Branch update on new strike dates

In late 2019 UCU members at RHUL, and colleagues at many other universities, took eight days of strike action in support of two campaigns: the “four fights” equalities and pay claim and in defence of our USS pension. We had solid support nationally and locally from the National Union of Students and many RHUL student societies and individuals joined us on the picket lines.

Our show of unity led to further talks with UCEA on some of the elements of the “Four Fights” equalities campaign. Locally, senior management have met with us to discuss the extent of casualisation at RHUL with a view to improving job security. The Joint Expert Panel’s second report on USS, published on 13th December 2019, was broadly consistent with UCU’s arguments on scheme management and made criticisms of the governance of the scheme. The report was welcomed by the employers’ organisation, UUK, which negotiates over pensions. However, this willingness to talk and the apparent acceptance of the content of the JEP’s second report has not led to an improved offer to members. And so, regrettably, UCU has announced a series of further strike dates.

The recommended pattern of strike dates coincides with the reading week at RHUL, as it does at a few other institutions. For this reason UCU branches were given some flexibility in naming the fourteen days of strike action. At our College we will delay the start of our action, giving us the following pattern for strikes:

Week 1: Monday 24th, Tuesday 25th and Wednesday 26th of February
Week 2: Monday 2nd, Tuesday 3rd, Wednesday 4th and Thursday 5th March
Week 3: Monday 9th, Tuesday 10th, Wednesday 11th,Thursday 12th and Friday 13th March
Week 4: Thursday 19th and Friday 20th March.

On unaffected dates, as now, members are asked to observe Action Short of a Strike(ASoS).

We sincerely hope that progress in negotiations will be made between now and the first day of the planned strike. In the meantime, locally, we will make preparations for the strike in case negotiations fail.

At our General Meeting next Wednesday, 12th March 1pm-3pm in the Munro Fox Lecture Theatre, we will discuss the current position in both disputes and answer your questions. There are many related issues on the agenda, so we hope to see many of you there. We will also post a report of the meeting on this blog for those who are unable to attend in person.

We will bring you further details throughout the negotiations and the potential dispute via the blog. The blog has FAQs about the dispute, which we will update as new queries come in. There is also information on how to donate to and claim from the Branch Hardship Fund. Members, past and present, were extremely generous during the last dispute, for which we are most grateful.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU Branch Committee.

Back to work but it’s not business as usual – Action Short of a Strike

“Bedtime” on Wednesday 4th December marks the end of the strike phase of our dispute. Before we think about what exactly Action Short of a Strike (ASoS) means, it’s time to thank those who contributed to our strike organisation. Our first thanks go to our students – those who understood why classes were cancelled and quietly accepted this and those who stood beside us in the cold every day, then joined us in for our Teach-Inns. Then we must thank the picket supervisors and picketers who braved the cold, danced at the gates and flourished placards and banners. Next come the intellectual superstars who offered to run Teach Inn sessions at the Packhorse. Then come the Comms team, keeping us all informed behind the scenes. And behind all of that is the Branch Administrator, Penelope, who keeps us going all year. We also say a hearty welcome to the sizeable group of new members, many joining a trade union for the first time because of their horror at the size of our gender pay gap, the extent of our casualisation problem and because our workloads are intolerable. Oh, and there’s the USS shenanigans too.

Back slapping over, we turn to technicalities.

Those members who took eight days of action and return to work tomorrow need to submit their strike notification letters, one for each day they took strike action. These should be sent to Dipo Olagundoye in HR; suggested template letters are available for you to download and customise. Part timers or VLs need to send the letters on the day they return to work (so if you are not due back in work until Monday, you need to send the letters on Monday). Strike pay deductions for permanent staff will be spread across January, February and March pay packets. We do not yet know the timeframe for casual staff but we remind them that there are both local and national UCU hardship funds to support them. We are pleased to announce that in the last few days several hundred pounds have been donated to the RHUL-UCU hardship fund, so please apply if you need financial help. Details of  how to claim from the national fund are already up, and we’ll have details of the local fund here as soon as we can.

Although the strike has finished, UCU members are now asked to take ASoS. The most obvious behaviour to avoid when taking ASoS is rescheduling teaching and meetings lost during the strike, as this wholly undermines your strike action and you will find yourself working for nothing. However, UCU represents all staff above grade 5, meaning our members work in all kinds of university roles – security, library, IT support, language support, student counsellors, student recruiters, research contract specialists and academic staff. So all these members must identify how they can adapt their behaviour to demonstrate their ASoS. A more widely shared responsibility might be covering for absent colleagues. Unless your contract explicitly involves providing cover for colleagues, then you are advised to avoid this during the ASOS period as it will add to your workload.

Why is this so important?

All staff are affected by the workload crisis in HE. What we need is sector-wide recognition that multiplying metrics and a shift to treating students like consumers who are attracted by shiny buildings and not excellent tuition, great extra-curricular provision and pastoral support, has significantly added to workload. Locally, these wider pressures have been exacerbated by restructures which remove front line staff, without removing the associated workload! We have a situation where staff come in early, work through lunch, stay late, work weekends and do not take all of their holidays. This is the case for many if not all staff – not just researchers and teachers. These toxic working patterns result in burned out staff, who take sick leave, risk their physical and mental health, their relationships and friendships for the College. This crisis will not be resolved by crotchet or walking groups. We need recognition that our contracts say we are expected to work 35 hours a week (or they used to, in days when contracts had any details), and that being able to take weekends off (if your employment is Monday to Friday) will produce happier, healthier and more productive staff. Therefore it is vital that if you are taking ASoS, you stick to your contractual working hours. 

