RHUL Strike FAQ 2021-22

What is planned?

UCU calls on all members at RHUL to take strike action from Wednesday 1st December to Friday 3rd December 2021, inclusive. From Wednesday 1st December, UCU calls on all members to begin Action Short Of A Strike (ASoS) in the form of working to contract.

UCU has written to employers where UCU members achieved the 50% threshold and voted for strike action to inform them that UCU members will take this action. This is a legal requirement. Remember: the employer does not know who is in UCU, unless they are a branch officer and clearly tell colleagues about this role.

Why are we going on strike?

We voted to enter into disputes with our employer for two reasons: their attempt to cut our USS pensions, which guaranteed a decent retirement income; and in pursuit of our Four Fights claim, which calls for solutions to the persistent sector-wide issues of workload, casualisation, inequality and falling pay.

There have been a number of articles on the blog on the issue of unbearable workloads, equalities issues and casualisation at RHUL. You can use the UCU modeller to see how much you stand to lose under UUK’s plans for USS. Members of this branch found that they stand to lose between £3,000 and £10,000 for every year of their retirement – and that draconian drop hits your lump sum as well. This sounds awful, right? Don’t forget, back in 2011 we were paying just 6.3% of our salary for a much better Final Salary Defined Benefit pension scheme that cost the employers less too!

What is a strike?

It is useful to remind ourselves what a strike is. A strike is not a protest, it is not a mere registration of discontent, not a demonstration or a symbolic gesture. Strikes tend to be accompanied by all these things but at its heart, a strike is a joint withdrawal of labour to force the employer to concede to our demands. We remind employers that they are, in fact, dependent on our work by withdrawing it. This is not a step many of us take lightly because of the disruption that it causes for our students. However, in order to be effective, this tactic of last resort must aim to cause disruption. It is the disruption to the business of our College that will make the employers concede that they cannot brush aside our needs. The best we can do to minimise the effect of strike action on our students is by making it count: a weak, withered out strike tells the employers that they can manage the disruption, prolonging the strike and potentially leading to our defeat.

Strike action essentially means you do no work at all on days when you declare you are taking strike action. This means, for example:

  1. Cancelling lectures and classes and refusing to reschedule them. You should not share materials that would have been covered in these sessions.
  2. Not attending any meetings.
  3. Not engaging in other core duties such as work on IT projects, HR processes, student support or in the library.
  4. Not working on research projects and grant proposals.
  5. Not emailing or meeting students.

Members are not legally required to tell anyone in advance of their decision to take strike action, but you are “ethically” required to report your strike action after the event so that your pay can be docked. It may seem perverse, but the greater the value of withheld salary, the stronger our strike looks to Senior Management. This is particularly important when so many of us are working remotely, meaning that our absence from campus is not obvious.

It is vital that UCU takes effective strike action. In the past when prolonged strike action has been called, some staff felt unable to take part for financial reasons. Members who may struggle to take action on all the dates called are strongly encouraged to apply for strike pay (from national and local schemes) and join the strike.  The greater the disruption, the more chance of a speedy resolution.

If any members were still to feel unable to take action on all the dates called, we suggest that both professional services staff and academics concentrate their action on their busiest days on campus.

When we call strike action, we produce information explaining the disputes for members to share with students, colleagues and within email signatures.

What should PhD students who teach (PGAs) do during a strike?

We have heard there are some PGAs involved in teaching who are unsure how to proceed when UCU calls a strike. This is the position of PGAs who are not UCU members, and so are not taking strike action. Their concerns arise as they find themselves, this week and possibly next, running classes to discuss lectures that were cancelled. Our overarching advice to PGAs who teach is to join UCU  they offer three years’ free membership for PhD students. PGAs who take strike action are eligible for national and local strike pay. If classes after the strike are affected, consult your lecturer and ask for their guidance. It is crucial that no one, in any role, puts in additional work to compensate for work lost to strike. If we are not paid for work, we do not deliver it.

When and how do I tell my employer that I have taken strike action?

Once the action has begun, you should respond truthfully to any query from your employer as to whether you have taken or are taking industrial action. You should not, however, respond to any such query while you are on strike.

