In the run-up to the double ballot on equalities and pensions, this branch was running a “Get The Vote Out” campaign, known as GTVO. As we sought to persuade you to exercise your right to vote, we suggested that a strong turnout would give UCU a mandate for negotiating change. Whilst this is a national dispute, and both pensions and pay are subject to national negotiations, it was recognised that local discussions would be required in two areas: converting casualised, insecure staff to open-ended contracts; and the mechanics of reducing overwhelming workloads. Nationally there is still no sign of meaningful talks with UCEA over equalities and pay or with UUK over our pensions, but the ballot mandates did encourage the senior management team (SMT) at RHUL to ask to meet us. We now report the discussion from three 30 minute, dispute-related meetings in November.
Less than two weeks after the ballot results were announced, and two weeks before the dispute was scheduled to begin, SMT asked us for a meeting to discuss local arrangements for the strike. We were delighted to learn that they were taking a more consensual approach than during the last dispute. This more positive approach manifested through the use of internal security to manage the picket line, rather than the £11k spent on external ‘specialists’ in 2018. There was also no repeat of belligerent FAQs, which had previously threatened to deduct pay if staff went to picket during a lunchbreak, which was doubly ridiculous given there’s no history of a RHUL lunchtime picket. On this occasion, as they told us they were about to give HoDs guidance on how to manage the strike, we were able to produce our version of the same.
Discussions focused on the functional. The SMT (represented by Katie Normington and Peter Brook) stated that they wanted rapid reporting of strike action and expected advance notice of members’ decisions to adhere to Action Short Of a Strike (ASoS). We explained that the former would happen only when a staff member has returned to work but indicated we thought notice of ASoS was unnecessary. We then made our routine request that all deducted salaries be given to the student hardship fund. SMT explained this would not be repeated as this fund is limited to those on bursaries. Therefore, the money withheld will be used in ways agreed with the Students’ Union, perhaps to compensate students if they travel in for cancelled classes . The issue of lecture capture remains unresolved from the perspective of RHUL UCU. However, SMT pledged not to use old videos to undermine the strike but they wanted to ensure that staff did not take down material from Moodle during the dispute. Apparently this has happened in previous disputes.
We focused in these discussions on the mechanics of the strike, but it will be disappointing if we are unable to make any progress with the substantive issues soon and to agree a start date for talks. We have been asking for action on casualisation for at least four years, via our regular meetings with management, yet SMT have repeatedly expressed a lack of capacity as the reason for their refusal to engage. Under the former HR director, it was clear there was no interest in an issue of benefit to management, staff and students. Remarkably, even though data must be collated for accreditation purposes, we were told HR had no breakdown of contractual status by role in recent years. SMT indicated that it will be months before this data might be ready. Negotiations should however begin as soon as possible and these should clarify the data needed to be provided by HR with urgency from their files.
The issue of workloads was clearly perceived by SMT as related to a lack of workload models, rather than a culture of overwork. If staff spend undue time on extraneous tasks, or workload is unfairly distributed, or if there is simply too much workload arising from the growth in student numbers without a commensurate growth in academic and professional service staff numbers, this harms students’ education as well as staff morale, health and career development.
At our next meeting, which was held a week later on Wednesday 20th November, the tone was a little different. The Interim Head of HR announced that the College would reserve the right for a legal challenge on the legitimacy of the ballot. They had written to the Chief Negotiator for UCU, seeking clarification on the numbers of ballot papers cast. We were more than able to explain why the voting pool varies before and at end of ballot period, and why the number of ballot papers for the two disputes might be different, but they didn’t like our explanation or that of the senior UCU official.
We felt that in one area in particular the guidance to Heads of Departments had been misleading. Notice of ASoS had been given for members in all branches involved; no individual level responses were needed. SMT explained that they reserved the right to deduct part or all of our salaries at a future date for ASoS (a 25% deduction was mentioned as a possibility as other institutions had announced). SMT very clearly stated that deductions might ensue if “lost learnings” were not compensated for after the strike. We asked what this actually meant – there is no way we would reschedule teaching affected during the strike under ASoS (that’s why a strike ballot comes with an ASoS ballot), and we certainly would not teach sessions for which pay had been deducted. Working for free in this way would undermine both the strike and ASoS. The SMT statement “lost learnings does not mean lost lectures” was hard to decipher.
Nothing was offered on supporting pensions (at a national level) or equalities (at either the national or local level) during this meeting. However, we must look for the positives and SMT agreed to stretch wage deductions over three months, a welcome move indeed.
At our most recent meeting, SMT expressed some concern with our reporting on the blog of their statements on ASoS deductions. More surprising was their question on the source of our casualisation statistic, which they argued was too high and conflated short term lecturers and researchers with student ambassadors and sessional bassoon tutors. But this is data provided by the College, the only data they have provided after years of requests. They repeated they want to compile a breakdown of contracts by role before we start meaningful discussions. It remains unclear why such data cannot just be quickly collated, since all the necessary information is in HR files, and resolution of the issues highlighted by the strike remains urgent.
We raised the issue of gender and race pay gaps. The College has employed a respected external consultant to investigate the seemingly intractable issue of the gender pay gap. Despite requests, our equalities team were not allowed to interact in this process despite having expertise and indeed knowing the consultant. The consultant’s final report will be shared with Council members next year. Surprisingly, there seems to be no plan to look at inequalities that affect BAME colleagues. This is particularly unfortunate due to the intersectionality that often arises in equality contexts – being a ‘black woman’, for example, has a greater than additive impact compared to being ‘black’ and being a ‘woman’. Even if there is now greater representation of women in the professoriate than before, are BAME women for example being promoted at a comparable rate to white, middle class English women? In general, senior management has tried (as best as possible, given the underlying reality) to present a ‘good news’ approach to equalities. However, the 2019 financial report indicated that Royal Holloway has a median gender pay gap of 31%, reflecting the reality of the situation.
The Principal’s recent message to staff suggested that the needs of staff, for better and fairer working conditions, have been recognised. The negative feelings and demotivation revealed by the staff survey have finally been accepted by the Principal. We hope that this may lead SMT to follow through with their proposals for joint work with UCU on casualisation and workloads. As Martin Luther King Jnr said, “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle”. In order to convince senior management that action is needed we must stand firm and maintain our unity until the end of the dispute. But, while national negotiations can resolve the national issues, it remains the case that the College must get its own act together and deal with some of the worst gender pay and casualization in the HE sector, it must recognise issues with BAME representation and tackle workloads. These can only be addressed if the SMT decides to start working with RHUL UCU.
Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU branch committee.
Edited on 4th December 2019.