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Strike advice for students

March 15, 2011

Proposed strike dates: Tuesday 22nd March, Thursday 24th March

1. Why are UCU striking?

  • The strikes on 22 and 24 March are in protest as changes to our pensions (national issue). (Download a pdf for full details). Our employers blocked any opportunity to vote on these changes. The changes themselves are extreme and unnecessary – our pension scheme is one of the most well-funded in the whole of Europe.
  • We have added two further protests to the 24th March, rather than announce two further strike days, in order to minimise impact on students. The 24th is also a strike for pay and job security (national issue), and also in order to protest failure to resolve the local dispute over redundancies at Leeds, and other matters (local issues).
  • The employers threaten staff redundancies to pay for the government cuts, and at Leeds, following the enormous £35million Economies Exercise last year which saw up to 600 staff leave, we now have too few lecturers and Student Staff Ratios have risen, in some areas dramatically. Yet management continue to threaten compulsory redundancies and have not withdrawn the redundancy notice issued last November covering members of staff in the Centre for Joint Honours. A number of staff face redundancy as a result and the UCU is demanding that all these staff are provided with jobs within the University at their current grades.
  • Over a 1000 staff were effectively issued with redundancy notices over the past 6 months and over 200 of those staff had been employed in the university for more than four years. The University has a legal duty to employ staff with continuous employment in the university for over four years on the same terms as other staff; the UCU demands that they do so.
  • Despite our best efforts to negotiate, management at a national level have not so far made any of the key compromises that might solve the dispute. The UCU has offered national talks on pensions and agreed to meet via ACAS, the disputes arbitration body. MPS and the NUS have also sought to urge employers to agree to ACAS talks, with no success thus far. The employers are refusing to budge, not the union, when it comes to talks to negotiate a resolution.
  • We are a union of professionals and we know that our members don’t like taking any action that affects students. It is the same for many public services. However, in this dispute, we are convinced that students will suffer infinitely more if we are not successful: an attack on the providers of education is an attack on the value of the education students receive.
  • This is not just a dispute about jobs, pensions and redundancies, it’s about the future of education and our university.
  • Many, many students have already shown us their support. Please join them in helping us to defend education at the University of Leeds and nationally.

2. What if my tutor is not striking, and says my classes are going ahead, but I don’t want to cross a picket line?

We expect that the University will soon advise Heads of School that – even though they are already referring to you as ‘customers’ – if you make an informed decision to support strike action by not attending lectures and seminars, then you shall be marked absent. In other words, you will be treated detrimentally for expressing an ideological position.

Some schools may nonetheless declare that they will not count absences from classes on strike days. English and History, for example, did so when a strike was threatened last year. English has already declared it will not mark students absent on strike days. You might wish to find out from your Head of School (search here if you don’t know who that is) if your School has the same policy of recognising your rights.

Some students have expressed concern that if the University obliges them to cross a picket line when they do not wish to do so, this might represent discrimination against them for taking an ideological position, and they cite the University’s own policy on discrimination and the LUU policy on discrimination to support that position. They have also suggested that it might also represent a breach of their human rights (which include an entitlement to political opinion – article 2). We do acknowledge these concerns and our view is that any such opinion should be respected and you should not be penalised for it in any way by the University. Please note that for these very reasons, non UCU members may also be planning to reschedule their classes away from strike days. Please ensure that you check directly with your tutors or head of school. Be aware that tutors are not obliged in advance to declare that they will be striking, and in some areas they may feel they risk victimisation if they do so. On the whole, though, we anticipate that many of our members will inform students – if not their managers – of their intention to strike.

3. I have an assessment/exam on a strike day. My tutor says they are not a member of UCU and the assessment will be taking place.

We don’t believe this is likely on the days we have selected. We will ask the University for a clarification of this scenario as we do not believe that students should have to cross a picket line if they are ideological opposed to doing so. Again, please discuss this directly with your head of school or tutor.

