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Taking action in higher education

Autumn action fists

Detailed negotiations update

5 March 2020 | last updated: 11 March 2020

As promised, I am writing with a fuller assessment of where we are in our negotiations.

With further talks having taken place this week and seven days of action left for most branches, we are at a pivotal moment. Our negotiators believe that we are in reach of agreements that could put this union and the sector on the right footing and bring about real long-term change in the way staff are treated.

We have made it crystal clear to employers that we are not inflexible. In the interests of securing that long-term change, we have extended an olive branch to employers by offering to compromise on some of the demands which we started our industrial action with. 

Four Fights 

In our Four Fights dispute, our negotiators have concentrated on pushing the employer representative, UCEA, to make significant improvements to the offer which they tabled at the end of January, covering the three non-pay elements of the dispute: workload, job security, and equality. For more information on what our negotiators have been asking for in these areas, please refer to my email of 24 February.

UCEA have been receptive in principle to many of the additions and amendments which we have asked them to make to their offer, and we have been doing everything we can to keep the pressure on: through negotiations, and through external campaigning, such as the leaked document on casualisation which we published on Tuesday and which has generated significant press coverage.

What really matters, however, is the power which you give us through your withdrawal of your labour. It shouldn't be this way, but sadly strike action is what moves our employers, and it is continuing to have an effect on them. 

Given the prospects of progress on the three non-pay elements, and given how much we know they matter to you, our negotiators have signalled to UCEA that they are willing to make significant concessions on the other element of the dispute, relating to pay. They have indicated that an offer of a 3% increase in pay to members could resolve the dispute. This is significantly lower than the 3% plus RPI (a total of at least 5.2%) which we initially demanded and which would still not go far enough to compensate for a decade of persistent wage suppression by employers. 

Thus far, employers have not closed off all discussion of an improved pay offer, but they have been less open to it than they have to making concessions in the other three areas. If we can get an offer that represents the kind of movement I have set out here on all four parts of the dispute, I will recommend that our higher education committee (HEC) should consult members on whether to accept it. 

USS talks 

The kind of progress we have seen in Four Fights talks has been mirrored in the USS dispute. Employers have finally started to work with us with genuine commitment on longer-term reforms to USS and they have started to push the scheme to adopt a better approach to its valuation. It is, again, disappointing that it took strike action to make them do this, but I and the other negotiators agree that the action has made a real difference to the way they engage with us.

However, employers have not yet tabled an offer to cover the unfair contribution increases that are pricing members out of the scheme. 

Just as in the Four Fights dispute, our negotiators have signalled that they are willing to make some concessions on those contribution increases in the interest of achieving a solid agreement on other areas that are relevant to our dispute.

Until now, we had maintained that employers needed to cover all of the contribution increases that have been imposed since 2017, so that members would return to paying only 8% of their salary. Yesterday, our negotiators indicated that they would be willing to recommend an offer of 8.4%

We are willing to be flexible, but we have to draw a red line somewhere. We need employers to pay more, not just to help staff who find USS too expensive, but also because it's employers who should face the financial consequences if they fail to exert enough pressure to change USS's position. 

Support your negotiators - stay out on strike 

Our negotiators have been willing to alter and reduce our demands on pay and pension contributions in the name of getting good agreements that will protect our working conditions and benefits over the longer term. It could not be clearer that our position is reasonable and we are anything but stubborn. What we need you to do is demonstrate your support for our negotiating position by continuing to take effective strike action over the next few days. Make it clear that we will do what it takes to achieve meaningful change for staff in our sector. 

We expect to have further talks with employers as the strike action continues. I will update you as soon as I have more information. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about the negotiations or anything else, please email me and I will endeavour to answer them.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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