Since October, both UNISON and UCU have been in dispute with the University over their proposal to reorganise IT support and Print Services, which initially would have meant compulsory redundancies for a number of people. At the start of the consultation exercise, it was not clear how many jobs would be threatened, but we estimated somewhere between 15 and half a dozen.
Our response to the consultation exercise was to object both to the way in which the consultation exercise was managed and also, of course, to the principle of compulsory redundancies.
In the past, the University would always allow a month’s worth of consultation i.e. ask for the views of all those affected and explain their thinking, reflect on all the points made and respond to the alternative proposals. They would then enact the final set of proposals and resolve the issue of which members of staff would be where in the new structure.
This time, they started to force those affected to apply for roles during the consultation period, apparently to reduce the number of redundancy notices issued. This process made people apply for roles they didn’t necessarily want, and compete for a new role with people they’d worked alongside for years, or decades in some cases. This added to the stress and anxiety of staff and that’s assuming there was a role for them to apply for. A number of people were told that no such role exists and that the only way they could avoid redundancy would be to be successful in applying for one of a number of newly created roles.
We argued that the consultation done this way was potentially unfair and inappropriate and designed to rush the whole process through as quickly as possible, arguably to present the redundancies as an irreversible fact before we could do much about it. It was also a total change to the long established process at the University of consulting thoroughly, and then enacting. The Securing Our Future project is tearing up the unofficial rule book and signalling the start of a much more authoritarian and brutally efficient way of forcing through change.
The more significant part of our dispute is over our objection to compulsory redundancies. Any trade union branch worthy of the name would object to its members losing their jobs. In the past, where the University has made posts redundant, we have always objected and weighed up what we, as the union representing the non-teaching staff at the University, can realistically do about it.
At the last few Annual General Meetings, we’ve reinforced our commitment to fighting compulsory redundancies where we can, but the tactics in those battles always need to be based on what is deliverable. We’ve experienced a small number of redundancies over the last few years. The closure of Phoenix Nursery and the shutting down of STEM Sussex involved people losing their jobs or being forced to accept “voluntary” redundancy settlements.
The largest group of redundancies we’ve ever seen was the long drawn out closure of Hastings Campus. We campaigned against this plan right from the beginning, seeing it for what it was – an act of “educational vandalism”, throwing away the fee income of hundreds of undergraduates, often those whose lives have been most transformed through higher education, on the basis of Hastings not fitting into the overall strategy. We fought for those affected to be redeployed at Eastbourne or even Brighton where possible, but we always knew that we could not save the jobs of the majority of cleaners, caretakers and library staff once the University had decided to close the campus to new entrants. This would have taken sustained strike action from all our members and the wider trade union movement, and the consensus of the branch committee at the time was that we could not have pulled that off. Our members at Hastings recognised that.
The current threat is different though, and declaring a dispute (which we have never done before, at least as far as any of us can remember) was the start of the campaign.
Dispute Meetings and Ballots
We knew from the beginning that we would be unlikely to negotiate much in the way of concessions from the University, without at least the threat of strike action. Whilst a branch can threaten this as much as it likes, any serious trade unionist will know that to get to the point where you can take legal action requires a colossal amount of preparation, in part, as a result of the most draconian anti-trade union laws in Europe and in part because of the checks and balances which each trade union applies to its branches and activists.
As we wrote to the Vice Chancellor to declare a dispute and set in motion the necessary dispute resolution meetings, we began the process of talking to UNISON’s regional officers (those appointed and employed by UNISON’s South East Region) about what we needed to do to get a ballot in place.
It’s fair to say that any discussion was geared more towards talking about negotiating tactics than it was about balloting. Regional officials were talking about mitigating redundancies and not really wanting to think about how we prevent any. Of course we wanted, and still want to reduce the number of compulsory redundancies and as time goes on, we want to see the number of those threatened reduced to zero.
Our way of doing this was to talk to the University about how people could be redeployed whilst making the point that they could easily continue to employ a handful of people by tweaking the plans and having say, a couple more IT support people than the plan suggests are required. (For the cost of the new Assistant Pro-Vice Chancellor, they could employ two or maybe three people at risk of redundancy.) We pressed on with talks whilst simultaneously jumping through the hoops to allow us to get to a point where we could start that elusive strike ballot.
The first hurdle was a consultative ballot, which all branches need to complete as evidence that the members are willing to follow the leadership and take strike action if necessary. UNISON’s structures will insist that this happens and normally, it would be a case of balloting the group of workers affected. This makes perfect sense for a large union branch, for example, where Birmingham City Council branch would ballot all of its 1,000+ social work team in a dispute in that area, but for a small university branch, a strike would realistically have to involve all our members across the whole University to have any kind of impact. Whilst we debated this point, we showed willing by balloting IS members affected in the space of a few days, achieving an overwhelmingly positive result of 95% of those responding being willing to take industrial action.
