July branch news

Welcome to the July edition of branch news. This is a very busy time for the branch and more than ever it’s important for members to keep up to date with the work we’re doing. If you have any questions, comments or concerns about any of the items here, please get in touch and we will do our very best to get back to you as soon as we can.

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Come to the next all-union meeting: Thursday 30th July at 1pm. Sign up here.

Formal consultation process

On 9th July the campus trade unions were served a letter under section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. On the same day, the Vice Chancellor emailed all staff (‘Important update on measures to protect University finances’) outlining some of the possible actions the University is considering in terms of changes to our pay and conditions.

We strongly encourage all members to read the information outlined on this page under ‘Measures to protect University finances’, and in particular the section ‘What happens if the trade unions do not agree following consultation’. This outlines that the University is proposing to unilaterally alter our contracts where agreement cannot be reached via a process called ‘dismissal and re-engagement’ – that is, sacking and re-hiring all of us on worse terms and conditions.

You may have seen local press coverage of this plan, in particular this article in the Yorkshire Post (‘University of Sheffield denies plan to sack 8,000 staff and rehire them on lower pay’, 16th July 2020), and many of you attended the meetings we held in that week, both for UCU members alone and with the other campus unions.

In our meetings that week and in our town hall meeting last week, one theme emerged loud and clear from many of you – that you consider it entirely unacceptable that staff on lower pay should bear the brunt of any cost-cutting measures in a context where University executives enjoy vast salaries.

We expect to hold many more meetings over the course of the consultation process. Please get involved and share your views. UCU, UNISON, Unite and GMB are working closely together on this process with the support of our regional officials and we will do everything we can to challenge the University’s assertion that cuts to staff salaries is the best solution to the current situation.

Now, more than ever, it is critical that we have UCU reps and contacts in every department across the university keeping an eye out for emerging issues and ensuring that all members are informed and engaged. Becoming a rep or contact is a low time commitment — approximately one hour a month — but makes all the difference for our strength as a union. If you are interested in becoming a rep or contact and would like to learn more, please contact Membership Officer Katy Fox-Hodess at katy.fox-hodess@sheffield.ac.uk.

Four Fights ballot

You should have received a ballot – closing on 29 July – via email on the offer from UCEA over the Four Fights dispute (email from Civica Election Services, subject line ‘UCU consultative ballot’), following several updates over the last few weeks from Jo Grady, the General Secretary, and Paul Bridge, UCU’s head of Higher Education.

The negotiators, UCU’s Higher Education Committee and the branch committee are united in urging you to vote no to reject this offer. Voting no on the offer does not commit us to further industrial action at this stage.

You might find this article interesting on the argument for voting reject, written by the Corona Contract campaign who have worked tirelessly to defend casualised jobs in the sector over the last few months. This branch also voted to reject the offer at a meeting held in late May ahead of consultative meetings held with branch delegates from across the sector the following week.

Covid-19 negotiations

We continue to meet the University on a weekly basis to discuss and negotiate the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on our working conditions and the health, safety and wellbeing of all staff. On Friday 17th July we had a meeting specifically to discuss learning and teaching in the next academic year – we are very conscious that many of our members have concerns about timetabling, face to face teaching, and the shift to blended and online delivery of our programmes. The University is exploring, in discussion with us, changes to flexible working that would see teaching stretch into non-standard hours, and we are aware that consultation has begun in some departments on this already. We understand that the University is expecting these changes to be on a voluntary basis but has not yet committed to it being only carried out on this basis. We encourage all of you to respond to the consultation frankly, and the branch is aware that for many of our members teaching at non-standard hours is neither possible nor desirable.

We are also keen to hear from those of you who have concerns about the return to face to face teaching, or about the University’s plans to ensure the safety of new students when they arrive in Sheffield in September. The current return to campus risk assessment correctly notes that the priority is to eliminate risk where possible, which means that all work that can be carried out remotely should be. We are aware that the research on the impact of Covid-19 is ongoing and changes frequently (see, for example, this recent study in Nature) and we are doing all we can to ensure that risk assessments and equality impact assessments reflect this. Please do contact us about this if you have information or thoughts about this.

Please note the announcement made in last week’s internal staff communications bulletin that staff can request up 10 days of annual leave be carried over into the next leave year.

Early career members update

In light of the requirement to make 15% cuts in department budgets, there has been a blanket ban on the hiring of GTAs in the Faculty of Social Sciences for next academic year. We are also beginning to hear about cuts to GTAs in other faculties and departments. At the moment, these cuts are being made at the Departmental and Faculty levels and are not University wide. If your department announces cuts to GTAs, please get in touch.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working hard to build a campaign around this. We held an emergency general meeting on GTA issues and prepared a campaign toolkit that people can use to help the fightback.

We have had some key wins in support for PGRs including the creation of a Covid-19 hardship fund and securing funded extensions for third year PGRs on University of Sheffield scholarships. There is still a lot of work to be done, however and we remain concerned about the adequacy of support for PGRs not in their final year, funding, extensions and the treatment of international and disabled PGRs.