In practice you should tell your employer that you have been on strike on the first day that you return to work. For example, if you are employed full time and take action from Wednesday 1st December until Friday 3rd December, you would report your participation on Monday 6th December.

Information about who has taken strike action is collated by Human Resources. College has prepared an on-line reporting tool for members to report their action once they return to work. However, we are at present not able to recommend that members use this form, as it has not been provided in an accessible format.

Instead, we recommend that members use the template letter we have prepared to notify management of their strike action. Members have a number of options open to them. You may report multiple strike days in one letter or use one letter per strike day. You may post a hard copy of the letter, or you may e-mail the letter (either as an e-mail or as an attachment) to the college; if you decide to e-mail the letter, then you should use the address  EmployeeRelations@rhul.ac.uk.

Whichever method of reporting you choose, you should be truthful and prompt in your response.

What is ASoS (Action Short of a Strike)?

While a strike is a concerted stoppage of work, action short of a strike is normally action which affects only certain aspects of your work. Action short of a strike begins at the same time as the strike action and continues until the union calls it off. The current ASoS action will continue until Tuesday 3rd May 2022.

At present, UCU has notified employers of the following forms of ASoS:

  • withdrawal of goodwill
  • working to contract – from 1st December 2021
  • refusal to engage in additional duties outside of those agreed in your programme of work/professional discussion/local agreement – from 1st December 2021
  • not undertaking voluntary activities – from 1st December 2021
  • not rescheduling classes and lectures cancelled due to strike action – from 21st December 2021
  • not covering for absent colleagues – from 5th January 2022
  • removing uploaded materials related to, and/or not sharing materials related to, lectures or classes that will be or have been cancelled as a result of strike action – from 5th January 2022

What does withdrawal of goodwill mean?

This refers to those activities that ordinarily members might voluntarily agree to do to ensure the smooth running of the workplace. Examples could be attending meetings that you are not contracted to; undertaking additional support work on a voluntary basis; completing a survey, consultation or a questionnaire; volunteering at open days or away days that had not been previously agreed as a formal part of your role; attending meetings or events outside of your working hours or during the lunch hour; agreeing to cover for absent colleagues; or changing previously agreed annual leave to accommodate a specific work request.

When we take ASoS we ask members say NO to anything which does not form part of your formal roles and responsibilities or seeks to vary those roles and responsibilities outside of the professional discussion or agreed programme of work.

What does working to contract mean?

Working to contract means abiding strictly to the terms that your contract of employment (or other formal documents relating to your employment) specify as your hours of work; breaks; workload; or other matters.

What does refusing to provide cover for absent colleagues mean?

This means that unless your job is wholly or predominantly about covering for other staff, you should refuse to provide cover. An example of this might be where a colleague is unwell and you are asked to take on their teaching or other work.

What does refusing to undertake any voluntary activity mean?

Not undertaking any voluntary activity means that where you have a choice as to whether you undertake some work, you should not do it. Contracts differ but, for example, weekend working is voluntary for some staff. In some departments, certain roles are also voluntary.

If you are in any doubt about what you are required to do under your contract, check your contractual documents which may include your offer letter, statement of main terms and conditions, and any staff handbook, and talk to your UCU representative. You can also e-mail us at rhulucu2018 at gmail.com to ask for advice on your specific circumstances.

Taking action short of a strike does not mean that you can refuse a reasonable

Taking action short of a strike does not mean that you can refuse a reasonable request from your employer to undertake something, except those matters (working to contract, not covering absent colleagues, not rescheduling classes lost to the strikes, and not undertaking voluntary duties) which are specified parts of our ASoS action. How reasonable any request is will depend on the terms of your contract and custom and practice. In practice, we have too much work to do in our notional working week of 35 hours (pro rata for part time workers). Even though we will not undertake tasks identified in our ASoS declaration, it is likely that you will need your line manager’s help to prioritise which tasks you should do during your contracted hours.

If in doubt, or if your actions are challenged by someone senior to you, temporarily suspend your action and contact the branch, and we will seek further advice.

I’m a line manager. How can I take part in ASoS?

