brilliant when you get cars tooting and people doing U-turns at the entrance. And there could be 14 days of it, which is a bit much for the same people to carry the whole time, isn’t it?

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get there with the picketing at some stage. For now how about I commit to putting up a few posters and bringing you all a load of sandwiches and coffees a couple of the strike days?

That would be brilliant, thanks.

Ulster University management failed to consult and actively misled trade union, industrial tribunal finds.

December 5, 2017

The University and College Union (UCU) has won an industrial tribunal case against Ulster University Management over its failure to consult on redundancies. Employees who were made redundant have been awarded a ‘protective award’ of 90 days’ salary, the highest award allowed for in such cases.

The ruling refers to ‘a very serious failure to consult at all warranting the full protective award’. It further finds the failure to consult to be ‘deliberate […] in that management wanted to keep the Trade Union side in the dark’, and that ‘the Trade Union had been actively misled by Mr [Ronnie] Magee [HR manager at the time] in relation to the advanced nature of the decision-making process’. It also ‘find[s] it significant that […] the Press had more details at earlier stages about course closures than the Trade Union had.’

Employment law states that employers, when embarking upon a potential redundancy situation, must consult recognised trade unions with the aim of reaching agreement on ways to avoid redundancies and mitigate their effects.

Ulster University management made unilateral decisions to close specific courses and research areas and targeted staff within those for redundancy. The ‘voluntary severance package’ was only offered to targeted staff, and not to other staff who would have been prepared to leave. By the time UCU were informed of management’s ‘proposals’, courses had already been removed from marketing materials and from the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), so redundancies in those areas were a fait accompli.

Katharine Clarke, the UCU Northern Ireland Official said, “The Tribunal’s decision has vindicated everything the UCU had been saying about the University’s redundancy process. Our members did not volunteer for severance they were told take an enhanced package or be dismissed with a reduced payment. We are glad the Tribunal agreed with us that this was putting a gun to our members’ heads. Serious work now has to be done to repair industrial relations after the ruling found the University management actively misled us about decisions they took behind our back. The UCU now calls upon the University to pay the 90 day salary compensation payment as a matter of urgency.”

Tracy Irwin, UCU at Ulster branch chair, said, “Finally Ulster University management has been held to account for disrespectfully and arrogantly riding roughshod over their employees’ rights. We sincerely hope that they will take time to reflect on the gravity of this result and begin to work with us with the transparency, respect, and collegiality we and our members deserve.

“UCU is delighted that the highest possible compensation has been awarded to our members, recognising the injustice that was done to them.

“The victory is tinged with sadness and frustration, however, because these talented and dedicated colleagues should never have been forced to leave their jobs, and UCU should not have been forced to take long, arduous and stressful legal recourse to hold our management to account. Good managers work in partnership with their staff and trade union representatives, not do everything in their power to deny them a voice.

“UCU trusts that we will be fully consulted on all future University developments involving our members, and hopes that this tribunal result will be a long awaited turning point towards good industrial relations at the University.”