January 2022 Branch News

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.