WE ARE IN DISPUTE: Why We Must Vote YES and YES in the HE Pay and Equality Ballot

Beginning August 30th, our union will be balloting all members in Higher Education on whether to take industrial action over pay and equality. The ballot will run until October 19th, will be run by the Electoral Services commission and will take the form of a postal ballot (these are legal requirements of any industrial action ballot in the UK under the anti-trade union laws). So it’s extremely important that UCU nationally has your current postal address on record as if they do not you will not receive a ballot paper and will not be able to vote! You can update your postal address and other membership details here.

The ballot will consist of two questions: you will be asked whether you are willing to take strike action and whether you are willing to take action short of a strike. Here at Sheffield, your branch committee is recommending in the strongest possible terms that you vote YES and YES to these questions. Without a vote for action short of strike (ASOS) the union will not be able to utilise supplementary tactics such as working to contract alongside strike action in the dispute, and without a vote for strike action we can’t use our most powerful tool – the withdrawal of our labour. This blog post will set out what’s at stake in this ballot and why we believe that it is vitally important that we prepare to take industrial action, starting with securing the largest possible result in favour of action.

Pay in HE and the UCU Claim

The University and College Employers Association (UCEA) has made a pay increase offer of 2% for 2018-19. That doesn’t sound awful on the face of it, but as of July of this year inflation is currently at 3.2%, according to the Retail Price Index (RPI), and was as high as 3.4% earlier this year. To put that in context, what the employers propose for our pay will not come close to keeping up with everyday cost of living increases; rail fares, for example, rose by 3.6% this January and are set to rise a further 3.2% next January. This means yet another real terms pay cut.

This has been the case for far too long now, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the cumulative effect of below inflation pay rises in recent years have decimated the living standards of university workers. Since 2010, pay in Higher Education has fallen by an eye-watering 21% when measured against the RPI. In comparison, over a similar time period of 8 years, average wages in austerity ravaged Greece fell by around 15% between 2007 and 2015. If you find you’re often struggling to make the rent or mortgage payments, this is why.

The real terms pay losses in HE have been so severe that in January, UCU and other HE trade unions tabled a claim to the employers demanding a pay increase for university workers of 7.5% or £1500, whichever figure is greater. This claim is based on the ‘catch up and keep up’ principle designed to address the savage real terms pay cuts of the last ten years and begin to restore living standards for HE staff. Disappointingly, the employers have refused to meet this or even attempt to forge compromise, insisting on keeping their offer below inflation and 5.5% below what our union is demanding, despite the fact that universities’ income is increasing year on year and the UK University HE sector now holds cash reserves of over £44,270,000,000 – more than double the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Iceland.

We know, however, that it isn’t just pay which has been attacked in HE. The Gender Pay Gap in UK Universities is one of the worst in the developed world at an average of 18.4%. The explosion of casualised contracts in the sector is so severe, with over half of teaching staff in UK universities employed on insecure contracts, it can now be compared to hyper-exploitative companies like Sports Direct. And excessive workloads mean that on average HE staff are working completely unpaid around two days a week. That’s why as well as demanding a 7.5% increase in pay, UCU has also included in our claim demands for the following:

    A nationally agreed framework for action to close the gender pay gap by 2020
    A nationally agreed framework for action on precarious contracts
    A nationally agreed payment to recognise excessive workloads

Unfortunately, in a display of intransigence which UCU members have become used to over the years, UCEA has completely refused to engage with unions over these issues. Not only are our employers not interested in addressing the severe loss of pay we have suffered, they are not interested in addressing the gender pay gap, casualisation or excessive workloads either. Only the threat of serious and sustained industrial action can now force the employers to shift on these issues.

What is to be done?

We’ve already held an indicative (consultative) ballot, in which 82% voted to reject the employers offer and 65% voted in favour of strike action, on a turnout of 47.7%. That’s a good start – but we need to improve on this significantly in the real thing. For a start, unless turnout reaches 50%, because of the Tories’ anti-union laws the ballot would not be considered sufficient to take legal action – recently the PCS union held a ballot for action on pay in which almost 60,000 members voted, delivering an 86% vote for action, but because the turnout was around 42% they did not reach for the threshold for a ‘legal’ strike ballot . We must make sure that we reach the threshold.

Additionally, we need to see the ballot as just the beginning of our campaign on pay and equality. This is our first opportunity to send a message to the employer; the higher the turnout and the higher the vote for action, the clearer it will be to UCEA that the only way to avoid disruptive strike action will be to return to the negotiating table.

At our democratic Congress this year, delegates voted to accept the recommendations of an elected Commission for Industrial Action, whose aim is to set out principles for future strikes, including any action which we may take as a result of this ballot. It may well require sustained and serious industrial action to shift the employers towards further negotiations – but we can confidently say following the magnificent 14 days of strike action we took earlier this year to defend USS pensions that we have the capacity to deliver it. In rain and snow our picket lines were some of the strongest in the country at Sheffield and we stopped the employers’ threat to scrap Defined Benefit pensions. This dispute has the capacity to reach a far greater scale however – 147 universities will be involved, more than double the number in the USS dispute, and UNISON are also balloting their HE members for action, meaning there is the possibility of united strike action across the sector and across unions.

Building the campaign now gives us the best chance of a swift victory. Sheffield UCU branch committee will be organising a Teach Out event around the ballot and the campaign, and we have already begun discussions with Sheffield Hallam UCU about how we can work together to fight for pay and equality in HE. We will be organising other events as well, to build support among workers and students, and have plans to form a dispute committee to maximise the participation of members and supporters in organising the dispute locally. But we need your help as well as your vote. What drove the success of the USS strike earlier in the year was the unity we had on the picket lines, and that came from members organising together.

Can you help promote the ballot on social media, or talk to your colleagues about why they should join the union and vote yes?

Can you organise meetings in your department or building? We can send a rep from the branch committee to help discuss the campaign!

Would you be interested in being part of the pay dispute committee? Email ucu@shef.ac.uk and let us know!

The USS strike this year proved that when we organise and fight back together, we can change things. This autumn, we need to fight together again for pay and equality in HE.


Sam Morecroft (SUCU Anti Casualisation Officer)