Covid-19: Statement from UCU members in Socialist Alternative

The current Covid-19 pandemic is a severe worldwide health emergency that has already claimed the lives of several thousand people and has left many others critically ill. Measures are needed to try and mitigate the worst effects of the virus and workers around the world are taking on huge set of tasks in this respect, often in the face of dangerously inadequate government directives. University staff are one of the many groups of workers that are affected as we are responsible not only for educating thousands of students, but also for their safety and wellbeing. Increasingly, we are being asked by senior management to move all of our work online, in many cases overnight, as campuses are shut down. Whilst we support universities taking the necessary step to close, it is incredibly challenging, particularly when it comes to our face-to-face teaching provision and pastoral care.




It is in this context that we are deeply disappointed to receive the most recent communications from UCU General Secretary Jo Grady. In particular, we are angered by the fact that the reballot of branches in the Four Fights and USS disputes has been postponed to the end of June as a result of the pandemic, with no strategy on how we will continue our fight after our current ballot period ends in April. We have just taken an unprecedented 22 days of strike action at 74 universities to better our pay and conditions after years of cuts, and in defence of our pensions. Whilst we have pushed the employers into negotiations, no acceptable offer has yet been tabled. We are continuing to conduct action short of strike (ASOS) and are working to contract, but now we are expected to go above and beyond our existing duties in very short time frames with little or no support from senior leadership teams. We are frustrated that the General Secretary appears to be side-lining our disputes when they are in fact very much linked to the way in which management takes us, our skills and our commitment, for granted, particularly in times of crisis. We understand the severity of the pandemic and the need for us to mobilise as a union around key issues for our members, for our students and the wider working class. But we reject completely the idea that our disputes be postponed until some later date.


SHUT DOWN CAMPUS - NO DETRIMENT TO STAFF OR STUDENTS - FULL PAYMENT OF ALL WAGES


Firstly, we believe that universities should be shut down on the grounds of health and safety, including libraries and other buildings where this is deemed appropriate in consultation with the trade unions and student representatives. No worker or student, especially ones at high risk from the virus, or who have family and friends at high risk, should be compelled to be present on campus. There should be no detriment to workers or students as a result of closure. We demand that every single university worker - including casualised and outsourced workers - be paid their wages in full throughout this closure and that any worker who has had to self-isolate or been unwell prior to closure receives full sick pay for this period. We demand that our students suffer no detriment, for example that non-EU international students with conditions attached to their visas not be subject to any punitive measures by their university or by the Home Office, and that assessment deadlines and exam dates be pushed back if necessary.

NO POSTPONEMENT OF OUR DISPUTES


We also believe that a lengthy postponement of the reballot is a completely unnecessary measure. The UCU Higher Education Committee took a decision during the latter part of our 14 days of strike action to extend our action into summer if the employers did not move to meet our demands and we must continue on this basis. Whilst it may not be possible now in practical terms to conduct a postal ballot, as required by the anti-trade union laws, we need a strategy to move forward with our disputes and to challenge these repressive laws in conjunction with other trade unions. First, UCU should formally demand an extension to our current 6-month ballot period, arguing that we have no way to meet the legal requirements for a reballot. We should also conduct an online indicative ballot to show the strength of support for continuing our fight, with a full campaign online and by telephone to engage members, recruit to the union and get the vote out. If our demand to extend our legally mandated period of action is not met and there is no way put forward for us to conduct a reballot that is legally recognised, we should take the results of the online ballot as a mandate to continue our disputes and organise accordingly. UCU urgently needs to join together with other unions, in particular the CWU, to develop a strategy to ensure that we can continue to take industrial action as necessary during the current crisis and not allow employers to take advantage of the situation.


We understand completely the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on our sector, but we need to be clear that we will not accept any de-escalation of the disputes, and a significant postponement of the reballot can only mean a de-escalation. We know only too well that our employers will use any sign of weakness on our part to abandon their already scant commitments to us and to kick the can down the road, as they did following the 2018 USS pensions dispute. If we allow our legal mandate for industrial action to expire in April in the context of the current crisis, not only will the dispute collapse and 22 days of industrial action be wasted, but our ASOS campaign will end leaving employers free to pressure our members into delivering teaching, research and student support on their terms.


