Autumn Branch News: Welcome to a new year
A new academic year is upon us, and to say that there is a lot going on is an understatement. Over the next week, we will be sending you updates on local health and safety policy and the central negotiations we are doing, as well as our ongoing dispute. In this branch news, however, we wanted to take this chance, with the fresh start that new years offer, to step back, and write to all of you with an introduction to what UCU (and unions more generally) do, and how you can get involved.
Transparent information flow and consultation
One of our most important goals as a branch committee is to make sure that information is being shared transparently and regularly. We want every member to know what the branch is doing, and for members to have chances to collectively decide what we do. As a group of members with strong opinions, we know we won’t always agree on everything, but we are committed to having the conversation – with its agreements and its disagreements – openly, transparently, and democratically, and to developing plans that reflect a majority position, and we think that this is a fundamental part of what makes Sheffield UCU strong.
We try to email you regularly, and encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps even more importantly though, we try to meet as a full branch or as individual workplaces as often as possible, so that we can consistently talk as a group about any issues that are facing us, and work together to figure out how to address them. Our next branch general meeting is coming up on Thursday, the 14th of October, from 1-2pm. We will have a guest speaker from the University of Liverpool to talk about their immensely successful local action to resist compulsory redundancies, and we will be talking about our own ongoing disputes. You can see the agenda here, and register for the GM here. A Zoom link for the meeting will be sent out the morning of (And that will happen this time! Apologies for our mistake of a few weeks ago. After a year of so many meetings online, we suppose it was inevitable that we would forget once, and assume a link would be magically available).
We also try to facilitate members talking and planning in smaller groups, and we have a network of department representatives across this university. These union reps hold meetings in local work areas, and are an integral part of helping to share information with members, and to share your needs and concerns with those of us who collectively bargain with university management. If you are interested in getting involved as a branch rep, either in partnership with an existing rep in your work area, or because your work area doesn’t have a rep yet, please get in touch and we are happy to answer questions about what it involves. We are especially looking to increase our reps network for professional services staff who are working in faculty offices or in academic departments.
Networks of support and solidarity
In addition to our departmental reps network, over the past 3 years we have worked to establish other networks of members, in similar roles or contract types, to facilitate support, solidarity, and to steer and develop local campaigning. We have an active professional services staff network for all of our PS members, which meets once a month. We also have an anti-casualisation network for staff on casualised contracts which meets semi-regularly. If you want to be part of either of these member networks, or to suggest a new one (be forewarned of the blessing/curse of the volunteer: We may ask for some help in organising it!) please get in touch with us at any point.
Individual and collective casework
Casework is one of the areas that unions are best known for. Essentially, casework is the process by which we help you find a way to resolve an issue that you are facing in the workplace.
At this branch, our caseworkers provide support for members in three primary ways. We regularly hold casework surgeries where you can attend 30 minute appointments. For many types of issues members face, these short appointments provide you the chance to speak to caseworkers, who can offer advice and support in an effort to resolve your issue locally and informally. In other cases though, a surgery appointment may make it clear that you need more significant support (or you may know this in advance), and a caseworker can be assigned to you. Lastly, it may become clear that an issue facing one member is in fact a collective issue, facing an entire work area, or members on a particular contract type. In these cases, branch negotiators and caseworkers may also pursue a collective campaign or policy change based on the wider issues being faced by our membership.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in both the number of collective issues, and individual issues, that our members are facing. We are looking for volunteers who might be willing to get involved in casework. Being a caseworker doesn’t mean you have to instantly know all university policy – this branch, and UCU more centrally, provides training, mentoring, and support for new caseworkers. All you need is a willingness to learn, to represent members, and skills in communicating and listening. Being a caseworker also doesn’t mean taking on an enormous number of cases. With enough caseworkers to take on an average of one case per semester, we can spread our workload, as well as increasing the number of members who are actively informed about university policy and able to advocate for yourselves and for others on both a formal and informal basis.
Collective bargaining, Health and Safety, and Equalities
Our branch committee fields a team of negotiators who meet regularly with members of university management, along with representatives from the other campus trade unions: Unite, UNISON, and GMB. In addition to our regular joint trade union negotiations, policy specific negotiation meetings, health and safety meetings, and employment security group meetings (ESG is where we find out about upcoming restructures and potential redundancies, among other things), and dispute related negotiations, we also take part in specific working groups, such as the gender pay gap working group, the academic workload working group, and others. Since the pandemic began, we have also met with representatives of university management regularly to collectively bargain over the university’s planned policies around Covid-19, which led to University of Sheffield employees receiving a top-up to 100% pay if they were on furlough last year.
We welcome member involvement in building our local campaigns, and we have specifically involved members in our equalities work, including successful campaigns for increased support for migrant staff, and for an action plan to address the gender pay gap. We are part of a joint equalities working group with members from the other trade unions, and any members who want to get involved can do so by contacting us.
