UCU Strike Action
FAQ for members
We’ve had a lot of questions off you over the past few weeks at branch meetings and via your local union reps. It’s been an extremely busy few weeks, so we’ve been a bit slow getting this together. We hope you find it useful.
We’ve tried to compile the most popular questions here but if you have any further ones please ask using the form below or email the UCU mailbox firstname.lastname@example.org we’ll try to answer as quickly as possible and post the answers on here.
What are the issues at the heart of our local strike?
Three years ago we first raised our concerns about the new academic work planning system (AWP) with management. We were told repeatedly that any changes to AWP would not lead to an increase in workloads.
Our concerns were founded; Management’s promise of a fair, transparent and equal work planning system failed on its own terms!
We raised concerns around transparency.
Despite requesting to see the tariffs that would be used in the new system so we could complete our own modelling of the impact on workloads across different roles. We didn’t see the actual tariffs implemented until the pilot system started to appear in January 2018 coinciding with work planning activities.
We raised concerns around equality.
Despite stating the new system would be consistent across the university with a set of common tariffs for roles attracting an equal number of hours, what transpired was very different. As the system was rolled out across the different Departments different Faculty AWP handbooks appeared, as did evidence of unfair practice during work planning meetings with members doing like for like work in different areas having grossly different hours’ AWP allocation.
We raised concerns about fairness.
The old AWP system used a simplified calculation with a time multiplier that was relatively easy to calculate to gauge workloads and, whilst it had its flaws and was not always applied equally, the workload was manageable with quiet periods to offset the extreme increase in activity associated with teaching weeks. It’s changes to these tariffs and the calculations used in the new system that are at the core of our local dispute. What would have been an already full work plan in the old system now results in a deficit of between 10-15% “spare” capacity when transposed into the new system.
I don’t think anyone would disagree in saying that is isn’t fair to force someone to work an extra day per week FOR FREE. It isn’t just not fair on us, it’s also not fair on our students.
We raised concerns about health and wellbeing.
We told management as soon as the evidence of work planning activities began coming in from members reeling in shock at the demands from work planners to add extra duties to fill the new work plan to 100%! We conducted a quick survey of our members and found that over 80% of the nearly 200 colleagues that completed the survey said they were experiencing an average increase of 12 hours per week as a direct result of the application of the new AWP tariffs.
When are the strike days?
The first wave of strikes are planned for the eight working days, from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December 2019 inclusive.
What is the national strike about?
Our members also voted overwhelmingly for strike action in the national UCU ballot on pay, gender equality, casualisation of workforce and workload intensification. UCU representatives will be negotiating with University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), to reach a collective agreement on behalf of all UK universities. You can find out the latest information on the negotiations by checking the https://ucu.org.uk website or following @UCU on Twitter.
In the new HE business model of financial targets students are a product. Our role as academics is to produce as many graduates as possible and management’s role is to reduce the costs of production.
This has manifested as some very worrying trends in HE.
There’s a marked rise in the number of academic staff being employed on precarious employment contracts with much lower salaries, fewer employment rights and no job security.
Levels of inequality in pay and contract type are rising with women and black and minority ethnic academics the worst hit.
The 1% pay cap imposed on the public sector by the Conservative government has caused a real-terms pay cut of almost 20% since 2009. This year UCEA have generously offered to award us a further 2% pay cut!
The fourth issue in the national ballot is around workload intensification. This situation is not unique to SHU. It’s happening in universities across the UK, pushing the entire HE sector to the brink of a health and safety crisis.
Some universities have also been balloted on proposed changes to their pensions. Only a small number of members at SHU are part of USS, the majority are members of the Teacher’s Pension Scheme. As a result SHU was not balloted on this issue, although the outcome of the negotiations with employers will impact some of our members and we stand in solidarity with the other universities on this matter. Members having a USS pension can also double check on the UCU website for the latest on this.
What is being done to resolve the national dispute?
How the national strike is resolved is somewhat out of our hands although we should get a vote on accepting any deal that our national negotiating team and UCEA make. However, there is great confidence in the new leadership team at UCU HQ, who were elected into post after being prominent activists during last year’s USS pensions strikes, and their ability to strike (pardon the pun) the right deal for our members.
