UCU members are currently being balloted over potential industrial action due to another below inflation pay offer and lack of commitment from employers on pay equality and casualisation. The dispute rests on universities’ failure to improve on the 2% unagreed pay offer made at pay talks last May. We argue that offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) does not address the falling value of higher education pay, which has declined in real terms by 21% since 2009. We are also deeply concerned about workloads, pay inequality and the continued casualisation of the workforce. We can only legitimately strike nationally over pay, hence the wrapping up of multiple demands over workload, pay inequality and anti-casualisation into this claim, but everything is related.

The dispute is about building the foundations of a fairer university: security of employment, fair pay, sustainable workload, and equality. These reinforce each other: there are structural causes for gender and race inequalities, and for unchecked workloads, which cannot be tackled without a fair national pay scale and greater employment security. Getting these foundations right is vital for today’s staff and students, but also for the future of UK Higher Education.

Declining wages and increasing workload and stress have an immediate effect on staff wellbeing and on our ability to deliver excellent teaching and administrative support to all our students. The increasing casualisation of the workforce at Exeter is troubling: living on a fixed-term contract has huge repercussions on staff wellbeing, financial security, and professional development. At institutional level, reliance on staff on fixed-term contracts jeopardises teaching and students services as it prevents us from retaining knowledge and planning ahead.

Yet the University of Exeter has so far failed to engage with us in negotiations over pay, casualisation, and workload. The results of our 2018 membership survey and the recent staff survey highlight that these concerns are the highest among staff, together with pensions and governance issues, both related to employers denying our legitimate claims, with pensions being an inequality issue and while money is found for significant rises in vice-chancellor and senior pay. The gender pay gap at the University of Exeter stands at 17.2% (median hourly rate), which is in the top league among the Universities with the worst gender pay inequalities, and little is being done to address this. We need national commitments to close the gender pay gap now. This has left us in a situation where we have no alternative but to ballot our members.

  • The national claim seeks a 7.5% raise to recover part of the ground lost since 2009 (the year of our last above-inflation raise). Vote YES to defend our profession, when a real terms decline in pay hit new entrants far harder than more established colleagues.
  • The national claim seeks a sectoral commitment to close the gender pay gap by 2020, and calls for action on excessive workload. Vote YES to fight the gender pay gap and excessive workloads.
  • The national claim seeks institution-specific action plans to address employment security. Vote YES to denounce the deliberate choice of management to employ people on casual contracts, and YES to support casualised staff, who have struck over pensions. We need a great show of solidarity.

What is the ballot about?

UCU members at universities nationwide are being re-balloted on whether to take strike action in support of the 2018 national claim. We are demanding from our employers:
• A meaningful pay rise, instead of the sub-inflationary 2% offered by employers;
• A serious commitment to closing the gender pay gap;
• Recognition of excessive workloads;
• Reduction in the use of precarious contracts.

They have offered none of these.

For more on the issues, and the possible strike action, see here. We recommend you vote YES to Industrial Action and YES to Action Short of a Strike, and we urge all members to participate in the ballot.

Why should I vote?

This is a crucial ballot, aiming to secure long-needed advances in staff conditions at a time of real uncertainty in the sector. We want as many members as possible to participate in the ballot and express their views. Participating in the ballot gives members a voice in union decision-making; it gives colleagues a voice (because unless we meet a 50% turnout threshold nationally, even those who are prepared to strike will be unable to do so); and it strengthens the union and its ability to advocate for staff in future.

Why do we need to take action?

• Over the last seven years, total income across the sector has increased by 33.1%, operating surpluses by 176.8% and reserves are up by 259%, yet staff costs as a percentage of income have gone down from 54.6% to 52.9%.
• 2016/17 data shows a mean gender pay gap of 11.8% or £5936 per year.
• According to HESA, there at least 50,000 university teaching staff on hourly-paid contracts and at least 12,500 with zero-hours contracts. 66% of research staff are still on fixed-term contracts.
• UCU’s recent workload survey showed that HE staff are working an average of two days unpaid every week.

The last ballot in autumn didn’t result in a strike, so why are we voting again?

The autumn ballot failed because the turnout was too low to gather a legal mandate for a strike, even though a majority of those who voted were in favour of a strike. The timing of the vote may have been part of the problem. That’s why a second ballot is being run in the hope that a clear majority of members will exercise their right to vote. At the University of Exeter, we came really close to meeting the 50% voting threshold last time (44 ballots short) and this time we’re being asked to help support less engaged branches on an aggregated ballot (we need 50% turnout nationally).

How do I vote?

You should have received a ballot in the post in early January, either at home or at work. Fill out your ballot paper and return it in the included envelope. It’s prepaid, so no need for a stamp. Then please respond to the “Have you voted?” email sent by Matt Waddup (UCU national head of policy and campaigns) to let us know that you have voted (but not what your vote is) or use this form with your membership number.

Why should I notify UCU that I have voted?

This helps us keep track of how the turnout is looking in the weeks before the deadline and to most effectively target our resources during the ballot period. See paragraph above for ways to notify UCU.

Why can’t we vote online?

We have no choice – voting on paper is a legal requirement. The Trade Union Act 2016 specifically and deliberately outlawed online voting in industrial disputes.

I can’t find the envelope with my ballot, what should I do?

If you have not received your ballot paper your details may be out of date on the database. It is vital we have up to date records for you. Make sure your details are correct on MyUCU and order a replacement.

Who is eligible to vote?

Anyone who is employed by the university or contracted to the university, whether full-time or part-time.
• This includes people with university contracts who also do some college teaching.
• It also includes students (most likely doctoral students) who are contracted to teach (Standard Free membership) – even if you are on an hourly rate.
• TES staff are eligible to vote as TES is an internal department of the university rather than an external agency.

Who is not eligible to vote?

• People who are employed only by a college, and not by the central university. This is because colleges are not part of the national pay bargaining process.
• People who are self-employed or working for an external agency.
• Employees who owing to long-term illness or maternity leave would not normally be at work during the strike period.
• Students who aren’t working for the university (Graduate Student membership).

I’ve been balloted but don’t think I should have been, or I’m not sure if I’m eligible to vote. What should I do?

Contact our membership secretary for help.

When is the deadline to submit my vote?

Completed ballot papers must be received by Friday 22 February. Remember to allow good time for postage – no later than Wednesday 20 February. Best to put your vote in the post today.

What outcome is necessary for a strike to go ahead?

For the vote to comply with legislation:
• 50% of all eligible UCU members nationally will have to participate in the vote.
• Then out of those who turn out to vote, 50% will have to vote yes to strike (in the last ballot 69% of members nationally voted to strike).

This means that every vote is important. The autumn ballot failed not because people voted against striking, but because not enough people returned their ballots. Remember too that unlike in previous ballots, this vote is aggregated nationally rather than being counted within individual branches. For the strike to be legal, we need 50% membership turnout and a majority of ‘yes’ votes across the UK.

I’m not sure if I want to strike, so should I abstain?

If you don’t vote, you are effectively voting to stop the rest of membership from being able to take action, because of the 50% turnout rule. Union democracy is vitally important, we need to know what the whole membership thinks, so please do use your vote. If you don’t think we should strike, vote No to industrial action (but perhaps Yes to action short of a strike?). Abstaining is not sitting on the fence. It undermines the strength of the union across the board, not only on pay, equality and casualisation, but also on pensions, and in the many local issues, disputes and negotiations on which UCU works for its members.

Remember that the higher the turnout and the higher the Yes vote in this dispute, the more worried the employers will be about a possible strike, and the more likely they will be to come up with a better offer. Paradoxically, the stronger the vote the less likely we are to actually end up on strike!

I can’t afford to lose pay by striking.

The union has hardship funds, both nationally and locally, which can provide some financial help.

What happens if the vote is in favour of a strike?

Once votes are counted, the law requires that employers be given two weeks’ notice of intention to strike. This means that the earliest a strike might begin would be Monday 11 March.

What work will be affected by a possible strike?

All of your contracted duties for the University. This includes lectures and other forms of teaching organised by departments. It also includes meetings, marking, responding to emails and other communications on university business.

How can I help UCU reach the ballot threshold?

• Speak to your colleagues about the ballot and encourage them to vote or to join UCU (a ballot paper will be sent out to them).
• Don’t see posters in your department? Get in touch and we will send you some.
• Remember to notify UCU that you have voted.

What if I still have questions?

Contact us and we’ll be happy to help.

With thanks to Cambridge UCU, Glasgow UCU and Oxford UCU for inspiring campaign materials.