Branch updates

News in brief from SUCU Committee.

Donations to the fighting and hardship funds

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We want members to be financially supported so they are able to take part in industrial action without impediment, and a strong fighting fund is crucial to our action. This is especially important for casualised staff, though we encourage all members who need financial support to make use of the support that is available (full details can be found in our 2021/22 guidance document). Members are able to apply to the central UCU Fighting Fund as well as the SUCU Hardship Fund. The continued health of these funds throughout periods of industrial action are reliant on solidarity donations. If you are in a position where you are able to donate in order to support our more financially precarious members, we encourage and welcome any support.   To donate to the Sheffield UCU hardship fund, you can do so using these details: Account name: UCU Sheffield 70 Hardship Fund Sort code: 60-83-01 Account number: 20391171 Account Type: Business   Details on donating to the central UCU fighting fund can be found at this link.    We ask members who have a dispensation not to strike (due to e.g. long term illness or parental leave), or members with pre-booked annual leave to consider donating your earnings for strike days to either the central UCU or local hardship fund.   

January 2022 Branch News

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This month’s branch news contains updates on our anti-casualisation work, University management’s response to the new government guidance on health and safety, plus news of a recent attack on academic freedom at Sheffield Hallam University.

There is simply too much to cover in one (readable) email, so this branch news does not cover our local or the UK wide disputes. We will be in touch separately to update you on these disputes, and related issues, very soon.

Ways to get involved this month:

    Today from 1-2, we are holding an action group on the topic of health & safety, with a specific focus on stress. Any member who wants to be involved with branch campaigning around this issue, or to get more information, is very welcome. We anticipate the discussion will interface with our work around workload, working from home, and Covid. You can sign up to attend here. We will send out zoom information immediately before the meeting to anyone signing up this morning.
    ‘Challenging casualisation’ is a two day online organising and training event on the 10th and 17th February (a strike day). It’s being held as a collaborative event between SUCU’s anticas network and colleagues at Southampton. See below for more information, and you can sign up here.
    Alternating between Tuesdays 4-5 and Wednesdays 12-1, we hold our regular dispute committee. If you are not already signed up to the dispute committee mailing list and meeting invites, and want to be involved, please email us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk

Local organising around casualisation

Members of the branch's anti-casualisation network have been developing a claim against the University as part of an anti-casualisation campaign. This claim will be made up of a series of demands for better working conditions and support for PGRs, based on the PGRs as Staff campaign manifesto, in addition to those relating to minimum length fixed-term contracts. This acts as a means of putting additional sustained pressure against the university around parts of the four fights dispute and the national PGRs as Staff campaign.

The next steps for PGR and FTC staff members to develop this claim will be to attend a 'challenging casualisation' training and organising course (advertised above), which has been developed to incorporate some of the specifics around the PGR campaign. It will include participatory sessions on claim writing and how this fits within local and national campaigning. Members from our branch will be participating in this course alongside PGR members from the University of Southampton UCU branch, who are at a similar point in terms of developing a local claim of their own. If you are a PGR or FTC member, then you’re encouraged to attend this training course so that you actively shape the demands of our claim and campaign. The course will be run virtually across two half-days (10am-1pm) on the 10th and 17th February and you will also engage in some self-directed group work outside of these sessions.

Update to University Covid policies

As you will be aware, the Tory government has recently removed the requirement for all public Covid mitigations. Most concerningly, the Office for Students has released a statement including the following: “Risk assessments should never be used to prevent providers delivering the full programme of face-to-face teaching and learning that they were providing before the pandemic.”

Risk assessments are not pro forma documents to be developed and then ignored; they are meant to explicitly guide the creation and implementation of policy and practice in work places, and they are enshrined within health and safety law. Employers have a legal obligation to manage H&S in workplaces, as do staff in the spaces in which they work, which means making an evaluation of the situation and acting upon that evaluation. The OfS directive does not override these legal requirements. We cannot see how the advice of the OfS is compatible with H&S law, and we have sought guidance from the UCU legal team.

Locally, University management have chosen to downgrade all mitigations, including the replacement of mask mandates with recommendations, and, in most cases, have stated that they expect staff to work on campus. It remains our branch position that staff and students at this university do not all have the same circumstances and the most responsible health and safety will accommodate varying needs. As a single example, some members of our community are medically vulnerable, or live with someone who is medically vulnerable. Ensuring that these staff and students can access our university safely and with confidence is as much of a responsibility as ensuring that our university follows all access needs.