What’s being done to resolve the local dispute and what are our demands?
We are currently negotiating with management at SHU. These are our outstanding demands
- Increase the time allocated for ‘General Academic Duties’ from 125 hours to 281. This is 20% of the work plan, which is in line with the sector average.
- Double the time allocated for Academic Advising.
- Increase the time allocated for marking from 10 mins (per 5 module credits) to 15 mins.
- Implement an equitable AWP policy. Staff should be given like hours for like work.
Management have moved their position and agreed in part to some of our demands. They’ve offered to increase the time we have for marking your assessments from 10 mins to 12.5 mins. To put that into context for you that is the equivalent of moving from 20 to 25 minutes per student (per 20 credit module) to mark the equivalent of one 2000-word essay.
During that time we are expected to do all of the following:
- prepare assessment
- write instructions and marking criteria
- set up/amend Blackboard assessment submission
- mark assessment
- undertake a moderation exercise
- provide formative and summative feedback on drafts and final submissions
- access, download and upload submissions, marks and feedback to Blackboard.
We don’t think we’re being unreasonable to hold out for an extra two and a half minutes, especially knowing that this still nowhere near compensates for the actual time it takes to mark assessments. Given how much time and effort our students put into their assessments we are disappointed that an extra 2.5 minutes is all it’s worth to SHU.
We are only asking for adjustments to the new system that in total would amount to a 10% reduction in workloads for the majority of academics, to bring them back closer to the levels they were before the new system was introduced. By management’s own admission in an email sent to all academic staff on 8th November, in order to meet our demands they would need to grow the staff base by…….yes you guessed it….20%! Could this simply be a coincidence or is there a link to the volume of recent redundancies?
Now that they, and we, know that the extra work we are doing is the equivalent of 20% of the academic workforce, what is Sheffield Hallam University’s management going to do about it? We think that if the university needs to recruit an extra 20% staff to make SHU a safe place to work then that is exactly what it should do!
We remain optimistic and open to discussions with management. One thing management need to know though is that the health and safety of our members is something we cannot and will not negotiate over.
Is there a way of minimising the disruption to students?
We expect the dispute to disrupt students’ studies and in order to cause uncertainty for management we need for the disruption to be the maximum it can be. That is exactly the purpose of taking strike action.
However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t care that it will affect their learning. Nothing could be further from the truth. We care very much and we are extremely sorry that the management team at SHU think it’s acceptable to allow the situation to escalate to this point, and hasn’t worked much harder to resolve our differences before now. There have been many opportunities to do so over the past three years. We are also extremely sorry that students are caught in the middle of this dispute but the anger of our students is the only tool at our disposal to get management to listen. We believe that the health and well-being of our members is not something that can be ignored so it’s a price worth paying.
We only had two options. We could either admit defeat and accept that we must now all work an extra day a week for free, with all that this would mean for the health of our members, and knowing that we would be setting an unhealthy precedent for future academics at SHU, or we could withdraw our labour.
Whilst we accept that this will affect our students’ learning experience our students also realise that their learning experience is already being adversely affected. Our students are not stupid. They see what is happening. They support us fully. Why wouldn’t they. They know they are being short-changed by SHU. They were promised high quality teaching but instead got high stress levels and rock bottom morale.
We could and can do much better, as proved recently by being awarded The 2019 University of the Year for Teaching Quality from The Good University Guide. This was in recognition of all the hard work and dedication of every single one of us. We won that award because when we have the tools we need to do our job properly we can achieve great things. This level of quality is not possible to achieve under the new AWP system so we can only assume that teaching quality is no longer a priority for the management at SHU.
Every week that this new system is in place is a week we have to work on average an extra 10 hours FOR FREE to provide students with the bear minimum of their expectations. We already had very full, busy working weeks and having extra teaching to do and more administrative tasks, means we have even less time to spend on preparing teaching materials, marking assessments and, more importantly, supporting students in all the other ways that they need, including helping them to look after their own health and well-being.
