• Kirsten Taylor

St Andrews Staff to Strike This December

The UCU has confirmed that the University of St Andrews will be one of 58 universities which will be subject to strike action next month. The University will be affected by the strike action from Wednesday 1 December to Friday 3 December. UCU members voted in favour of strike action earlier this month in two ballots, one concerning pension cuts and the other over working conditions and wages. The issues that have provoked strike action are a 35% slash to guaranteed pensions, pay cuts, casualisation, issues of equality and the addition of unsafe workloads. Earlier this month the St Andrews UCU branch voted 79.9% in favour of strike action, 87.8% of members voting for action short of a strike, with a turnout of 56.6%. The overall national turnout was 53% for the pension ballot and 51% for the pay and conditions ballot. Section 2 of the Trade Union Act 2016 requires at least a 50% turnout in order for a ballot on strike action. The UCU have described this legislation as ‘draconian and interventionist’, whilst David Cameron’s government said that the legislation meant “strikes only happen when a clear majority of those entitled to vote have done so and all other possibilities have been explored.” The UCU plans to hold an- other ballot for the universities which were under the threshold of 50%. In addition to a three-day strike, staff at 64 universities will take action short of a strike, which will begin on Wednesday 1 December and continue for the full five-month mandate during which staff can take industrial action.

Action short of a strike is action that can be incorporated into staff’s working lives outside strike days. That might include: working solely to contracted hours, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling classes and lectures affected by strike action, not under-taking any voluntary activities, or a boycott of marking and assessment.

The UCU has stated that, “Staff pay has fallen by 20% after twelve years of below inflation pay offers; one third of academic staff are on insecure contracts; the gender pay gap sits at 15% and the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that, of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were black; staff are also experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression.”

The Union plans to continue action if its disputes are not settled, threatening further industrial action continuing into the spring.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said, “Strikes over three consecutive days are set to hit university campuses next month unless employers get round the table and take staff concerns over pension cuts, pay and working conditions seriously.

“UCU has repeatedly asked employers to meet with us to try to resolve these disputes. But while we set out pragmatic solutions that could halt widespread disruption to UK campuses, university bosses refuse to revoke unnecessary, swingeing pension cuts or even to negotiate on issues like casualisation and the unbearably high workloads that blight higher education. “A resolution to this dispute is simple. But if employers remain intent on slashing pensions and exploiting staff who have kept this sector afloat during a pandemic then campuses will face strike action before Christmas, which will escalate into spring with reballots and further industrial action.” National Union of Students president Larissa Kennedy said, “Students have a rich history of standing shoulder to shoulder with university staff, who have seen their pensions, pay and conditions slashed in recent years. With vice chancellors’ average total pay packets rising to £269,000 per year, it’s clear employers can afford to resolve their dispute with UCU over staff pay, which has fallen by an average of 20% in real terms since 2009.” She continued, “The onus for minimising disruption for students lies with university bosses: they must come back to the table to address the clear issues in how higher education is currently run.” Disputes over pensions have been rumbling on for around a decade. The ballot on pensions was provoked by what the UCU deemed a ‘flawed’ valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension fund. This valuation identified a £14-£18 billion shortfall in the scheme’s finances. The UCU claim this valuation was made at an inapropriate time, during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that it was “carried out at the start of the pandemic when global markets were crashing”. Universities UK, the advocacy organisation for universities in the UK, said, “The Union has failed to secure a mandate for industrial action in 31 of the 68 institutions, meaning fewer branches have reached the threshold than in previous ballots. “Union members voting ‘yes’ to strike action at eligible branches account for less than 7% of the scheme’s total active membership. “The employers’ proposals for reform are the only viable plans under current regulations that will keep the scheme affordable for members and universities and keep the defined benefit section of the scheme open.”

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