Reballots postponed due to Covid-19; pickets cancelled but action continues

15 March 2020

On Friday afternoon UCU’s higher education committee (HEC) was convened for a special meeting to consider our next steps in our national disputes in light of the coronavirus crisis.

After extensive discussion, a decision was taken to postpone the reballots of higher education branches which were due to begin on Tuesday 17 March, and keep our options for progressing the disputes under review.

Following last week’s advice to cancel rallies and other large events, I have also decided to advise that those branches due to be on strike this week (click here for a list) should call off all pickets.

However, while pickets are called off, the HEC chair and vice-chairs have decided that strike action in those branches will continue. The action taken in those branches will give the union ongoing leverage in our disputes with employers, which have not been resolved. We may not be able to picket workplaces but we can still withdraw our labour.

A chance to resolve our disputes and focus on the Covid-19 crisis

This union is currently in dispute with employers over a range of issues including workload-related stress and ill health as well as equality, job security, pay and USS pensions. In the past two weeks, our negotiators have tabled proposals that fall short of our original demands but which we believe could represent an acceptable resolution to our disputes.

Coronavirus represents an extraordinary test of a university system that was already failing staff and students. Staff trust and goodwill have never been lower. The decision taken by HEC offers employers a period of time in which they can change direction.

We desperately need university leadership teams to show leadership and work with, not against us. Branches throughout the UK have been working extremely hard to respond to this crisis. We are leading the way and prioritising staff and students’ safety with an urgency that has been sorely missing in much of the sector.

An agreement to resolve our disputes and work with the campus unions to protect universities from this pandemic could be the only way to restore any goodwill towards employers before the situation becomes completely overwhelming. But if employers expect us to pause our action and/or take on extra duties to mitigate the effects of the outbreak without protecting us from its consequences, they will only be storing up more problems for the future.

We won’t escalate our disputes during the pandemic – but we won’t abandon them either

If we do not get that resolution, we are willing to temporarily refrain from escalating our disputes in light of this pandemic – but we will not abandon them.

We continue to ask members to take action short of a strike (ASOS) in institutions that have a mandate to do so. The issues we are in dispute over still need addressing. Continuing your action sends an important signal that we are not going away and maintains pressure on employers to resolve the disputes now. At the same time, the HEC has set a target to resume the reballots no later than the end of June. There will be further opportunities to consider new developments before then, including at the next HEC meeting on 24 April.

Further advice on Covid-19

Other decisions were taken on Friday by the national executive committee (NEC) and the HEC regarding the union’s response to Covid-19, including a call for institutions to close. We are currently updating our existing guidance for members in light of those decisions.

I will be in touch as soon as I can with more information. In the meantime, if you have any further questions about the union’s response to Covid-19, please click here to email us.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary