12 April: open letter to UCU leadership from the branch

Dear Sally Hunt and UCU Head Office,

The Senate House branch of UCU is writing to state that throughout the current dispute we have felt that there has not been enough timely information available to members and that we are frustrated and disappointed with the binary choice with which we have now been presented.

Background

Our branch comprises of staff from a wide range of roles within higher education including, but not limited to: academic-related staff, professional services, librarians, archivists, IT-related roles and academics. This letter represents the views of staff within this wide range of roles.

During the current industrial action, Senate House UCU has participated in a number of lively debates, discussing what action should be taken and what our opinions are, as a branch.

As individuals, our views range widely and there has been space to hear these, to learn from each other and to reach a consensus which reflects principles that the majority can agree on.

Branch position ahead of HEC meeting 28th March

On 28th March, we came together to discuss the most recent proposal from UUK. As a branch we heard a wide range of opinions and questions. Whilst there were some clear expressions to accept and reject, many present meeting articulated that whilst they welcomed the spirit of the offer, they did not feel it was clear and refined enough to be put to a members’ vote. Our branch representative attended the meeting at UCU Head Office and gave feedback to this effect.

Our rep reported back that during the meeting of branch reps, at UCU HQ, many others present agreed that the ‘offer’ was a good starting point but required further clarification before being put to a members’ vote. Therefore, we were surprised and disappointed when the outcome of the meeting of the HEC presented such a binary choice to members.

Problems arising from the binary choices offered

To vote ‘yes’ to the deal, at this stage, requires a large degree of faith in the employers and UUK who have shown themselves to be inconsistent throughout the dispute. It is felt that agreeing with employers fully at this stage may lessen our ability to bargain later and therefore not aid negotiations. Also, while some members would be in favour of suspending industrial action while the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) review the key principles that underpin valuation of the pension scheme, and might therefore be inclined to vote ‘yes’, they also feel that the ‘offer’ requires a lot more negotiation and specificity before they can consider this a battle won.

To vote ‘no’ would seem to require us to accept a hard-line bargaining position of ‘no detriment’, at least in light of UCU’s communications to us. Further, it gives the impression to the employer that we are asking them ‘to sign a blank cheque’, possibly based on the current, controversial valuation of the pension scheme.

Additionally, neither option allows for the voices of those who do not think the current ‘proposal’ is securely defined enough or those who see difficulties in pursuing ‘no detriment’ at this stage to be heard. How should those who do not wish to accept the current offer but who also do not support pursuing ‘no detriment’ at this stage vote?

We are concerned that in correspondence from Sally Hunt, the “review and resubmit” option has been conflated with the ‘no detriment’ position.  It is our understanding that this interpretation of the “review and resubmit” stance does not reflect the views of many members.  It is clear within our branch that some members would like to see some revisions to be made to the current proposal to clarify issues and address some existing concerns, but that they do not necessarily all support the ‘no detriment’ position.

Concerns regarding the effects of a binary choice at a branch and national level

The lack of a ‘conditional yes’ and a ‘conditional no’ mean that the opinions of many within the branch cannot be heard, which is deeply frustrating and challenges our stance as a democratic union. It also serves to polarise opinions and individuals within the union. This is unhelpful when, whatever the next steps may be, they are likely to require a consensus. Surely such polarisation helps no one but the employers?

A harsh, binary choice between two poorly-defined options risks playing into the hands of UUK.

Disappointment at the lack of quality information made available to branches in a timely manner

At a further Senate House branch meeting on Tuesday 10th April, a majority present articulated that they felt that there is insufficient information and nuance in the vote for members to have a meaningful say.

This has been a consistent theme throughout this dispute. From a union stance, which position is best to negotiate from? How would a ‘no’ vote be understood and taken forward by the union negotiators? How are the nuances of opinions and arguments within the debate going to be collated? What is our strategy?

Whilst we appreciate some efforts have been made to provide further information regarding this vote, these have largely been restricted to personal opinion from Sally Hunt. Therefore, we still feel largely in the dark and unable to make informed choices. As members whose subs pay the wages of those within the Head Office, we expect that this lack of information and transparency will be swiftly addressed. This is, after all, what is being paid for. When the current dispute is over, we would welcome the opportunity to give detailed feedback to this effect.

Assurances moving forward

As a branch, we seek assurance that:

  1. any further offers or decisions should be articulated to members only after they have been thoroughly negotiated.
  2. where offers are significant or the result of independent panel findings, we will be given a meaningful vote.
  3. when UCU sends information to members during a dispute this will be relayed in a timely manner, drawing on the expertise not personal opinion of the employed trade unionists who head our union. This should be done in a balanced and democratic manner, which allows members and branches to make informed choices, not via a neutral or employer-centered stance.

In return, we as a branch continue to offer our support to the union, to our colleagues across the Higher and Further Education sector, to continue to work together to ensure fair working conditions for all.

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Note: this letter was composed following a branch meeting on 10 April 2018. We agreed not to adopt a branch position on whether members should vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and instead wanted to find a way of using our collective voice in a constructive way.