4. Can I join a picket line?

When workers involved in industrial action stage a protest at or near a workplace to increase support for their cause, this is called picketing. We’d be happy to see students who want to come and support us by visiting us on the picket lines. However, we cannot directly encourage you to join us! We warn you – they’ll be starting at 7am! But you’d be welcome to come and say hello (bring us a cup of tea!) any time up to 11am. There will only be a handful of us at each entrance handing out leaflets and carrying banners. The picket is a peaceful form of protest used to spread further the reasons why we are taking strike action.

5. Isn’t striking attacking the wrong people – students?

A strike is straitforwardly a withdrawal of labour. The refuse workers stopped emptying the bins, when they took industrial action in Leeds two years ago, and the postal workers stopped delivering mail. Certainly, in all cases it is the end-user, consumer or beneficiary of that labour who temporarily suffers. We consider this a small inconvenience that we are asking students to bear in order to help us fight against the damaging manoeuvres of our employers, which will have a long-term impact on the people you interact with on a daily basis in tutorials and lecture halls. A strike is a last resort – we have spent months trying to negotiate and talk to management, but to no avail. Look at the local dispute, for example – you can trace our attempts to negotiate a resolution back months through this blog. The pensions issue was heavily blogged about last summer. After all these months, we have finally reached a last resort because the employers have pushed us to this, the last tactic in our negotiating toolbox.

7. Can’t you strike by not undertaking research, rather than withdrawing from teaching?

Many members will be downing tools from research on 22nd and 24th March, but you may not notice this. Nor will the employers. A boycott only of research would a.) have absolutely no impact on the employers, and serve no negotiating purpose whatsoever, b.) is irrelevant to hundreds of UCU members who administer the University (not all UCU members are academic staff) and c.) damages the tutor’s opportunity’s for career progression – shooting ourselves in the foot is not a valuable strike tactic. Be wary of those that argue this is an alternative – scratch the surface, and it makes no sense.

8. Are you planning to refuse to assess material as part of your industrial action?

There are no plans as yet to take this action. Please correct anyone who tells you this. Such action has been effective in the past and we only undertake this as an absolutely last resort. Remember, if we are ever in a position to have to do this, then the tutors who do it will face a potential 100% pay dock. That is to say, they will continue to teach you, advise you, support you, prepare materials for teaching, attend meetings about you, undertake research, but potentially not be paid for any of it because of a withdrawal of a small percentage of labour associated with marking. So, you see, such a move would be an absolute last resort, and only comes about as a result of obdurate management who would push us into a position of doing our job for you for free in order to increase our protest.

9. Where can I get more information about the reasons for the strike?

The UCU blog is the best source of information on the dispute (and you can subscribe via email, twitter or rss), especially these stories:

The national strikes on pensions (22 and 24 March): download the pdf and see the latest updates.
The national strike on pay and job security (24 March): National dispute
The local strike on redundancies and other issues (24 March): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

All these issues are summarised here.

10. What does UCU want?

  • We want the university to remove the threat of compulsory redundancies in the Centre for Joint Honours and the Faculty of Biological Sciences, so that no one is forced out their job. We are not saying in this dispute that nobody ever should be made redundant, but the handful of people currently so threatened are skilled workers that our education community will benefit from keeping. Read this posting for further details of our local dispute.
  • We want proper negotiations over the future of our pension scheme. We recognise the need for change and have even proposed that we pay more into the scheme.
  • We have tolerated effective pay-cuts (in real terms) three years in a row – pay increases that have been up to ten times less than inflation (0.4% increase last September, with inflation over 4%). A pay-cut in real terms, three years in a row, below the rate offered to teachers and the police, by way of example. Traditionally, workers are prepared to sacrifice pay increases in exchange for job security, but the employers have refused to agree a job security arrangement nationally. People receiving salaries of over a quarter a million a year are arguing that we should have below-inflation pay increases with no trade-off of job security
  • students support strikes

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