Via branch news, interim emails, our branch meetings, our twitter account, and our reps network we try to keep members up to date on what is happening in negotiations, and to make you aware of what policies we have negotiated, where we see issues with university policies, and most importantly, what your rights are as a member of this university.
Disputes and industrial action
As a union, our first resort is to pursue change via negotiations, bargaining, and campaigning. However, negotiations can break down, and at this point, members face the decision of whether or not we should escalate to a dispute.
In relation to both our pension benefits, and to our pay and working conditions, negotiations at a UK-wide level have broken down. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen a trend of our UK level employer representatives pursuing extreme changes without being willing to negotiate.
As a result of this complete breakdown in negotiations, UCU is currently preparing to ballot HE members across the UK for industrial action over our pension benefits, and over our pay and working conditions, called the ‘four fights’.
Locally, Sheffield UCU is also preparing to ballot, in relation to the university’s decisions to close the Department of Archaeology, and the sweeping and destructive restructuring of our language provision, which is already impacting the School of Languages and Cultures and Modern Languages Teaching Centre, and is planned to impact the School of East Asian Studies, as well as all professional services staff in these departments, and indirectly, every department which shares a dual or single honours degree with these departments. We have given University management until noon today to respond to our branch’s demand for an assurance of no compulsory redundancies, and if we do not receive this assurance, we will ballot for industrial action during a similar time frame to the UK wide HE ballots.
We will be sending you much more information about the UK and local disputes in the coming weeks, and in particular, we have been posting a series of in depth posts related to the Local Dispute on our blog. Soon, we will also be writing to all members of staff at the university to inform you of an all staff briefing for midday on the 19th of October, so we ask you to save the date in your diaries.
Lastly, please update your contact information at My UCU today, making sure your address is correct, and that you have a phone number listed. Being able to contact you during a ballot is crucial for making sure we pass the 50% threshold.
As a union, we stand in solidarity with other branches of UCU, and other unions which are in dispute. Over the last 6 months, we have asked members to support action at UCU branches across both the HE and FE sectors, including an international boycott the Universities of Leicester and Liverpool over cuts to jobs, the improper use of research metrics, targeting of critical areas of scholarship and victimisation of trade union representatives and members. The news out of Liverpool is a significant success, with a hard fought campaign seeing 47 proposed compulsory redundancies reduced to zero. Huge congratulations to the branch at Liverpool UCU.
The story at Leicester is a bit more mixed – a strong campaign in defence of jobs also led to the total numbers of redundancies being reduced, but several long standing members of staff (including UCU members and officers) were still forcibly made redundant, and management there is now moving on to a second phase of proposed cuts. We expect Leicester management to find themselves in employment tribunals shortly, and in the meantime encourage all members to continue to uphold the international boycott of Leicester and send whatever support you can to the branch there.
Across tertiary education, UCU branches are preparing for disputes to take a stand against mis-management and attacks on terms and conditions. This week, UCU members at the Royal College of Arts have been on strike against unsafe workloads and exploitative, precarious contracts, and UCU members at Goldsmiths University of London are preparing to ballot against a set of destructive planned redundancies of staff in English, History, and Professional Services, after a hugely strong turnout on their consultative ballot.
Locally, the cleaning staff in Sheffield University Unite have submitted a claim to University management demanding a guarantee of hourly pay of at least £10, and Real Living Wage accreditation moving forward, so that this University never falls behind, especially in years of extremely high inflation, like this one. All of the joint Sheffield University trade unions have recently taken part in initial discussions with representatives from human resources over this claim, and we stand 100% with Unite. This University has a responsibility to its staff to pay a Real Living Wage, and anything less is not acceptable. Beyond this, we’d also like to point out that we are incredibly disappointed that Unite has even had to make this claim, and that the University has not committed to be a Real Living Wage employer on their own initiative, prior to now. Our cleaners were fundamental front line workers keeping us safe over the last 18 months, and on their current salary, it would take them 34 years to earn what our VC earns in one year. This is not a fair remuneration scheme.
How to get involved
As members, it is a fundamental right that we are all entitled to time to engage in trade union activities, and the power that we have as a union to effect positive change comes from our involvement. For example, if the nearly 2000 members of this branch each dedicated 15 minute per week to UCU, this adds up to 500 hours per week of us collectively contributing to and supporting our union.
We know how busy everyone is, and that the time we have changes from week to week, and month to month. But our workplace, and our union, benefits from all of us being involved, even if it’s just a small amount of time to read an email like this one. We have put together 2 lists of ways that you can be involved with UCU depending on how much time you have in a given week: 15 minutes, or an hour. These are formatted so you can hang them up in your office, as a reminder of how little things can add up!