We then moved on to the whole branch and launched a consultative ballot using MS Forms over the first two weeks of October. We had never done this before and genuinely did not really know what the outcome would be. The branch committee agreed to recommend that members voted yes in favour of both strike action and action short of a strike (that is, sticking to hours and what your job description says) and we knew that for many members the authority and trust our members have in our leadership would result in a yes vote. The real challenge would be to get a decent turnout, which would be required to convince UNISON’s decision-makers that we would stand a reasonable chance of winning a full postal ballot later on, with the necessary 50% turnout that the law requires. We knew that running a ballot when many members were working remotely, advertised through emails alone, would instantly disenfranchise those members generally not looking at or acting on their emails. Some of our members made an effort to physically find groups of on-site staff and convince them to vote.
Meanwhile, UCU were starting to organise their proper ballot, having already established through consultation that their members were in favour of doing so. This demonstrates for all of those people interested in these things, how the different unions approached the question. The UCU branch at Brighton has a record of delivering industrial action where necessary, whereas our branch has never even got to the point of a dispute, despite many of the activists over the years talking amongst each other about how we could, in theory, deliver action to make a difference to our members and properly defend jobs.
On 14th October, two days before the end of the consultative ballot our scheduled branch committee meeting agreed that we should press on with a request for a full strike ballot, if we achieved a decent result by 5pm on the Friday, at the close of the consultation. We knew it could well be close.
56% of our members voted, 82% of which were prepared to take strike action, 95% of which were prepared to take action short of a strike. The question was phrased as to whether they would be willing to take action in support of our dispute’s demands – a meaningful consultation and no compulsory redundancies.
This was a magnificent result and we know that many of us were very proud of the fact that our members had followed our lead and responded.
Years and decades of effort by a great number of past and present union activists allows you to get a result like this. The first ever consultative strike ballot over a local issue by our branch had achieved a solid result. We could now press on with a full postal strike ballot, if the University were unwilling to change their plans.
Campaign for a Strike Ballot
We knew that we had two factors against us. Time was ticking away and we had two months in which to organise and win a ballot, and threaten to take action before Christmas. Most of the affected people would be issued with redundancy notices taking them into the New Year, but many would also probably be allowed to leave early, effectively on the last working day – Christmas Eve. It’s hard to campaign against redundancies if the payment has been made and the member has left.
Unfortunately, the other factor against us was UNISON’s regional and national machinery, which does not act with the speed required when it comes to organising meaningful action. Many of us active in UNISON over the years have seen this, and whilst we don’t want to cause trouble for the branch by accusing individuals of trying to derail our proposed cause of action, we do feel we owe it to our members to give an honest account of how we have come to be in this situation.
Failing to support a branch’s desire for serious action to prevent redundancies is more of a team effort anyway, involving different levels of UNISON’s bureaucratic structure. Whilst I’m sure that all those involved have acted with the best intentions, the reality is that UCU are now on the verge of using their power to prevent their members losing their jobs, and we’re not.
The whole point of threating strike action is to have some leverage over the process and we all know that “negotiating” without any negative consequences if the University don’t do as we ask, is only really a case of appealing to their best nature, or convincing them that they’re making a mistake. They need to save money by dismissing staff. We need to save our members’ jobs. It’s no more complicated than that.
Strike Ballot Request
We convened an emergency branch committee meeting on 22nd October and this meeting of 16 activists unanimously agreed that we should request a strike ballot urgently. This request has to be in done by a form, which is completed by the Regional Organiser. The form then goes off to the South East Regional Secretary for a decision. The necessary checks and balances are to show that the branch is serious about this and that there’s been sufficient thought over the extent to which members will respond to a ballot and a strike, and that this is likely to achieve a difference in negotiations i.e. save some or all of the jobs threatened.
Every stage in this process is a risk. There was no guarantee that we’d win a ballot or achieve the required turnout. (The law stipulates that strike ballots have to be done by post. It’s designed to be as difficult as possible.) Strike action, if we got that far, could be sporadic and the University could ride it out, especially given the unfolding and chaotic nature of universities as a result of the pandemic.
By the morning of 2nd November, we had a decision. The request was not supported for a number of reasons, which we won’t go into here, other than to say we refuted every one of those reasons and instantly responded with an email to the Chair of UNISON’s Industrial Action Committee, asking them to overrule this decision with absolute urgency.
This resulted in an offer of a meeting, to take place yet another week in the future, with representatives of UNISON’s national leadership, to talk through the issues. By this time, we knew that a strike ballot was not realistically going to take place. Either deliberately, or inadvertently, the processes had been played out over such a long timescale that even if they were prepared to agree with us at that point, 9th November, there was no way we could begin to organise a ballot in time for us to threaten action before the Christmas break. We pointed out that while we’d been dithering about, UCU were due to close their strike ballot at the end of that week.