If you feel that you are being compelled to work in person, but do not feel safe doing so, UCU has created a new set of template letters for you to personalise to support communication with your line manager in the first instance. You can also contact us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk to make an appointment to come to a casework surgery, if you need more support.

If you are working on campus during the coming term, it remains important to check how the rooms you are working in are ventilated, and that the ventilation is working as intended. Ventilation is probably the main and most effective mitigation against the transmission of COVID-19. There are three types of rooms in the university, and we describe how to check whether they are ventilated properly below:

    If the room is mechanically ventilated, then there should be a poster saying so on the wall, and vents either in the walls or ceiling. You will want to check that there is a detectable air flow through the vents. There have been reports of several rooms where this is not the case and we need to ensure Estates acts on this in time for the beginning of teaching. Unfortunately Estates are not checking individual rooms, only the computer readouts for the system as a whole.
    If the room is naturally ventilated (again, there should be a poster saying so) make sure all the windows can open and that a CO2 monitor is fitted and working in the room. There are still gaps in provision of monitors and malfunctioning windows. A reminder: the monitor should show green at 800 parts per million, amber at 800-1500ppm and red at 1500 ppm. If it turns to amber at any point action needs to be taken to increase ventilation (e.g. open more windows, take a break and get students outside to allow the levels to decrease to green levels); if it turns to red there should be an accompanying alarm and the room needs to be evacuated. All naturally ventilated rooms should also be fitted with a thermometer - in some cases the CO2 monitor also functions as a thermometer. +16℃ is the lower limit of what is recognised as suitable for sedentary working.
    Some rooms are both naturally and mechanically ventilated and these should also be fitted with CO2 monitors/ thermometers.
If there are problems when you have checked please inform the Estates Helpdesk immediately (efmhelpdesk@sheffield.ac.uk), and copy in H&S services (safety@sheffield.ac.uk), as well as ucu@sheffield.ac.uk so we can have a sense of the scale of any problems and can follow up with university management to push for the matters are being followed up in a timely fashion.

New regulations on self certification of illness

We’d like to draw members’ attention to a temporary, but important, change to the Government guidance on Statutory Sick Pay and the need to provide proof of sickness to employers. Normally employees are required to provide proof of sickness (e.g. a fit note from their GP) after seven days of illness, but for the period between 10 December 2021 and 26 January 2022 this was increased to 28 days (including non-working days), to allow GPs to focus on the Covid vaccine rollout. We flagged this with HR before Christmas and they committed to making staff aware. As of 27 January 2022 the government has reinstated the seven-day rule, but if you or colleagues were off work due to illness in December or January you may want to note this and ensure you aren’t put under pressure to provide evidence where it isn’t required.

Support for suspended Sheffield Hallam academic

You may have heard that Shahd Abusalama, a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, was placed under investigation and suspended from her teaching post following spurious accusations of antisemitism. Shahd is a Palestinian scholar and activist from Gaza, whose research focuses upon the historical representation of Palestinian refugees in colonial, humanitarian, and Palestinian documentary films. Her suspension was widely protested by individuals and organisations, including Sheffield Hallam UCU and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, and this pressure has resulted in her being reinstated. She is still under investigation however, and we are concerned that this incident represents not only an individual breach of due process and academic freedom, but is also illustrative of growing campaigns to use the problematic IHRA definition of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel. As a branch committee, we have written to Sheffield Hallam University to protest Shahd’s suspension. Any members who also wish to write can find potential email addresses to contact here and an example letter of protest being circulated by UCU Left here.

Management Violation of Framework agreement

We want to make members aware of a situation which has been ongoing, but which represents a serious breach by university management of our longstanding recognition agreement. The recognition agreement is a negotiated document which dictates certain aspects of the interactions between us and our employer. The responsibilities of management include providing trade unions with access to all staff induction events (whether formal or informal), and also to allow us to have access to information on prospective members, and to staff lists. This is fundamentally important, both for recruitment purposes, but also because as a recognised trade union we do not just negotiate on behalf of our current members, but on behalf of every potential member within our bargaining unit (the university).

For several years now, University management has refused to permit the recognised Sheffield University trade unions to have access to potential membership information, and more recently, to staff mailing lists. Their refusal has been couched in a narrow (and we argue incorrect) reading of data privacy legislation and regulations, ie. GDPR, but they have ignored advice from our regional office, proposals from our negotiators in relation to how such information can be provided to unions, and agreements at other universities where such information is provided to staff trade union representatives. We are concerned that this refusal represents a continued deterioration in relations with management after the S188 fire-and-rehire notice which was served in July 2020 and believe it is also a breach of the spirit and wording of our recognition agreement.

