Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Emma Noble tells HRNews about the preparatory steps being taken in the universities sector ahead of UCU’s threatened industrial action


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    As you may have seen in the news, staff at 58 universities have voted to strike for three days in December in the long-running dispute over pension cuts, pay and working conditions. The University and College Union (UCU) has urged university leaders to start negotiating to avoid disruption across campuses between Wednesday 1 December and Friday 3 December.

    Earlier this month UCU members backed strike action in two separate ballots, one over pension cuts and one over pay ands working conditions. In the pension ballot, 76% of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 88% voted in favour of action short of strike. In the pay and working conditions ballot 70% backed strike action with 85% voting for action short of strike. The National Union of Students has said it is backing staff who are taking industrial action. 

    As well as the three day walkout across 58 campuses, staff at 64 universities will take action short of strike, including working strictly to contract and refusing to undertake any additional duties. The union says this will take place for an indefinite period during the five months that staff are able to take industrial action – 5 months is period mandated for in this case. Meanwhile, UCU has called on universities to urgently start negotiating to avoid disruption across UK campuses before Christmas. 

    Personnel Today covers this news and quotes UCU general secretary Jo Grady who says: ‘A resolution to this dispute is simple. But if employers remain intent on slashing pensions and exploiting staff who have kept this sector afloat during a pandemic then campuses will face strike action before Christmas.’  

    The Guardian says the scene is set for what could be a bitter dispute between the union and university leaders. Universities UK – representing employers in the pensions dispute – has rejected Grady’s claim that there is a simple resolution. A UUK spokesperson is quoted saying: ‘We have repeatedly stated our willingness to consult employers on any viable, affordable and implementable alternative proposal from the UCU and we remain fully committed to continuing talks to develop a joint approach.’ 

    This dispute has been brewing for some time and our universities team has been advising a number of clients affected by this, helping them to prepare for industrial action. Central to those preparations is developing a communication strategy and, of course, HR has a key role in that. So let’s hear more about that. Emma Noble is one of the lawyers advising on this and she joined me by phone from Birmingham to discuss the issues. I started by asking Emma why that communication strategy is so important: 

    Emma Noble: “There are two main reasons. The first one is so that universities can counteract any negative publicity that UCU might be putting out there. For those institutions where UCU have met the 50% turnout of the votes, UCU will see their mandate as being quite strong at those institutions so you can guarantee that they’ll be pushing hard in terms of their agenda, so universities will want to make sure that they are well placed to respond to any of the arguments that UCU are putting forward, so they’ve got their own response which can be reflected in the communications the university is putting out. at they're putting out. The second reason is to try and win the hearts and minds of staff on the issues that are going to be subject to the industrial action. So whilst negotiations are occurring nationally on these issues, there's still lots that can be done at a local level, bearing in mind that unions are membership-led organisations, they have to listen to their members, so influencing staff and helping them to see the university’s position is really important. That might mean highlighting the reasons why negotiations haven't succeeded up until up to this point, highlighting the cost to the university of meeting the union’s demands and the negative impact in terms of possible redundancies etcetera. Universities UK have been flagging these points nationally but these are the things that HR can help with at a local level. We know that is happening at some universities already, at staff forums, and that’s helpful because it helps staff feel they are being listened to on these issues.”

    Joe Glavina: “I remember the last time we had the threat of industrial action in the sector we were advising universities to keep a record of the ballots that were taking place. Is that worthwhile and what’s the purpose of it?”

    Emma Noble: “Yes, so it's definitely worthwhile universities keeping a record of ballot notices and the steps taken in relation to industrial action. Although UCU are obviously a large trade union who will be well versed in the conduct of lawful industrial action, and it’s unlikely they will make mistakes, it could happen and we have seen it before. This is a very complex and technical area of the law and time and again we have seen slip-ups by unions which can give the institution the chance to go to court and have the action stopped, or at least delayed. So we always advice universities to track closely the steps the union is taking. The other reason it’s a good idea is because it means you’ll have a record of the steps taken by the unions, and their communications around those steps, which means the university can align their communications accurately, and so respond in the most effective way.”

    Joe Glavina: “I know some universities are actively considering pay deductions. What’s the advice on that Emma?”

    Emma Noble: “Be careful. Take legal advice. This is one of the most complex areas with lots of tricky case law  and we’ve seen many cases of employers getting this wrong, overstepping the mark, and being challenged by members and unions on the basis that the deductions are unlawful, whether they be for taking strike action or action short of a strike. So, the message is tread carefully because what may be lawful for one university may be unlawful for another.” 

    Joe Glavina: “Finally, what about the students who are caught up in this?”

    Emma Noble: “The last 18 months have been really difficult for students anyway and they'll be really alive to the fact that their learning experience has been impacted by the pandemic and I'm sure most students will want to ensure that any further disruption to their learning experience is minimised at all costs. Obviously, the measures that can be put in place to do that will vary from institution but the message needs to be a positive one about the contingency measures the university is taking to minimise the impact on students, whether that be covering staff absences, online lectures, and so on. Some students will be empathetic to the industrial action, others may see it more from the university’s perspective, but all of them will expect universities to do their best to protect their education and learning.”

    The universities team at Pinsent Masons has written in some detail about threat now facing universities and how to respond. That is ‘Preparing for industrial action in the UK universities sector‘ and it is available now from the Outlaw website.

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