“Just Say No”: RHUL-UCU Committee recommends a no vote on the Four Fights offer

All UCU members are about to be emailed and asked for their response to the 2019/20 offer on pay and conditions from UCEA, the employers’ body which negotiates on these issues with all trade unions in HE. You are all working flat-out so are likely to have forgotten the details of the campaign and some of you may wish for a steer from the Branch Committee. The Branch Committee recommends rejection. Here’s why.

In late 2019 and early 2020 members of UCU at RHUL and many other universities took industrial action as part of a campaign for better working conditions. Known as the “Four Fights” dispute, UCU asked for action to eradicate gender and race pay gaps; the end of the scourge of casualisation; compensation for “overtime” and the end of intolerable workloads and a pay rise. You can remind yourselves of the details here.

Discussions with the University and College Employers Association (UCEA) were terminated by the coronavirus. The final offer from UCEA offered only future local level work to make improvements in three areas: national frameworks for looking at and generating data on pay gaps; for discussions on workloads; and to explore scope for reducing casualisation. There was no money for the frameworks or sanctions for institutions who do not engage in joint local work on these issues. There was no improvement on the 1.8% (average) pay rise which was imposed in 2019.

RHUL UCU held two short and issue-specific open meetings in May to discuss the offer and ascertain our members’ responses. Members were keen to hear the experience of those Committee members who had been discussing casualisation and equalities with local management and to gain a sense of the robustness of local negotiations. It was with disappointment that we had to explain that working groups in these areas had been halted by Senior Management in March, as they argued they had to focus on the COVID-19 crisis. You may be disappointed to learn these issues were considered so expendable in March; you may, however, be more surprised to know that even now we still cannot get a response to our requests to re-start these working groups or an alternative, effective, mechanism for resolving these long running issues.

The members who attended these meetings and who emailed in their views were strongly in favour of rejecting of this offer. Branch Committee delegates fed this response back to the national negotiators. It was a very widely held response nationally. Rejecting the offer does not mean that we will be taking industrial action, it just means the onus is on UCEA to continue discussions with UCU.

We firmly believe we should all vote to reject this offer.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

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COVID-19, anti-casualisation and Royal Holloway

If the COVID-19 crisis has thrown anything into sharp relief at universities, it has been the rough treatment given to casual staff. Members already knew this, of course, especially after our 2019 and 2020 ‘Four Fights’ strike action. Over the last six weeks, however, we have seen multiple news stories of shockingly poor treatment of vulnerable staff in fixed-term and zero-hours contracts.

At the Royal Holloway UCU branch, we have been working as hard as we can to protect casual colleagues. Senior management initially provided guarantees to cover casual staff’s pay up until the end of April (now extended up to June); the most recent update suggests that they will look into use of the government furlough scheme in some cases.

Sadly, this is not enough, as many of our members attest (see our recent guest blog post). Members of teaching staff with contracts expiring at the end of April have essentially been let go and released into a job market that is almost non-existent. More worrying still, those colleagues with work permits sponsored by the university may face deportation. The outlook for next academic year and the possibility of contract extensions looks bleak, in light of the college’s recent letter to academic staff. The practices already seen across departments and schools differ drastically, from one department keeping positions for all their casual staff, to another stating that they will employ almost no visiting lecturers or teaching assistants next year. Members have expressed concerns that sabbatical postponements are acting as a cover to justify cancelling teaching for PhD students, affecting their well-being as well as denying them the experience of teaching which is important for their employability. Casual staff are not alone in being disadvantaged if their contracts are terminated. Established staff, who already have excessive workloads, will find those workloads increased to levels which are not sustainable without serious damage to their own well-being, that of their students and of their families, as well as damage to their teaching quality and research. The situation for professional services and research staff remains unclear, and the UCU RHUL branch committee is monitoring the situation as it develops.

We understand that the Government furlough scheme does not apply to publicly funded individuals including academic staff and research staff employed on UKRI grants. Many of these individuals will have caring responsibilities that interfere with their capacity to work and, for some, any academic work will be impossible. The Senior Management Team have assured us that even though the Government furlough scheme is not available, the College will be able to make its own equivalent arrangements where needed.

The situation is not all doom and gloom; we have seen extraordinary measures taken at other UK institutions, including guaranteeing positions for all casual staff, and even some senior management teams taking a voluntary pay sacrifice to support vulnerable staff members. For this reason, we have written to the College Principal outlining the very real risks posed to casual members of staff and pointing to the good practices seen across UK institutions, asking that he consider adopting positive solutions and providing sector leadership here at Royal Holloway.

Much remains uncertain, but we want to assure members that we are doing everything we can to work with management to secure and protect our colleagues on casual contracts as well as those with more established contracts. We hope that you all keep safe and well, and we encourage permanent staff to check in with their precariously employed colleagues.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL UCU Anti-casualisation team

RHUL UCU write to the Principal about cancelling salary deductions

Last week, the RHUL UCU Branch Committee wrote to the Principal to request that salary reductions for strike action be cancelled in recognition of the extraordinary effort our members have made in adjusting to our current unprecedented circumstances. We have yet to receive a reply. We also note that the senior management team have cancelled scheduled meetings on both anti-casualisation and the gender pay gap, and have not responded to requests to reschedule. We publish our letter to the Principal below for our members’ information.