So you see this dispute is not about us refusing to work harder. We already work as hard as we can. What we are being asked to do is detrimental to teachers and students alike. The time we have to spend with students outside of class has all but disappeared in the new “target-focused, quantity over quality” AWP system.
The disinvestment in education has to stop!
Do we have student support for this strike?
The response we’ve received from students has been oextremely positive and supportive. The NUS have issued a statement offering their full support to the national action and we also have the full support of SHU’s student’s union.
We recognise that there may be some students that will be annoyed and frustrated by our action. It is our job as educators to help them to see that if we succeed in securing more time to complete our work tasks this will mean more time to spend teaching and supporting students.
If your students have any questions about the dispute that you can’t answer direct them to the Student FAQ on this site or ask them to stop and chat to one of the official pickets at any picket point. We’d be delighted to chat with them. It is important that they recognise this fight is not with them it’s about them and because we care.
Will the university be open during the strike period?
No doubt management will do its utmost to remain “open as normal”. We noted with interest in their message to students that “alternative arrangements” will be made and we are to be replaced by a cup of tea and some biscuits.
We are disappointed that management have such little regard for our award-winning teaching that they believe we are so easy to replace and so quickly.
We’ve apologised to our students on their behalf for assuming our student’s care so little about their learning experience that any old “digestive” will do.
I'm a member. Can I work from home on strike days?
Will all staff be on strike?
Not all members of staff are members of UCU. We have had messages of support from the other unions recognised by SHU.
We are expecting a significant majority of our members to be on strike. That’s the message we are getting from across the university Some areas will be affected more than others as some staff members belong to different unions who were not balloted for strike action. But we are signing up new members and numbers are growing every day.
Anyone who chooses to cross the picket line is effectively saying that, on top of the 20% pay cut we have already had since 2009, they are willing to accept a further 20% pay cut (by management’s own admission). They will be saying they accept the increased 6-day week workload the new AWP system imposes on us, and they won’t be getting a single penny more for it.
Our members know there is a lot at stake in this dispute. They know the new AWP calculation model poses a real health and well-being risk to each member of staff. They know the quality of teaching, something we have worked really hard to achieve an extremely high standard in over the last decade, will decline due to lack of time to invest in maintaining it. They also care about our students’ learning experiences and know that we need more time outside of the timetabled activities to be able to support our students.
In essence we need more time to be able to do our jobs properly and that requires having a truly fair, transparent and equitable system that values non-contact time.
Talk to a colleague who isn’t currently striking but could join us. Explain what the strike is about. Explain what is at stake if we lose. Explain how disappointed striking colleagues will be if this strike fails. Explain how bad things will get in the future if we don’t get management to listen to us. Explain how students are being used as money making machines by universities.
Get them to understand all this and if they still choose to carry on regardless at least you tried, you did your part.
Do I have to tell my manager that I’m going on strike?
Members are not obliged to tell management whether they intend to take strike action in advance of doing so. In fact, we are encouraging members individually to not inform management of their intentions. Providing advance warning allows management to make “alternative arrangements”, which negates the effect of taking strike action.
Management are deploying all sorts of tactics to find out in advance who is striking, including telling students to fill in a form giving the name of the member of staff. However, students have applied so much pressure on SHU via Twitter that the mandatory “Name of Tutor” field has now been removed and we suspect that the form itself will soon disappear completely.
What will happen on strike days?
Teaching will stop. Emails will not be answered. Assessment activities will not take place.
Every morning from 8-11am there will be pickets placed at all the entrances to buildings in both the City and Collegiate campuses. Come and join us! Many of your peers have already told us they intend to just that. You’ll easily be able to spot the pickets as there will be “Official UCU Picket” signs and members of UCU on the picket line will be wearing armbands.
Come along to any picket point, though your local one would be best, as your non-striking colleagues will have to walk past you to enter the building, knowing they will have to work alongside you after the strike action has ended! This has been a difficult decision for everyone to take so it shouldn’t be an easy option for those choosing to carry on regardless!
We have lots of activities planned during the strike days. SHU and University of Sheffield will be hosting a series of Teach Outs during the 8 days and we have some other activities planned, including rallies with guest speakers. Look out for the Teach Outs and Events on the website and on Twitter.
