Calling Professional Services staff! Are you thinking of joining a union?

The following post was written by the founder of the SUCU PS members network and prior SUCU committee member Amy Ryall, with our thanks! Amy has since moved on to a new position at the Open University, but is now a representative on the National UCU Academic Related and Professional Services committee, which you can learn more about here.

Thinking of joining a union? Have some questions? Here’s a good place to start. Perhaps you’re interested because things aren’t going so well for you personally, or perhaps you’ve been looking around the sector for the last few months or years and wondering what on earth is going on. We’re all doing the same, but by joining UCU you can help to make a difference to our conditions and those of your colleagues and students. Unions work on collective action – the more members they have, the more effective they are.

Isn’t UCU ‘the lecturers’ union’?

No! It’s very definitely not. UCU is the union that acts most usually on behalf of staff at the University who are at Grade 6 and above. This is linked to negotiating agreements over benefits for staff at these grades. Membership is for all academic and academic-related and professional services staff. It might be though, that one of the other Unions has more members in your work area and that’s definitely something to consider when you’re thinking about joining one. . Sheffield UCU has a particularly strong Professional Services (PS) staff making up about 20% of the total membership, and the branch committee has a number of PS staff on it. To try and address issues affecting PS staff more effectively, we hold regular local Professional Services meetings, and at the UK level, Vicky Blake, the current UCU President, is a member of Professional Services staff at Leeds. Ignore what you read in the press or hear from colleagues, if you’re a PS member of staff who joins, you’ll be made very welcome.

Isn’t membership of a Union all about going on strike?

No! Though if you’re not a member, you may only become aware of the work of unions when strikes occur. Strikes are definitely part of union activity, but they are a last resort, when the normal day-to-day work of negotiation between employers and workers breaks down. They’re also less likely to happen if the union has a large membership. Employers are more likely to continue talks or come to an agreement if they think that a strike will involve a large number of the workforce and therefore be disruptive. A lot of work happens ‘behind the scenes’ and on behalf of all employees, whether they are union members or not. We have representatives involved in negotiations over terms and conditions, over pay, health and safety matters and many other aspects of the management and running of the University. You might remember the threat of Section 188 ‘fire and rehire’ last summer, which would have seen the terms and conditions of all staff at the University worsen. Negotiations by campus unions succeeded in getting the University to back down and rescind the threat. Union reps have been involved in weekly meetings about health and safety during the pandemic and they are currently working to support staff going through restructures, which are a type of ‘change management’ process. As a member, you’re entitled to individual support if you’re involved in a restructure and we also have caseworkers who support members to ensure they are being treated fairly if specific problems in the workplace arise.

What can I do?

To start with, you can become a member. A trade union is its members and we work together to make things better for everyone. You can benefit from this without being a member, but as a member, you can influence how things are done both at branch and UK level, not to mention bask in the knowledge that you’re doing something for the collective good. Learning how to advocate for yourself and your colleagues is also a benefit of being a member. By doing this, you can help actively improve your work situation. It can also help you to resist policies which might make conditions worse. Higher Education has come under increasing attack in recent years, with growing marketisation very difficult to resist and the ‘business’ of a university taking precedence over almost everything else. But together we can change this. In addition to the successful campaign against Section 188, we have successfully campaigned for the Graduate Teaching Assistant contract and for Saturday open days to be voluntary and compensated with time off in lieu. The national strikes of 2018 saved our defined benefit pension. Outside Sheffield, action taken by cleaners at the University of London’s six colleges has brought their employment back in house from being outsourced and a recent strike ballot at Brighton University was enough to make employers rescind their plan to make IT staff there redundant, without members having to actually strike. These successes do not happen unless members make them happen and the more members we have, the more effective we are and that’s good for everyone.

If you want to know more get in touch with We are happy to answer your personal questions, or talk to non-members from your workplace as a group. If you’re curious, please do join us, we’d love to meet you.