Many Heads of Professional Services and Heads of Department are UCU members, who may have taken strike action and are sympathetic to their colleagues who are engaged in ASoS. Line managers are often in an unenviable position: carrying a heavy workload like their team, squeezed from above by Senior Management’s demands, and leaned on from below by stressed and overburdened team members.

UCU’s ASoS position currently does not explicitly rule out rescheduling. We do not expect rescheduling requests, but if there is any pressure we imagine it will emanate from Senior Management, who will rely on line managers to convey such demands. If you as a line manager are asked to demand any rescheduling, we ask you to consider the “reasonableness” of this request. We have suggested that any members who are asked to reschedule should ask for a written explanation of how to prioritise their regular duties in order to accede to the request, whilst keeping to their notional 35 hour (pro rata) working week.

It is important that all members use ASoS to reduce their working hours for their own wellbeing, so that means we hope line managers can also reduce the amount of unpaid labour they are performing. Members will be prioritising our tasks, which means it will not be possible to complete the full range of duties we normally perform. Some staff will have a clear view of these priorities, but some of our members may ask for line managers’ advice on which duties should come first. We appreciate that this may cause some additional work, but the intention within this branch is not to generate extra work for the sake of it: our members may seek guidance because they actually need it, or in order to protect themselves from retribution.

We do not anticipate any difficult local relations as a result of ASoS – many line managers offer invaluable support to their teams. Should any UCU member receive a suggestion or demand that they should work over their notional weekly hours limit to complete their duties, they will ask for written guidance on the expected overtime hours and recompense. It is also likely that more forms of ASoS will be added in January. We will update our advice to all affected parties at that point.

Can my employer deduct my pay when I take part in industrial action?

Yes, your employer is legally entitled to deduct your pay if you participate in industrial action. For strike action, the union contends that any deduction should be at 1/365th of any annual salary or equivalent. On Monday 22th November, Senior Management at RHUL accepted that this is the rate of deduction which will be applied for strike action. For part-time staff or those employed on a session by session basis, deductions should only reflect the pay normally due for the work not undertaken and no more. Our Senior Management team have announced that they will deduct salary from members taking strike action in December from the January 2022 pay packets. Clearly this may be beneficial for staff who are salaried. We are still discussing how casual staff might be similarly supported.

For action short of a strike, in this dispute we are asking members to work to contract. Therefore your employer cannot reasonably effect pay deductions when you are fulfilling your contract. Should the union escalate ASoS to boycotting particular activities, such as marking, your employer has the right to refuse to accept the partial performance of your contract and to deduct up to 100% of your pay while you are participating in the action, so long as they make their intentions clear. The response to deductions of 100% for ASoS is often an escalation of strike activity.

Is there financial help for members taking action?

The employer is legally entitled to and does retaliate by withholding our pay. We are trying to disrupt their business, they are trying to disrupt our livelihood, and a strike boils down to who can endure these pressures being applied longer. This is where strike pay comes in.

Strike pay is offered nationally; details of how to apply to the national fighting fund for the December 2021 strike days can be found here. It pays a limited amount per day of strike action but is usually a little more generous for lower paid/casual members. At RHUL UCU we have a large fund (over £24k as of November 2021) to allow us to supplement national strike pay with a local top-up.

The UCU national hardship scheme offer is simple:

  • Daily rates will be £75 for members in UCU subscription bands F3-6 (those earning under £30,000) and £50 for members in bands F0-F2 (those earning £30,000 and over).
  • All members participating in strike action will be able to claim for the second day of the strike action onwards.
  • The officers will review this position and make further decisions if/when further strike action is called in 2022.

To dovetail with the national scheme, RHUL-UCU will offer hardship pay for the first day of strike action. You can now download the terms and conditions of the application and an application form with full details of what you need to do to apply. The local payments are structured as follows:

  • Members earning £30,000 or above per year may claim £50 per day for the first day of action (just one day paid).
  • Members earning under £30,000 per year may claim £75 per day from the second day of action (just one day paid).
  • VLs or other hourly paid casual staff may claim up to £200 to reflect the fact their teaching is often concentrated on just one day per week (just one day paid).