Musical instruments, colourful banners, creative costumes all very welcome as are children and dogs, big or small.
What do I say to students?
Tell them the truth. Explain the situation to them. Tell them your personal story. Give them concrete examples that they can relate to. Tell them how long you are allowed on AWP to mark the work they put so much effort into. Ask them to contact the university leadership team to demand an explanation for the decisions they have taken over the last 3 years and why it looks as though buildings are being prioritised over the wellbeing and care of their employees.
You can also direct students towards the UCU Hallam Student FAQ – https://ucuhallam.org/dispute/students/
Don’t forget to invite them to join us on the picket lines. We would love them to!
What constitutes "crossing a picket line"?
Crossing a picket line refers to the act of entering into a workplace when there is an ongoing legal dispute.
Employees that are not directly involved in the industrial action may refuse to cross picket lines. These employees, even if not members of the same union, can normally be regarded as being on strike and treated accordingly.
Members of the union that choose to cross a picket line, take annual leave or “work from home” are called “strike breakers”. By crossing the picket line during a dispute between an employer and their own union a member is effectively siding with management in the dispute. A union can discipline members for breaking a strike without a very valid reason for doing so. Usually financial hardship is not a valid reason as all members will be giving up pay.
For more information on lawful picketing you can read the Government’s own Code of Practice here.
What is "action short of a strike" and when is it taking place?
Strike action is a complete withdrawal of labour.
“Action short of a strike” (ASOS) means working strictly to contract.
We are contracted to work the equivalent of 37.5 hours per week. Anything over this is extra work we are doing that our employer isn’t paying us for. Working to contract means only doing what we are being paid to do!
Legally and morally this is all anyone should ever be expected to do!
Our work patterns can vary dramatically from one week to the next. Because of the nature of the work that we do and how that is allocated, working strictly to contract for SHU academics means only undertaking those activities that were identified on the AWP system during your working planning meeting with your line manager, which should have taken place before the start of this academic year.
In other words:
- Anything that does not attract hours on AWP will not be undertaken.
- You should already consider your current AWP to be full, as agreed during your work planning meeting. If you are being asked to reschedule cancelled classes or cover for absent colleagues you should refuse unless the equivalent amount of work is taken off your AWP.
The same is true for voluntary activities such as attending open days. Members of staff are offered a day in lieu for attending open days. However, participation in open days does not always attract hours on AWP. Therefore, in order to take advantage of the day in lieu, another day’s worth of work needs to be taken off AWP. As it is not yet possible to invent time (oh that we could!) if the equivalent isn’t taken off AWP then this is a fictitious day! It does not exist! We are merely spreading that extra day across the other days of the year.
So, unless contractually obliged to do so members will be advised to not engage with these types of activities as these are all examples of workload intensification and exploitation of our labour for free.
Should I reschedule the classes my students will miss?
There is no obligation on the part of the striking member of staff to reschedule any cancelled activities once the strike is over. We are advising our members to strongly resist the pressure of management to reschedule missed classes.
In fact, any activity that is rescheduled would constitute further workload intensification as the member will not have been paid for completing that activity. In effect you would be giving back your labour for free to the university that has just punished you by docking your pay for wanting to improve conditions for students and staff.
How do I claim from the strike fund?
You will not be able to claim until after your employer has deducted money from you for participating in the strikes.
You will only be eligible to claim if you have been on strike for the full period.
To claim from the fund, you need to make sure that you are in the right subscription category for your salary and membership status. To update your membership details, click here.
If you are a student member who works for your institution, you may need to update your membership category from ‘student member’ to full member. For more information about your eligibility for the fund, click here.
What do I say to non-members?
This one is easy. Join UCU and come down to the picket line! Be part of the efforts to stop the disinvestment of the HE sector and to safeguard the health and well-being of your colleagues.
I'm a non-member. Is it ok for me to work from home on strike days?
Will I lose 100% of my salary for the days I strike?