Last Autumn, with Unite and UNISON, we filed a grievance against the university, citing management actions which increasingly seem to constitute union busting. We will continue to update members on the progress of this grievance and to advocate for a management return to the key principles outlined in our recognition agreement: cooperation, team working, equal opportunities, transparency and mutual respect.

December branch news: Industrial action updates, working from home, and a much needed break is nigh

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Dear members,

Happy Monday. This month’s branch news is fairly brief, but contains a number of important updates on our ongoing industrial action, the recent changes in DfE guidance on working from home, and a small bit of holiday cheer.

Industrial action updates

Our Industrial Action Guidance Document has now been updated to include information on:

    How to apply to the central UCU fighting fund and the local SUCU hardship fund.
    How supporters can donate to both of these funds. Particularly if you know any individuals or organisations outside of UKHE who might be willing to donate, please pass this information on to them!

At our branch meeting on the Friday of strike action, we discussed ways to keep our campaign visible, and make the action short of a strike that we are taking a collective, supportive action. One of the ideas that was raised was to hold regular, informal meet-ups for members of the branch to talk to each other about how ASOS is going, share problems, brainstorm solutions, and generally support each other. These “industrial action meet-ups” are separate from formal branch meetings, and won’t have any agenda. We are going to try to hold these meetings every couple of weeks, and have scheduled our first one for Thursday, 16 December at 11:30am. Given the new working from home guidance, this meeting will be entirely online. You can sign up to attend here.

One of our previous branch members who is now active in another branch has written a powerful reflection on our recent round of strike action, and a reminder of what we’re fighting for: an education sector that is once again transformative, instead of mired in metrics, competition, and destructively poor financial planning.

Working from home

In line with recently announced new policies regarding Covid-19, the DfE has published guidance for higher education institutions with recommendations for working from home. You may have seen the email from management late on Friday which stated that

“There are exceptions to this rule in place for universities to allow us to continue in person learning and teaching, other essential student focused activity, and research and innovation related activities. Therefore, in line with Department for Education guidance, we will continue to deliver teaching, student support and research activity on campus, including via the provision of library and study space.”

We want to continue to stress that staff and student health is of the highest priority, and that both groups have rights under Health and Safety law. If you feel that you are being asked to work on campus in a way that counteracts the DfE guidelines, or that places your health directly at risk, we encourage you to raise these concerns with your line manager. In particular, we know that ventilation continues to be an issue in campus workspaces. If you have reason to believe that the ventilation in your work or teaching space is placing you and/or your students at risk, please do remember the ‘Protocol for staff to remove themselves from a situation of serious and imminent danger’. As always, you can also contact us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk for support.

Holiday Cheer

It is once again December, and that means it is time for our annual reminder of (in our humble opinion) the finest trade union parody song ever made, featuring a huge number of our members. Still relevant three years later! We will accept all nominations to the Top of the Pops competition with grace and humility.

Casualisation in the press

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Get involved! Two quick items:
  • We have a branch General Meeting coming up on the 9th of November at 1pm, where we will discuss the results of the two UK wide ballots. We will be able to send a Branch Delegate from this meeting to report to the Higher Education Committee, and feed into the HEC's decision making meeting on the 12th. We won't yet have the results of our local ballot, but we can and will discuss its relationship to any UK action. Register here.
  • The UCU equalities standing committees are calling for members to self-nominate and join in this important work. UCU has member-led equalities committees for black members, women members, LGBT+ members, disabled members, and migrant members. They help create resources to support campaigning and casework, and help shape UCU's lobbying and policy about equalities issues. We can nominate up to one branch member for each equalities committee. We have received an expression of interest for the LGBT+ members committee, but we are looking for any members who want to get involved in any of these equalities strands. If you want to get involved, email us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk before Monday, 8 November.
  • Casualisation in the press

    On Saturday, an article appeared in the Guardian called ‘My students never knew’: the lecturer who lived in a tent. This article details the reality of casualisation in HE, featuring stories of extreme precarity from several workers in higher education, including a UCU activist who had so little money she had to live in a tent while doing her PhD.