In any situation like this, speed of processes taking place is crucial, yet with every decision or non-decision, another week of inactivity went by. Any serious approach to pulling off a strike ballot and potential action would require closing down these weeks of inaction so that you run a consultative ballot, (followed by result, application, decision, appeal if necessary, data cleanse of member details, notification of employers, ballots posted) straight after each other. In this case, it took nearly a month from the close of our consultative ballot until the meeting we had with senior UNISON officials.
At every point, the advice from most of those working for UNISON was to concentrate on negotiations. Every attempt at pushing through to a ballot was verbally batted away. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves” was a typical response, and we had to insist that the message sent to members announcing the consultative ballot result included our next intention, which was of course to properly ballot all members. If we’d accepted the alternative “advice”, we’d have not mentioned it, as if we’d conducted two consultative ballots for a laugh!
Throughout this whole process, we’ve had four formal dispute meetings with the University. Their attitude has been that they’re happy to talk about what could be done to reduce the number of redundancies, but that they need to make redundancies in order to save money, i.e. secure “our” future.
They have decided to have an extra IT support technician and an extra term-time only print services operator, but both these decisions are arguably a result of points made very ably by those members in the scores of individual consultation meetings held, rather than a result of pressure applied by the threat of industrial action.
Of course there’s no guarantee that strike action will and would have worked. These things are a calculated risk, but as the cliché goes, if you fight, it’s possible that you could win, if you don’t fight you’re bound to lose.
By being unable to mount an effective fight, we’ve potentially thrown away an opportunity to threaten and if necessary, take strike action alongside colleagues from UCU, in the first such action of its kind. Nobody wants to strike and lose pay, but no serious trade union member wants to see other trade union members lose their jobs without putting up a fight to save them.
It’s massively frustrating that we’re in this situation, but it’s important that all our members know that this isn’t for the lack of effort on the part of the branch committee. We’ve done everything we can throughout this dispute so far, to meet with the University representatives, support members through the consultation process and argue that the redundancies are vindictive and unnecessary.
Watching senior managers on six-figure salaries justify putting IT professionals in the increasing list of the unemployed, or making out that allowing grade three print workers to accept term time only (i.e. 25% salary-reduced) roles as an alternative to the dole queues, is not where we want to be. Seeing the injustice of this process is what makes many of us want to be trade union activists, using the collective strength of those who do the work to challenge those with the power.
However apologetically they push people out of employment to save the University money, often to be spent on new, higher grade roles, this is where the University is now heading if UEB accept the logic of the market-driven higher education system. If we can’t recruit enough students then we lose our jobs and/or accept a reduction in wages, pension rights etc.
Our alternative approach is to wage a joint campaign for sufficient funding of higher education, but whether that happens or not, we still need to defend our members’ jobs, and their terms and conditions of employment.
Part of our argument with UNISON’s officials was that if we can’t go ahead with a ballot, we will lose members, either to UCU or to non-membership. If people did want to leave as a result of this then we will totally understand that, but for many of us, this is not an option. We need to stay and campaign within UNISON for the ability of branches to democratically decide their tactics, rather than be overruled by unelected officialdom.
We’ve been meeting with those members affected by this every week for a couple of months now, and at Friday’s meeting there was open anger and frustration that we won’t be taking action. We agreed to ask those officials responsible for these decisions to attend next week’s meeting to explain to members, as well as the branch committee.
UCU Strike Action
We congratulate UCU members and activists on their ballot result which gives a clear mandate for strike action.
They are planning to strike on 2nd December, followed by 7th, 10th, 16th and 16th December if the redundancies are not cancelled.
Obviously we’d encourage all our members to do whatever they can to support UCU. That includes not covering for any work UCU members would be expected to do on strike days and contributing to a strike hardship fund. (Not all UCU members are well paid principal lecturers or researchers – many are on precarious part-time, short-term contracts.) Our members will be warmly welcomed by UCU activists where we show support and solidarity, probably in a virtual sense rather than at picket lines.
We very much hope that UCU’s action will have the desired effect as we move into a new phase of the dispute.
Securing “Our” Future
In the meantime, we will continue to campaign against job “losses”, both now and in the future.
The issue of what tactics to use will not go away though. The Securing our Future project will continue into the New Year and it would be unrealistic to not expect further redundancies to be posed, especially if retention of students is an issue in 2021.
We have no objection to modernisation and improvement of services, but we have to oppose redundancies more than just saying how terrible they are. It’s likely that the New Year will bring more challenges for our branch and we will learn from this lesson, and make sure we push for strike ballots as soon as possible, using every amount of leverage we can to make them happen where we think they would make a difference.
So, for those members feeling angry and upset by all this, please be assured that we did everything we could have done to deliver a strike ballot and the threat of effective action. We’ll learn from our mistakes and be better placed next time.
Our dispute with the University over compulsory redundancies continues.
University of Brighton Branch Committee, 23/11/20