This is understandably something which is concerning colleagues in the run up to Christmas. Pay will be deducted at the rate of 1/365th of your annual salary for each day of strike action taken. At first look, it may seem daunting, especially for those on part-time contracts. Below is a worked example for a lecturer at the start of their career
A full-time lecturer on spinal point 31 would be impacted as follows:
Gross Salary – £34804
Deduction for 8 days of strike action – (34804/365) * 8
Deduction from gross salary – £762.83
Gross monthly salary after deduction – 2900.33 – 762.83 = £2137.50
Net monthly salary before deduction – £2067.49
Net monthly salary after deduction – £1601.24
Net monthly salary after deduction and claiming from strike fund – £1851.24
The net monthly salary assumes tax, national insurance and pension deductions at 8.6% (Normal TPS deduction for this salary band.
Who will be on the picket line?
When a trade union enters into a dispute with its employer and has obtained a mandate for taking strike action it has the right to demonstrate their withdrawal of labour at their place of work.
Pickets are legally protected forms of indirect action.
Workers taking strike action are allowed to gather near the entrance to the workplace in an attempt to persuade others not taking action, such as dissenting members of the union, members of other unions and non-unionised workers, to join the strike, and to raise awareness of the dispute.
We will be placing pickets at each entrance of the main buildings at both City and Collegiate campuses during this strike action. Legally there must be no more than 6 official pickets on each picket line at any one time. These will be identifiable by the “official picket” armbands they will be wearing.
There are also two designated picket supervisor for every site (2 at City and 2 at Collegiate). Details of these individuals have been provided to the police and the university in the event of a problem arising. These supervisors will be wearing high visibility vests so should be easy to spot.
All others on a picket line are classed as supporters. However, any problems that might arise as a result of the activity of a supporter will ultimately be the responsibility of the picket supervisors.
Should I be on the picket line?
Yes whenever possible!
There are many reasons why you should try to support the picket lines and spend as much time as you can during the stike action.
We need to make our problems and our demands visible to students and to demonstrate the strength of feeling by a show of unity in large numbers. It’s important that students see how widespread current problems are but more importantly they need to see their tutors, whose classes were cancelled, out on the picket line with everyone else. We need to give them the chance to ask us questions about why we feel that we had no choice but to take the action we have and trust that this was not a decision taken lightly by anyone.
Going on strike can be a daunting prospect, especially if it’s for the first time. It’s not going to be easy for anyone to lose 8 days pay and for many this will no doubt cause serious financial hardship. It helps to be around others that understand exactly why we feel compelled to withdraw our labour even though we know this to the detriment of our current students and a risk to our personal financial security. Knowing there are others fighting this alongside you can really made a difference. Just knowing you’re not on your own. In times like these solidarity matters.
It’s also very heart-warming to know that we have the support of our students and their union. Many do take the time to stop and ask questions and offer their solidarity. It’s good to know they recognise that our working conditions are their learning conditions and they understand why their education is being disrupted.
Whilst going on strike is no laughing matter and certainly nothing to be flippant about, we want our pickets lines to be upbeat, respectful, friendly, courteous and good humoured. Even though it is going to be cold and possibly wet, we will not let this dampen our spirits. We will be encouraging musical instruments, singing, and generally making lots of noise so if you have a guitar, a whistle, a drum or a vuvuzela please do bring it along. Dogs and children, big and small are also very welcome.
There are a number of Teach Outs and other such educational opportunities planned jointly with the University of Sheffield. These are open to staff members, students and the general public. We have a number of venues in mind and details will be posted on the website in due course.
You will have the rare opportunity to spend time with colleagues old and new as members come together from across the university. These could be the start of some valuable and supportive new friendships!
And of course, there may be cake…
Remember that it will be very cold so if you are planning to join come prepared. Wrap up warm, wear layers with an outer waterproof, stick an extra pair of warm socks in your pocket. Bring a scarf and gloves (though your socks can double as gloves too ). Bring a keep cup so you can get a warm drink. If you struggle to stand for too long bring a folding chair.
What are the dos and don’ts on the picket line?
Do come and join us. We need as much support as possible.