Sticking to your contractual hours is likely to require some prioritising. You are expected to work professionally when taking ASoS, but to adhere to any hourly limits set out in your contract or in a departmental workload model. Any tasks which cannot be completed during the first week of ASoS but which are essential should be returned to during the following week. As our jobs vary so much it is hard to stipulate for all colleagues which tasks might take precedence, so if in difficulty you may wish to ask your line manager for direction on what tasks to prioritise. Additional guidance on taking ASoS from UCU centrally is also available here – we note in particular that members taking ASoS are asked to:

  • work no more than their contracted hours
  • perform no additional voluntary duties, such as out of hours cover, or covering for colleagues (unless such cover is contractually required)
  • set and mark no work beyond that work which they are contractually obliged to set and/or mark
  • attend no meetings where such attendance is voluntary on the part of the member.

Above all, should you feel pressured by line managers or should you be invited to meet with managers to discuss your decision to take ASoS, you can seek advice locally by emailing our casework co-ordinator, Dr Penelope Smith at psmith at ucu.org.uk, writing to the branch email rhulucu2018 at gmail.com, or contacting the national team  via mwaddup at ucu.org.uk.

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

Comms were going to add a link here to RHUL’s occupational stress policy, but it appears we don’t have one. There’s no mention of stress or mental health in the current Health and Safety policy or the Departmental Health and Safety Induction and its associated checklist; they are not factors considered in our risk assessment paperwork and there appear to be no Health and Safety policies which address this area. Relevant HR policies appear similarly thin on the ground. Sorry – we tried.

“Keep on keepin’ on yeah, till the fight is won”

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.

Donating to the local strike fund

Over the strike period, we have been accepting donations at the picket line for the local strike fund, which will be used to provide financial support in addition to the national fund for those losing pay through strike action. For colleagues who have not been taking strike action, we have suggested the following donations to the fund:

Professors: £20 per day
SL/Readers and professional staff on grades 9-10: £15 per day
Lecturers and professional staff on grades 7-8: £10 per day
PhDs and professional staff grade 6: at your discretion

The branch has now set up on-line donations via Golden Giving if people would like to donate in this way.

If you would prefer to make a donation by BACS transfer from your bank account, you can e-mail rhulucu2018 at gmail.com to request our bank account details to arrange a transfer.

The buckets will still be on the picket line today and tomorrow for those of you who prefer handing over hard cash!

We thank everyone who is making a donation in support of colleagues on strike ; your solidarity enables others who would not otherwise be able to take industrial action to make their voices heard.

The Fortunate Fifteen: A 25% Pay Rise for Royal Holloway’s Top Brass

A sympathetic Professor has taken a hard look at the latest Royal Holloway annual accounts, and has come up with some shocking findings.

Pay, equality, job security and workload, as well as pensions, are the driving issues that have led to the current UCU industrial action.  Many have written eloquently about these issues, and in particular the recent Orbital article about the pay and conditions of our Royal Holloway colleagues at the sharp end of casualisation is uncomfortable reading.

The situation at the other end of the pay scales for Royal Holloway’s most senior managers (after the Principal), the Fortunate Fifteen whose current salaries exceed £160,000, is very different. (By comparison, a Cabinet Minister’s salary is £142,000.)  The stark contrast between the worsening position of ordinary employees and the rapidly improving position of the Fortunate Fifteen, is revealed in the recently published Royal Holloway Annual Report 2019 [on page 42 – ed.] and is shown by the following graph.

This graph makes it clear that salaries for the highest paid Royal Holloway employees have increased significantly over the last year, highlighted by the massive increase from three to fifteen in the number of Royal Holloway employees with a salary exceeding £160,000.  Given the lack of transparency about these salaries, it is necessary to make some assumptions in order to quantify this increase.  Whilst one or two individuals may join or leave the Fortunate Fifteen over a year, the increase in the salary of an average member of the Fortunate Fifteen seems a good indication of the pay rises awarded to Royal Holloway’s most senior managers.  The total wages bill for the Fortunate Fifteen has increased by about £500,000, and the average salary within the Fortunate Fifteen has increased from £134,000 in 2017-18 to £169,000 in 2018-19.  On this basis, it is reasonable to conclude that the pay of Royal Holloway’s most senior managers has increased by about a quarter over the last year.

Pay for ordinary staff at Royal Holloway has plummeted, falling by 20% in real terms over the last decade.  Our growing number of casualised colleagues, working long hours for Royal Holloway, are in an even worse position.  Royal Holloway’s senior management team seem unable or unwilling to address this crisis, fundamentally about staff pay and conditions, whilst themselves enjoying a 25% pay rise since last year.

You can consult the College’s annual reports for 2013 onwards here, under the financial statements tab.

12th December 2019: since this post was originally published, senior management at RHUL have supplied further information which did not appear in the explanatory notes in the 2018-19 Annual Report and Accounts. Under new reporting rules, the annualised salaries of highly paid part-time employees must also be recorded, and the change, affecting visiting professors, largely but not entirely explains the increase in the reported numbers of those paid over £100,000 per annum. Nonetheless, the starkly different experiences of casualised staff, falling real salaries, and the increasingly highly paid in the university sector in the last ten years remain.