Previously colleagues may not have applied for strike pay because they felt embarrassed by “accepting charity”. But strike pay is not charity! Strike pay is how we maintain the strike, and thus is a central tactic enabling us to win. The strike calculus is quite simple: maximise disruption, until the employer gives in, for as long as we can afford it. Strike pay is how we afford it. In other words, colleagues who apply for strike pay perform an outright service to their colleagues: accepting strike pay means supporting the strike. If gratitude is in order, it is not by the receiver but by their fellow strikers.

For this reason, donating to the fighting fund is not an act of charity but a rather straightforward application of the strike calculus: if you want to win, if you want to keep your pension, if you want casualisation to be reined in, if you want discrimination in pay to end, if you want a wage you can live on, if you want a workload that allows you to not burn out and if you can afford it: give to the fighting fund and make it widely known that it exists. This is how we win, and this is how we can eventually go back to do what we signed up for: to do research, to teach, to support students and to keep the university running.

You can donate to the RHUL-UCU Local Hardship Fund via Golden Giving.

How will taking strike action affect my pension?

Absence because of a day’s strike will not count towards pensionable service. So, in the same way that you will not be paid for a strike day, the pension contribution will not be made for that day. The pay lost will reduce the average pay used in any calculation of benefits. It may be possible to buy back service lost, but in reality the amount is usually so small it is negligible.

It is important to bear in mind that the increases in pay won by UCU through taking industrial action over the years have boosted the final pensions of thousands of members. Without union intervention, pension benefits would all be lower today.

My employer has told me that I will lose core pensions rights such as death in service if I take part in strike action. Is this true?

From time to time, individual employers seek to bully staff by saying that if they should die while taking strike action, they will not receive a death in service payment. You should notify UCU if you are threatened in this way and our local branch will take the issue up on your behalf.

Will participating in strike action affect my entitlement to statutory maternity pay (SMP)?

You are entitled to SMP (subject to fulfilling the other statutory requirements) if you have been continuously employed for 26 weeks ending with the week immediately preceding the 14th week before the expected week of confinement (EWC). The calculation of continuous employment does not, however, include any week during which you participate in strike action. So, if you take strike action and have worked for your employer for less than 26 weeks up to and including the 15th week before your EWC you will lose your right to SMP. If you are in this situation, please advise your branch officers immediately. To put it another way, you need 26 weeks of continuous service going into the qualifying week (15 weeks before the EWC), but a week in which you is on strike does not count (though it does not break continuous service). So you need an extra week’s service before the 15th week (assuming the strike does not affect more than one week of service, otherwise you will need more service to compensate).

This rule will usually only affect recent employees, because if you have, for example, two years of service, the issue would only arise if your service is broken for some other reason. There is further explanation and useful diagram on the Department for Work and Pensions website.

Any member due back from maternity (or parental leave) during this strike is able to join the dispute with no additional consequences other than the same pay stoppage faced by all UCU members taking strike action.

What about students?

Industrial action is is not a step many of us take lightly due to the disruption that it causes for our students. However, in order to be effective, this tactic of last resort must aim to cause disruption. The best we can do to minimise the effect of strike action on our students is by making it count: when our employer sees that we are prepared to bring their business to a halt, this brings them back to the negotiation table. A weak strike tells them that they can manage the disruption, prolonging the strike and eventually leading to our defeat.

Those staff whose striking will directly impact students, those who teach being the most obvious, often feel a little conflicted. Striking hurts students but it is our best leverage with the employer, as annoyed and supportive students may contact senior managers to ask what they are going to do about the disruption. Advertising our plans in writing is not a good idea, as it gives managers the opportunity to try to minimise disruption, but often those who are teaching will verbally warn students of their plans. The hope is that this reduces the chance that students are financially hit by strikes (for example, caused by travelling in for cancelled lectures).

The president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Larissa Kennedy, has made the following statement in relation to UCU’s 2021 industrial action ballots:

“As students, we regularly witness how staff and students’ conditions are intertwined. University management forcing staff onto casualised contracts, cutting their pay, and now trying to cut thousands of pounds from their pensions cannot be divorced from the fact that one in 10 students has needed to access a foodbank to survive the pandemic—these are not the actions of a university leadership or an education system that have the interests of staff or students at heart.

Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system. We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff, and communities they exist to serve. Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff. If they do not, students will hold employers responsible.”

You can also read this press release from NUS. NUS’s latest research showed that ‘73% of students said they supported the university staff taking part in the [Four Fights and USS pension] campaign[s] and strike action’.

We have learned that some of the student societies at RHUL are mobilising to support their staff. With their support, we have a much better chance of convincing the employers’ associations to re-open talks. We have also prepared a page of strike FAQ for students for colleagues to pass on to any student with queries.

RHUL historically paid all the withheld salary into the student hardship fund but in 2019/20 they changed this policy and neither told us how much was withheld nor where it was spent. On 22nd November, Senior Management agreed to tell us what these “historic” pay deductions were used for, and to use 2021 deductions for student support. They will also report the total value of withheld salary that has been moved to student support.

I am a member of staff applying for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or a Tier 2/5 visa holder or a Tier 4 visa holder. What is the law regarding industrial action for migrant workers?

In recent years, UCU won important protection for staff on visas so that they could take lawful strike action without affecting their visa status. However, we recognise that many members who want to support the union have on-going concerns about the issue and so UCU have produced a separate briefing which explains your legal rights if you are a staff member or student on a visa or who may apply for an indefinite right to remain in the UK. UCU is committed to supporting all our members in industrial action so if, having read the briefing, you are still concerned about the impact of the strikes upon your immigration status, please contact Jenny Sherrard for further advice.

I am a PhD student, research fellow, or postdoctoral scholar fully funded by external bodies but do not wish to cross the picket line. What do I do?

It depends on who your contract is with. If it is with your home institution and that university is on strike, you should join the industrial action. If your contract is with a body which is not part of the dispute, you should not take action but try to arrange to work from home. If you need further advice, contact your regional office.

Members on research or study leave

If your leave is unpaid, you have no labour to withdraw and cannot join the strikes. If your leave is paid, you should join the strikes.

I am not a member of UCU. If I join can I then take part in the action?

Yes, if you join UCU you will be able to participate in the action with the protection of the union as soon as you are signed up. While non-UCU members have the legal right to participate in strike action at their workplace, our strong recommendation is that you join UCU so you have the protection of a trade union before you join the action.

As soon as you submit the details requested on the joining form, your membership will be active. This means that you are able to take part in any strike action while awaiting your membership number. Membership typically rises when UCU takes action, as colleagues see that we are willing to fight together to win better working conditions.

Am I in breach of my contract if I go on strike?

Yes: taking any industrial action is a breach of contract. However, as UCU has carried out a legal ballot and complied with all legal formalities, the law protects workers from dismissal whilst taking part in lawful industrial action or at any time within 12 weeks of the start of the action and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place later. This kind of dismissal has never happened in higher education.

What is a picket line?

We organise picketing at the main gates of RHUL Egham and at Bedford Square campuses: the former for morning “rush” and the latter for the lunchtime “rush”. Picketing is a peaceful demonstration by members to publicise the action, to explain it to students, and to convince colleagues not to cross the picket and go to work. Picketing at Egham has historically involved our students and music, so it can be uplifting. We (usually) follow picketing in Egham with hot drinks, on the branch, at The Packhorse SU (off campus) venue and TeachOut sessions.

Each picket line is overseen by an experienced UCU member, who is identified as the daily “picket supervisor”. They can explain how the picket line works and always carry a legal document of authorisation to run a picket. We will release more information about picket lines and sign up sheets soon.

What is the TeachOut programme?

TeachOuts are sessions organised but not exclusively offered by UCU reps; all members and students can offer to run sessions. (Previous incarnations at RHUL have been known as the Teach-Inns.) We aim to organise non-hierarchical exchanges of ideas and skills for the wider College community. We (usually) follow picketing with hot drinks and then start our TeachOut sessions at The Packhorse SU (off campus) venue. You can find the latest version of the TeachOut programme here.

Where else can I find answers?

If you have further questions about what is striking all about, please let the Branch know – rhulucu2018 at gmail.com. We will be editing this document as the campaigns move forward, so we will incorporate new information and add (anonymised) details from individual queries. You can also check the national UCU FAQs.

Last updated 1 December 2021

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