Find out more about the work we’ve been doing in this area here.

Researchers on fixed-term contracts are facing particular issues due to uncertainties regarding job security (lack of contract renewal and employment prospects), fieldwork (lack of funding opportunities) and grant applications. If you want to join a group of ECRs organising across the university, please fill out this form (if you haven’t done so already) and you will be added to an ECR mailing list. Please also note that a meeting open to all ECRs across the university will be held on 8 September 1-2pm. More information and a link to the meeting will be sent in due course.

Researchers on fixed term contracts may not be aware that they are eligible to apply for extended electronic access to University of Sheffield resources at the end of their contact – please see here for details.

Black Lives Matter update

Following the death of George Floyd on 25th May at the hands of the United States’ police, which sparked worldwide protests and movements of solidarity with Black people being disproportionately affected by police violence and institutional racism, we held an EGM on 11th June in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to work towards racial justice. Abdullah Mohamed and San Gopalakrishnan gave updates on the work they are doing as part of BLM Sheffield and the University’s BAME Staff Network, respectively. The EGM was attended by about 75 members, who approved two branch donations, each of £250, to Black Lives Matter UK and Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield.

Our branch and our members are concerned about police violence and institutional racism, and it is clear we have not done enough to combat racism at the University of Sheffield. As part of this commitment to do more, and to hear from members about how we can do so, we are organising a second EGM in solidarity with BLM movements. San Gopalakrishnan of the BAME Staff Network will deliver a session aimed to explore racism in society with a particular focus on recent issues, and more specifically racism within Higher Education. There will also be a discussion on helping members tackle difficult conversations as well as practical intervention tips. We will send more information closer to the date, but do keep the date of Thursday 3rd September (1-2pm) in your diary!

Besides maintaining a supportive and ongoing dialogue with the BAME staff network, we are currently working on two further initiatives. First, we would like to organise workshops with educators specialised in anti-racism work. Second, together with members who volunteered to help out, we are developing a list of resources about how racism works (and how to resist and dismantle it) specifically in unions and in higher education. As Zahra Bei mentions, reading up on racism isn’t enough – but as a starting point we recommend the book ‘Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK’ (open access) by Bridget Byrne, Claire Alexander, Omar Khan, James Nazroo and William Shankley, as well as this curated list of resources put together by the University library, based on suggestions from people across the University (here is the recommendation form). We also encourage members to suggest their own motions and statements on challenging racism in the workplace, which would help inform our branch position on this. If you’d like to get involved or feedback on any of this, please do get in touch with us.

If you have participated in the Sheffield BLM event on 6 June, or more generally would like to be kept updated by the recently created Sheffield BLM group, please fill out this form.

As we know, racism in the UK can at times overlap with the Hostile Environment faced by migrants. As such we are also seeking to support members employed on a student or work visa who may face particular difficulties in the present time. If you are an international member of staff or student and haven’t filled out this survey, please do so now, and share with your networks.

Disabled Members Forum update

With our fellow campus trade unions, Unite and UNISON, we hosted a joint forum for disabled members via Zoom on 9 July with a good turnout. This was a confidential space created for individuals to share their experiences as a disabled worker at the University of Sheffield, particularly in these unprecedented times and to provide specific updates to members about current disability work that’s taking place.

The Vice Chair of UCU”s national disabled members standing committee shared an update with members about some of the issues and concerns that have been raised nationally, such as individual experiences and perceptions around reasonable adjustments; fear of disclosure; and the intersectionality of disability with other protected characteristics. Members discussed various issues affecting them, including concerns around returning to working on-site; securing reasonable adjustments at work and through the promotions process; and redundancy-related concerns. We also discussed the ongoing work to create an institutional Disability Action Plan – formal consultation on that will begin shortly.

UCU’s national Disabled Members Standing Committee also hosts an open Tuesday ‘Tea Break’ meeting, held fortnightly from 3-4pm. This is now held on Microsoft Teams and disabled UCU members are welcome to join by getting in touch with Elane Heffernan (Chair of the DMSC) – elaneheffernan@btinternet.com. The Disabled Members Network also recently put out a statement – ‘No Return to Discrimination’. Please do share this information as a means for Disabled members to connect and organise.

Nablus twinning update

On 6th July 2020 a meeting was held between members of Sheffield UCU and our colleagues from SHU UCU to discuss the Nablus twinning initiative. Sheffield TUC has officially joined as well, and discussions are ongoing with TU members across Sheffield. Several local elected representatives were also there, including Councilors Neale Gibson and Adam Hurst, Lord Mayor Tony Downing and staff from Louise Haigh’s office. Also on the call were representatives from civil society organisations in Nablus and Sheffield.

There is a lot of enthusiasm about the idea of creating relationships between Sheffield and Nablus universities through the trade unions. SUCU will follow up this meeting with further discussions among interested parties – if you are interested in getting involved in the branch’s Palestine work, please contact us on ucu@sheffield.ac.uk.