Impending strike action was the sole subject of discussion at what were otherwise two very different Lancaster UCU General Meetings, one on 22 January and the other on 18 February. Both were relatively well-attended – the January one looked packed because it was in the cosy Marcus Merriman Lecture Theatre, while the February one looked sparsely attended because it was in the cavernous (and freezing cold!) County South Lecture Theatre, but in truth there were probably around 60 attendees at each.
Members at the January meeting, held when the 14 days of action had been proposed but not agreed to, were worried and apprehensive. Despite an upbeat introduction by local UCU President Julie Hearn, suggesting we ‘look over the ocean’ at France, where a general strike seemed imminent, the majority of speakers advised caution. One thought this seemed the wrong time to take further action; another was worried that members were being asked to ‘go back out’ after no visible progress; another flatly suggested that the union’s tactics had failed. Those backing 14 days felt we currently had the momentum – and if we didn’t act now, there was no guarantee we’d reach the 50% threshold again. It was not logical to say, ‘we’ve not achieved much, so we shouldn’t go back out on strike!’
The meeting had officially been called to gauge opinions, and a motion supporting the planned strike action had been proposed, but it was agreed by everyone present that a vote was not appropriate (subtext’s view is that it would probably have fallen). One member perhaps summed up the majority: ‘no one is saying, don’t take strike action. We want to take strike action – but we don’t want to take 14 days’ strike action.’
The January meeting agreed to invite one of the national negotiators up to speak to a future meeting – a very wise decision, in retrospect, because the February meeting, with national pay and conditions negotiator Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield) as lead speaker, was a much more optimistic affair.
Despite spending nearly four hours to travel from Sheffield to Lancaster by train, Dr Orfitelli was upbeat – about what the negotiators had already achieved on pay and conditions, and why she thought we needed to take further action. After a long period of silence, the employers had written to the unions in the last few days, with strike action imminent, asking for a meeting – a tactic they’d used just before the last strike, when talks started on the second strike day. ‘A lot of progress has been made’ in those talks, she reported, but not enough.
The unions want a negotiating framework for working conditions. UK-wide principles should be agreed as the ‘bottom line’, following which there should be locally-negotiated implementation of these principles. UCEA, the employers’ pay negotiators, offered some ‘principles on precarity’ and a commitment to information gathering, but there was still no progress on a sector-wide response to the workload crisis or – of course – on the headline pay offer. All of the ‘four fights’ were, at their core, equality issues. Universities were making financial choices which devalue their staff and students.
There were plenty of questions.
– ‘What’s the plan if the employer just sits this out?’ ‘I don’t think they will,’ replied Dr Orfitelli, adding that, when UCU members want us to stop taking action, they will tell us.
– What incentive do employers have to settle in one dispute, given we’d still be on strike due to the other dispute? Dr Orfitelli believed that, the instant that one of the two (UCEA for pay, Universities UK for pensions) breaks, the pressure ramps up on the other. These organisations are all ‘literally down the hall from each other.’
– Could reducing the number of fixed-term staff have the unintended consequence of placing more indefinite staff at risk, due to larger redundancy pools? Dr Orfitelli noted that campaigning was often like playing Whack-a-Mole.
– On pensions, Dr Orfitelli reported that employers had recently been reconsulted, and many are unwilling to take on extra contributions. Reports of ‘111 USS employers’ presumably means that each Oxbridge college is being counted as a separate institution. To get a resolution, we either need to get USS to fundamentally change, or get Universities UK to temporarily take on additional contributions. The Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was ‘over’ – it had delivered both of its reports, and its members were not directly involved in negotiations.
– Were there disagreements between the pay negotiators and the General Secretary? Both had sent emails to members, with different takes on the dispute, at almost exactly the same time! Apparently, there was no disagreement, just a ‘slightly different tone.’ The negotiators were concerned that members did not have access to them and their thoughts, and they were unaware that the General Secretary would be writing to members that day.
– If there was movement on job insecurity but zero movement on pay, would the negotiators recommend that members be balloted on the deal? ‘We’re not ruling anything out.’
– And the most unsympathetic VC? Birmingham, apparently!
At one point Dr Orfitelli floated the idea of a REF, TEF and KEF boycott, which was met with a round of applause.
The meeting ended with thanks for Dr Orfitelli. Four hours on Transpennine Express well spent!