    Since UCU was created, we have consistently worked to raise awareness about precarity in higher education and campaign to reduce it. The most recent UCU report on casualisation reveals that 68% of research-only academics are on fixed term contracts, as are 44% of teaching-only staff. These are just examples of how casualisation impacts two specific job types; many professional services staff members and grad student workers in HE are hourly paid, and some don't even have contracts.

    When contacted for comment, our employers' representative body, the University and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA), had the opportunity to express some level of compassion for the horrific personal circumstances detailed in the article, or at least provide an acknowledgement that this was an issue facing higher education that needed to be dealt with. Instead, the chief executive of UCEA, Raj Jethwa, dismissively downplayed the amount of casualisation in this sector, stating that “the vast majority of teaching is delivered by staff with open-ended contracts”. This statement is misleading, at best, and made in the context of the above figures, which UCU (and the other HE trade unions) continue to supply UCEA with in our annual bargaining claims, represents a fundamental disregard for the staff of this sector. This is why casualisation is part of our Four Fights ballot: HE employers will not acknowledge that there is a problem, let alone reduce their reliance on casualised labour, unless there are enforceable, sector wide standards that force them towards secure working.

    Mr Jethwa also chose this moment to attack UCU by making the inaccurate claim that we have “repeatedly reject[ed] opportunities to work with employers in this important area.” Every year the joint HE trade unions ask employers to work with us to identify sector-wide baseline standards on precarity, and UCEA responds by saying we could consider developing a working group to 'identify the issues' and 'make recommendations of best practice' which individuals employers can choose to follow - or not. This sector is beyond the need to identify issues in relation to precarity. The issue is that employers are increasingly choosing not to provide staff with secure contracts. You can read a response to the article, by UCU President Vicky Blake and our Communications Officer Robyn Orfitelli, in Guardian letters, here.

    This sector needs negotiated baseline standards for job security that apply to all HE institutions. When employers are willing to work with UCU on developing those, we will join them in doing so. They have not yet been willing. This is why your vote in our Four Fights ballot is so important: we need to stand up for all of our members, and make this a more secure sector.

    If you haven't voted yet, Tuesday, 2 November is the last safe day to post your ballots for Four Fights and USS! Don't lose your chance to vote: find a post box in the morning!

    Vote today, don’t delay! Why we are balloting to save our pensions

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    Dear members,

    Our two UK ballots over pensions, pay, and fair working conditions will close next week. You need to send your ballot papers back by Tuesday, 2 November at the latest to ensure they count. Don’t delay: send your ballot papers back today, and let us know!

    Important, the deadline to request new ballot papers is 5pm TODAY! If you haven’t had yours, 1. check your preferred address on My UCU, then 2. request a replacement ballot here. Don’t lose your chance to vote!

    Why are we balloting over USS?

    USS is continuing its longstanding mission to kill off our pensions through unsound valuations and 'reckless prudence'. We have been here before. Every three years (or sometimes more frequently), USS completes a valuation that seems hard-wired to produce a deficit. And our employers use each valuation as an excuse to scale our pensions back further. The graphic below, which shows the real terms asset growth of USS vs their own, increasingly prudent forecasts, makes it clear that the USS valuations have no grounding in reality; they serve only to strip us of our hard-earned pensions. After over a decade of this 'death by a thousand cuts' approach, we are now paying ~50% more for pensions worth significantly less, with more cuts coming every three years. This has to stop. UCU demands that our employers revoke their planned cuts and insist on replacing the 2020 valuation, which cynically exploits the pandemic as a rationale to take our pension benefits away, with an updated, evidence-based 2021 calculation.

    How much money does USS want to take from you?

    If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, we suggest you use UCU’s USS modeller, which tells you how much you stand to lose if the proposals from our employers are forced onto us.

    As an illustration (conducted with thanks by one of our members), a Grade 8 lecturer who retires at age 67 and lives until age 85 stands to potentially lose approximately £175,000 of gross income from the DB (guaranteed) part of their pension over the course of their retirement. This income loss is equivalent to the same member going on strike and receiving strike pay deductions for 6 years and 2 months!

    Adding in an expected (but far from guaranteed!) approximately £120,000 from the defined contribution benefits that would replace them, they would still stand to lose over £55,000 over their retirement, equivalent to just under 2 years of going on strike!

    Check the impacts on you using the calculator from UCU.

    None of us want to lose money through strike deductions. But we simply cannot afford not to (and on strike we are supported by the UCU fighting fund). Please vote YES to action short of a strike and strike action.

    Sheffield UCU committee