ACTION SHORT OF STRIKE REMAINS ON


After 22 days of strike action on the Four Fights and USS disputes, our employers have not made any meaningful attempts to meet our demands. We remain in dispute and we are taking action short of strike. Our employers have no right whatsoever to expect us to do anything outside of our normal job description or to work outside of our normal hours. We are not responsible for the pandemic, nor are we responsible for the failure of government in the UK and around the world to act to protect public health. However, our employers are directly responsible for the crisis in our universities and for the current and ongoing disputes. We will not engage in any additional or voluntary work. We will also not give in to the increasing pressure by management to ‘mitigate the effects of industrial action’ on our students by making up for teaching and other activities – this is the responsibility of the management alone. If employers want our help to deal with the situation, they need to meet our demands and settle the disputes. They should also show goodwill and not deduct strike pay for the last period of action.


ONLINE TEACHING – MATERIAL MUST NOT BE USED FOR FUTURE STRIKE-BUSTING


We need to be clear with employers that any shift to online teaching must be agreed with local trade union branches. It must be acknowledged that the redesigning of teaching intended to be delivered face-to-face to an online or remote format is a specialist skill and that any additional preparation or training necessary must be factored into plans. We must also recognise that we are taking action short of strike and this will have serious implications for the implementation of online teaching. Any expenses necessary to make this possible must be met by the employers. Employers have a duty to provide adequate advice and support on any issues of privacy and online security arising from teaching from home. We also need to recognise that some universities are already putting pressure on teaching staff/casual workers to pre-record teaching materials. We need cast-iron guarantees that these pre-recorded materials will not be used outside of the current Covid-19 crisis, for example during any future industrial action or to replace teaching staff/casual workers.

There will be some specific cases where wholly online teaching will not be possible or appropriate, including for medical and engineering students whose skills are sorely needed as this crisis continues. There should be collaboration between UCU and the other relevant trade unions, particularly health unions, to discuss and decide the best way forward, in consultation with the relevant expert teaching staff.


ESSENTIAL SERVICE STAFF – NO COMPULSION TO WORK AND NO DETRIMENT, SUPPLY PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT, PAY DOUBLE WAGES TO THOSE CONTINUING TO WORK


We recognise that there may be a need for some essential service staff, such as cleaning and security staff, to be present on campus for reasons of health and safety and security. We reiterate our demand that no one should be compelled or pressured to be on campus. We also reiterate our demand for anyone who does not wish to be present on campus for health and safety reasons to be paid their normal wages in full. We demand that if universities require essential service staff to work then this work should be voluntary, that this work should be paid at double the normal wage, and that any and all relevant Personal Protective Equipment be supplied to these staff, whether they are directly employed or outsourced.


DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS OF BRANCHES AND MEMBERS


Some branches have been taking further strike action beyond 13th March. In general, we fully support the right of branches and of individual members to make democratic local decisions about whether or not to picket, based on their judgement about the health and safety of their members and the tactical need for picketing in their institution. We understand that they may wish to cancel pickets during the current pandemic and support their right to do so. But our General Secretary has no right to instruct branches to cancel pickets of striking university workers by diktat in any situation. The same goes for any other strike-related activities or gatherings, such as rallies, marches or teach outs. We are the union and we decide when we picket, when we rally and when we march - no one else.

Socialist Alternative Members in UCU.


We understand that most branches are no longer having branch meetings in person, but many are in the process of organising remote/online general meetings. Below is a model motion for such meetings.

Proposed Model Motion

This branch notes:

- The severity of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

- That we remain in dispute over the Four Fights and USS.

- That the disputes are ongoing because of the steadfastness of our union and the intransigence of our employers.

This branch resolves:

- To continue with ASOS and to refuse to do any work outside of our contracted working hours or outside of our contracted duties.

- To reiterate our demands on UCEA and UUK to resolve the disputes.

This branch demands:

- That our union takes immediate steps to continue our disputes with the employers if they do not make an acceptable offer. No capitulation, no de-escalation! We must not postpone our fight and let the employers take advantage of the pandemic.

- That our university should be and/or remain shut down on the grounds of health and safety.

- That there be no detriment to staff or students as a result of the shutdown and that all university workers, including casualised and outsourced workers, receive full pay during this time.

- That our university respect our ongoing ASOS.

- That our university not compel or pressurise any essential service staff to work, and that any who choose not to receive full pay.

- That our university remunerate any essential service staff who choose to work at double the normal rate and supply them with any and all necessary Personal Protective Equipment.

- That our university negotiate any and all shifts towards online/remote teaching with our UCU branch. We must receive cast-iron guarantees that any online material produced remains the property of the author and will not be used for future strike-busting or to replace staff in any way.

- That any potential exceptions to online teaching, such as for medical and engineering students, be discussed fully between UCU and the other relevant trade unions with full democratic oversight, in consultation with the relevant expert staff.

- That our union urgently joins together with other trade unions to fight the repressive anti-trade union laws and demand the right to take industrial action during the current pandemic.