Do visit the smaller picket locations. It can be lonely out there in the cold so don’t forget to say hi to those standing outside the Post Office building, around the back of the Stoddart building, behind Charles St. Hot drinks are always a great ice breaker (literally 😊).
Do be as loud and lively. We want to raise as much awareness as possible of why we’re striking so bring your musical instruments, your vuvzelas, drums, megaphones. We’re kicking off with Samba dancing at 9am on Monday outside the Owen building so bring your loose hips and dancing shoes too!
Don’t be agressive. Members on strike lose pay every day they are on strike. It can therefore be extremely disappointing to see colleagues continuing to work and attempts to dissuade them from doing so can get heated. Under no circumstances however should a picket line become violent and physical contact between picketers and those choosing to cross the picket line is not acceptable and will be not be tolerated on the picket lines during this dispute.
Do try to persuade our non-striking colleagues to join us. If they are not a member of UCU already they can join immediately. Take them to see an official picket who will make a note of their name and help them sign up online. We will fully support any individual who has problems due to joining our cause.
Is it ok if I only strike for some of the days?
We are expecting all members to strike every day. It would be counter-productive for staff to strike on one day and not on another. It would also undermine the efforts of other members who are on strike.
Not striking on a strike day would also most likely mean crossing a picket line, which is something a member should never do. Some non-members will book annual holidays or work from home on these days so they don’t cross a picket line. However, unless this is part of a long-standing plan put in place before the strike was called is would be seen as strike-breaking.
SHU have told managers to refuse requests for annual leave during the strike period.
I’m not striking. Should I be covering classes for colleagues that are?
Absolutely not! Your colleague will be losing pay to make a very valid point around employer exploitation. You will be aggravating the situation and putting your colleague in a very precarious position!
You are doing no one a good deed by covering for colleagues, least of all the students.
You can refuse by stating you already have a full work plan. Insist on having other work taken off your AWP if you have given no choice otherwise this is the equivalent of working for free and the precise reason we have taken the difficult decision to strike.
It is the responsibility of the university to provide extra staff to cover for absences; staff already stretched to maximum capacity no longer have the time to continue doing this out of good will. We have been working far too much for free and look where that has led to.
The best thing you can do to safeguard your own job and that of your colleagues is to JOIN UCU. Come down to the picket line and stand with us.
I have already booked RSA/SMT time. Should I cancel it?
This is similar to planned leave. If this is part of a long-standing plan then you should not feel obliged to cancel, but certainly you should not be booking SMT to avoid going on strike (and at this stage we doubt it would be approved!).
If you can spare some of your salary you could always donate to the local hardship fund.
How will taking strike action affect my pension?
In previous strikes it has been the experience of UCU that most employers do not withhold superannuation contributions and therefore participation in strike action has not generally affected pensions. Institutions that do choose to withhold contributions often make provision for members to make up pension and AVC deficits from their pay. In terms of your final pension, the impact of participating in the industrial action called by UCU is minute compared to the benefits that the union has protected through action in the past. For example, a member earning £50,000 and supporting all eight days strike action would see a reduction of around £100 in their annual pension as a direct result of the strikes.
Will I lose core pensions rights such as death in service if I take part in strike action, is this true?
From time to time, individual employers seek to bully staff by saying that if they should die while taking strike action they will not receive a death in service payment. We are not aware of any such case of this happening so it has never been tested in court. You should notify UCU if you are threatened in this way and our local branch will take the issue up on your behalf.
Where can I find out more information?
You can also make a Freedom of Information request from the university if there is information that you would like regarding number of employees made redundant and associated costs, capital expenditure past and planned, consultancy fees paid for the recent change programmes, cost to university of meeting our demands.
“c/o Information Governance Officer, Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus, Howard Street, Sheffield, S1 1WB”
You can ask the SHU UCU branch committee directly by emailing email@example.com
You can follow us on Twitter @ucuhallam.
We will keep posting information on this website as quickly as we can and update the front page with the latest status.
You can speak to one of the official pickets for an update.
You can also find out more information about the national strike from UCU main website https://ucu.org.uk
Contact SHU UCU Branch Committee
If you have a question you’d like to ask us email us.