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Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, speaks at Leeds

January 22, 2010

At a specially arranged meeting of UCU members yesterday, UCU General Secretary  Sally Hunt addressed members on the importance of the dispute at Leeds and then answered questions from the floor.

She opened by commending the energy of the Leeds UCU campaign, but reminded us that the ballot is far from over, and the most needed to be made of the remaining days. We will be getting support from across UCU throughout next week to assist local reps get around and talk to every member about the value of their vote.

She spoke of how the HE sector is going through hard times, but underlined how there are important things that are expected of management at such times. Being respectful of agreements with trade unions is one of these and another is that management will start talking to the trade unions early. The University of Leeds is not unique in the sector in letting staff down on these grounds, though the number of jobs that are threatened, the speed with which it is embarking on this programme of cuts and the failure to approach the difficulties in a fair and open way mean that it stands out from the crowd.

Management are now engaging with government on the cuts, Sally pointed out, and they say that they are caught between a rock and a hard place, but she reminded colleagues that the lobbying our VC us doing is all about protecting the Russell Group, not the overall HE landscape. We are in for tough times nationally. The timing of the £900M hole just before Christmas was deliberate. It will mean job losses and it will mean an impact on the quality of education. We need to tackle this, with the public on-side, in the run up to the General Election. If we don’t, the cuts will impact on the quality of education we can deliver and it will result in a 2 tier HE system. Nationally, UCU is engaging in a big push and will be talking to all MPs. MPS need to know we mean business and that this issue will have a big impact on the national stage. Around the country there are institutions like Leeds where big cuts are threatened. However the reality is that university staff have succeeded in meeting every benchmark that has been set for them yet still our reward for this is insecurity of employment.

On a final note, Sally observed that all unions have the right to make their own decisions. We decide democratically what we do, and we do not interfere in what other unions do. However, LUU have acted in contempt of this code of respect with their blanket e-mail campaign. We disagree with what they have done, but now we must seize on it as an opportunity to talk directly to students. We should be encouraged by the 1300 students signing up to a Facebook site to support us in the fight to defend education at Leeds.

The current priority for Leeds, was to get the vote out, Sally reminded us, and to build on the incredible turn-out already in the ballot that anecdotal evidence already demonstrates.

Some of the Q&As fielded by Sally:

Q: Some colleagues haven’t had a ballot paper.

A: Let Sue Redhead know. New members joining up to 3 days before the ballot opened will get papers and a chance to vote.

Q: What did Sally make of the Lord Mandelson response in the Guardian this week?

A: Mandelson is clever and should not be underestimated. At first he made interesting noises about being interested in more than graduates emerging from Universities after 3 years. He was talking about the contribution that Universities make to knowledge. This has stopped – he is being up front about cuts – though calling it “efficiencies” when in reality this means members jobs. He insists that there will be growth from external funding and while pretending not to interfere in the fees debate he is influencing it by the threat of job cuts after the end of the review.

Q: What will be the form of action short of a strike?

A: The local association has already said that this will be determined by a general meeting of members. It is important to be able to both strike and take ASOAS and to be able to include Academic and Academic Related staff. With a good turn out and a strong vote, any inconvenience to students will be short term should we need subsequently to take any action.

Q: Is what the university is doing illegal. Can we have more help pursuing this?

A: The association is getting the legal support it needs and Sally is prepared to intervene on behalf of Leeds members to ensure all legal support is available. Our aim currently is to make the ACAS talks work to prevent unnecessary terminations and to ensure that staff are treated fairly.

Q: We will soon be getting a communication offering voluntary severance. What advice will individuals get?

A: There should be no response until the outcome of the ACAS talks are clear. Avoid individual meetings if possible and always get union representation if they do take place. The local association will distribute advice.

Q: A 6 year refurbishment programme has just been announced in engineering. It must be costing millions – what can be done move some of the provision into revenue budgets?

A: There are moves in public sector generally to allow more flexibility. UCU will be carefully watching  these developments.

Q: What advice is there for staff involved in producing data to inform the economies exercise?

A: Management need our cooperation in all sorts of areas. We need to act where impact is greatest.

Q: If there is a vote in favour what will happen on greylisting of our University?

A: This is a serious step. It will not happen before local strike action is taken and then only after discussion and agreement locally .

Q: A lot of income comes from the research councils. What is happening to protect this as a source of income?

A: This is to be taken up nationally.

Q: The process in FBS is well advanced. When letters arrive saying you are unmatched it will be too late – careers will be over. What can be done now?

A: The ACAS discussions are where there will be the movement needed to reduce the cuts and ensure processes are fair. Hence the need for a good turnout and a strong yes vote to strengthen the negotiators’ position.

A comment was received from an observer from TUC that UCU should send a delegate to the Trades Council or a member to speak and ask for support.

Response. This expression of solidarity was welcomed, and will be followed up.

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