All staff at the University of Leeds were sent on Friday by email a copy of an Open Letter from UCEA and UUK to all staff members in striking institutions. This is our response to that letter.
To start with, we are happy to hear that our employers care about staff and want to create a healthy work environment. Unfortunately that care, and that aspiration, is simply not being felt on the ground. Whilst a powerful wave of strike action does seem to have galvanised some institutions into starting to talk about casualisation and ending insecure contracts, the problems are still visible. Institutions are still creating and advertising impossible fractional and short term contracts; they are still paying hourly paid staff late, or not at all, and not paying them enough to do the basics of their job; they are still trying to keep people for who have worked for an institution for years on fixed term or hourly paid contracts. On the pickets, we are hearing stories of workloads getting even worse. Institutions are failing to address unfair and unsustainable workload models, and are dependent on individuals and union reps to lean in and point out workload risks and problems every time they appear. People are still working evenings and weekends to do the basics of their job. Institutions are celebrating minute improvements in gender pay gaps (and not talking about ethnic pay gaps at all), and are placing responsibility on individuals to fix them (by mentoring and confidence building) rather than facing up to structural inequalities and institutional discrimination.
These kinds of things could stop right now, and they haven’t. Instead it has taken sustained strike action to even get UCEA to the point of seriously addressing working conditions in the sector. The fact that they have had to be pushed to it in this way is a central reason why we need them to commit to implementation of their promises, in the way that their most recent offer simply doesn’t, otherwise the risk is that they will backtrack from their words and promises once we have settled the dispute. Striking is hugely disruptive for everyone: we don’t want to keep having to do it.
We do agree that real progress has been made in negotiations – but only because we have taken strike action. It takes our strike action to get everyone back around the table and that is not good enough from employers who say they care. Frankly, it is very clear to us that they will only act if they have to – so we need mechanisms in an agreement that will allow us to hold them to account.
We are also happy to see progress on the future of USS, and we fervently hope that that continues.
But we also remember that we wouldn’t be in this position if employers hadn’t launched down the dangerous road of excessive de-risking and faulty valuations, and that it took our strike action to stop them. We don’t think that asking members to pay more contributions as a result of the fact that employers started down that road is ‘a fair contribution’ – we didn’t cause the problem, and indeed we lost 14 days pay in 2018 challenging scheme changes which it is now recognised were unnecessary. UUK say they have faith that USS will implement JEP 2 and solve the problem of increased contributions; we lack that faith (given that they did not implement JEP 1) and are not prepared to commit on trust to further contributions for employees. If UUK are right, of course, the increased contributions which we are asking employers to pay will not last for long!
Our employers keep returning to issues of affordability, both on pay and on pensions. The first thing to say is that we are struggling to afford the status quo. The increase in contributions is making the pension unaffordable for new starters, which is no good for them and no good for the scheme. We as individuals are having to shift financial plans and financial priorities to accommodate a rising cost of living, pay that doesn’t keep up with it and increased pension contributions. And casualised staff are constantly struggling to budget and plan for the future with the massive financial uncertainty of short term contracts. Institutional financial positions vary a lot, but over the sector staff costs are decreasing as a proportion of overall expenditure and other costs are rising.
Institutions are planning on the basis of low to no pay increases, and that’s not good enough – staff conditions should be a priority, not a nice-to-have. And financial plans and priorities aren’t set in stone, and certainly shouldn’t be. We need creative thinking based on those good intentions from our leaders to find a way through this position so that staff are fairly paid and their conditions of work are acceptable.
Finally, it is not a ‘perception’ that our concerns are not met. It is reality, and to suggest otherwise is insulting. It is very clear to us and our negotiators what further progress is needed, and our negotiators are ready to propose solutions and make compromises. So we call upon university leaders to demonstrate their care for us in practical terms, by working with our negotiators, thinking constructively and creatively, and finding a resolution to this dispute.
This page was last updated on 24 February 2020