By Ross Grahame
Lecturers and staff at the University of Strathclyde could go on strike for the second time in under two years after union members voted for industrial action in a ballot.
The University and College Union (UCU) had demanded action from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) in four key areas: inequality in pay, exploitation of members on casual contracts, increasing workload and real-term salary discrepancies.
The ballot, which closed on October 30, may lead to weeks of disruption across campus to students – which would impact not only teaching schedules but also catering services and administrative staff. UCU balloted over 52,000 members in 69 UK universities for strike action.
In early 2018 UCU members went on strike at 64 universities, including Strathclyde, over conflict regarding pension income, which fell by as much as £10,000 annually for university staff.
Along with four other unions, including Unite, UCU submitted demands to UCEA on 19 March 2019. The UCU’s initial requests – including a 3% pay rise, a £10 an hour minimum wage and a 35-hour work week – were all rejected by employers.
The ballot, which ran until October 30, saw Strathclyde members reach the 50% turnout rate for legal strike action. Overall, 79% of UCU members voted for strikes regarding the pensions dispute, with 74% backing action on pay, casualisation, equality and workloads.
Strathclyde Politics lecturer and UCU committee member, Dr Neil McGarvey, said: “It’s a broad-based dispute that has been instigated by the union. And it’s not just lecturers with the UCU – people working in support services, catering and administration, they’re all entering into a ballot with their unions as well.
“In the strike roughly 18 months ago, it was just the UCU and lecturers that were disputing with the universities. Potentially, there will be far more colleagues taking industrial action than before.
“The Conservative Government’s legislation requires a 50% turnout to instigate industrial action and the last time we held a ballot we did not achieve that turnout figure.”
The unions argue that employers are underpaying lecturers based on disability, gender or ethnic background. Figures cited by the UCU claim female lecturers are underpaid by a staggering 15.1% compared to their male colleagues. Disabled lectures are paid 8.7% less, while black academic staff are paid 12-13% less than the average lecturer.
During negations, both the UCU and UCEA agreed to a national agreement on closing the gender pay gap and addressing intersectional issues; however, this was not enough to prevent the industrial action ballot.
UCU has also told employers that staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills, stressing the need for more long-term and stable contracts for staff. The union’s figures claim more than 100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do.
UCEA Chief Executive, Helen Fairfoul, said in January this year: “[UCEA] have undertaken in-depth reviews of their use of flexible contracts seeking to provide a balance between employee and employer needs.”
Findings from the UCEA’s own figures show pay levels for staff have fallen by roughly 17% in real terms since 2009. Union figures paint an even bleaker picture, showing average pay falling by 20% in the last decade.
Also central to negotiations is workload, with UCU arguing that staff are too overworked to effectively perform their teaching duties.
Dr McGarvey said: “Workload is an ongoing issue that is part of the dispute. Many students do not realise that lecturers, as well as doing their own teaching, are responsible for research and publication.
“The process of research, writing and publication takes up a significant component of a lecturers time. We are also under increasing pressure to engage with the media, to undertake activities in wider society.
“As well as all of that there is administration and different committees that increase the workload further. Most surveys of academics find that the majority are working well beyond a normal working week. We’re talking 50 to 60 hours a week, easily.
“We were offered a better pension increase if the union was willing to not engage in industrial action for two years. That offer is indicative of some degree of flexibility – the message is a lack of affordability on the employers’ side, but it looked like they were finding money from the magic money tree if they got that promise.”