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Dear Principal,

Re: cancellation of salary deductions for recent UCU industrial action

All stakeholders of this College are working together as never before to deliver a good experience for our students and to ensure the health of our institution at a time of global crisis.

Who could have foreseen how fast our colleagues would make the switch to new ways of working; it is a testament to their dedication to students, colleagues and this College. But, we must recognise that these changes bring challenges and have required herculean efforts. That our staff have risen to this challenge whilst dealing with their own private concerns and responsibilities is magnificent, it reminds us that the greatest asset of any organisation is its staff.

Many universities and colleges have responded to the crisis with a new spirit of co-operation. At Royal Holloway the local branch of UCU cancelled the last two strike dates at short notice to allow staff to focus on their students, a gesture which was mirrored elsewhere. Our Chair and Secretary have made themselves available for regular crisis meetings with the Senior Management Team (SMT). For the employers’ part, we know that many universities are choosing to cancel salary deductions for industrial action in February and March. This recognises the huge effort required to adapt to new modes of working and provides greater income for their staff at a time of crisis. So far Southampton, St Andrews and Ulster universities and Birkbeck and Kings College have done so. We are confident this list will grow and we would like to see Royal Holloway join this list of supportive employers.

In particular Kings College made their offer as part of a gesture to staff, enabling them to work together on at speed mitigating the impact of both the dispute and Covid19 on students’ exams. Their position is illustrated here.

Royal Holloway made a commitment to pay its casual staff, those with a regular pattern of work, their expected salaries until the end of April. This was an important guarantee when the crisis first hit us but it is now time to consider how we can support these staff beyond that date. And, there may be other staff not covered by this initial protective measure whose commitment we wish to retain. We must also think about those fixed-term staff whose contracts will shortly elapse, and for whom job search will be impossible. The RHUL-UCU anti—casualisation working group has already begun work with SMT to identify how we can provide greater employment security to our colleagues, using the School of Humanities as our case study. We stand ready to work with you on finding additional ways to protect these valued staff.

Principal, will you consider cancelling salary deductions for the recent UCU strike?

RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

Anti-Casualisation Update

After the recent strike action, awareness of casualisation on campus has been raised to new heights, thanks in no small part to the efforts of casual staff themselves, who came out in large numbers to support picket lines in Egham and Bedford Square. One of the outcomes of that strike was bringing casualisation to the attention of the student body – including a series of shocking testimonials published by The Orbital. Senior Management and the interim Head of HR seemed visibly shocked that such insecurity affected so many of RHUL’s valued staff.

While the dispute is ongoing, and we continue to take Action Short of a Strike, we are pleased to report that a Casualisation Working Group has been established, with members of senior management, HR, and UCU representatives. The group’s objectives are to review the College’s usage of casual contracts, and to suggest potential ways to minimise this usage.

After the group’s first meeting, management and HR are still drawing together revised figures for numbers of casual staff on campus (see our previous blog posts on this matter). It was agreed that the review of casual contracts will include a deep study on one School (to be confirmed at the next meeting) to identify the reasons given for issuing casual contracts. From that study, the group will then suggest recommendations for policy changes.  Senior Management and HR have pressed for an initial focus on academic staff, but we have stated we must ensure that we move on from this project to examine the situation of professional service staff as well.

The group will meet on a regular basis (the current timetable is fortnightly), so there is clear interest from management in being seen to be taking action on this urgent issue.

It is early days yet, but this is a sign of progress. Action Short of a Strike is ongoing, and there may yet be further strike action called, but the establishment of the Casualisation Working Group is a sign that our action is having an effect.

Following on from the Orbital’s report on the local experience of casualisation, readers may be interested in the latest UCU report on casualisation released only yesterday. Please keep an eye on the blog for updates from the Casualisation Working Group, and if you want to get involved in anti-casualisation campaigns at RHUL, please follow the RHUL Casuals twitter account.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU branch committee.

‘I can’t manage like this’: Life as a RHUL Casual

Spirits on the RH picket lines (both of the physical and digital varieties) have been high the last few days. Getting together outside of traditional work spaces encourages conversation and sharing experiences. The support has been notable particularly from casual staff (who make up 62.6% of the RHUL workforce). From these colleagues, similar experiences can be seen across posts and departments; misery is widespread. We invited them to submit their stories for a compendium of case studies, which were then submitted to The Orbital, the student magazine at Royal Holloway. Together, they make for grim reading. We may be around the corner from Christmas, but the tales we received read more like Halloween nightmares. The anti-casualisation team especially request that students and permanent members of staff read these testimonies: for casual staff, it is all too familiar.
Keep informed with the anti-casualisation campaign at RH by following their twitter account: @CasualsRhul