Preparing for industrial action in the UK universities sector

Out-Law Analysis | 02 Nov 2021 | 2:35 pm | 2 min. read

On 20 September 2021, the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) announced it would be balloting its members on industrial action over Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension cuts and the ‘Four Fights’ – pay, workload, casualisation, and equality.

Some institutions will have two ballots running concurrently while others will have one; ballots will remain open from 18 October to 4 November 2021.

Although the announcement may not have come as a surprise, it will have caused unrest and uncertainty to employers, members and students in what has been an already unsettling period across the sector.

Under the Trade Union Act 2016, there are various requirements which unions must meet for there to be a lawful ballot, which apply not just to universities but all unionised sectors.

Institutions are able to challenge ballots which do not meet these requirements, but if industrial action has been lawfully organised, the trade union will be immune from any action by the employer to sue them for inducing employees to breach their contracts of employment.

How institutions should respond

In response to industrial action, institutions should consider several strategies.

It is key to have a communication strategy designed to show staff the positive steps taken in regard to the issues which are being balloted for to date; highlight reasons why the university cannot accommodate UCU’s existing demands with a particular focus on long term sustainability; and show support for and reinforce any existing staff forum arrangements where matters are able to be discussed without recourse to industrial action.

Such a strategy could counter any negative publicity being circulated with a view to persuading staff to vote against industrial action.  It is important to try and win the hearts and minds of staff on the issues described, and to highlight the uncertainty and unrest which industrial action can cause.

As noted above, industrial action must be carried out in a specific way in order for it to be classed as official and regarded as protected. Universities should keep an accurate record of the steps taken by UCU in the lead up to and during the ballot or any industrial action, and scrutinise the steps taken to ensure compliance with the various requirements of the Trade Union Act 2016.

If there is any scope for challenge, it is important to seek legal advice and act swiftly. There is the possibility that employers could obtain an injunction to prevent strike action if there has been a failure to comply with the requirements of the act.

Institutions should take immediate steps to plan and prepare for the event that members vote in favour of industrial action. Again, communication is key: students, suppliers and other relevant stakeholders should be made aware of the dates of any action.

Universities need to be aware of the rules for employers in the event of an industrial dispute. It is important that universities do not play into the hands of the union by committing unlawful acts themselves, such as by falling foul of the deduction in pay rules or unfair dismissal considerations.

Co-written by Emma Noble of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law