Two crucial Higher Education ballots opened on 9th of September at the University of Exeter! With one on pay, equality, job security, and workload, and the other on USS pensions, both disputes centre on whether employers can afford to pay to fix the issues.
The ballots will run until Wednesday 30th of October and HEC will meet to consider the results on Friday 1st of November. The ballots are disaggregated so each institution is polled separately.
- What are the current ballots about? Why are UCU balloting for industrial action on pensions again? How are the two ballots linked?
- What is industrial action? How does industrial action work?
- Why should I vote?
- How do I vote?
- Why should I notify the branch that I have voted?
- Why can’t we vote online?
- What should I do if I am not able to vote or not available during the entire industrial action period because I’m away or on leave?
- I want to have a ballot sent to a different address or I haven’t received my ballot.
- I can’t find the envelope with my ballot, what should I do?
- Who is eligible to vote?
- Who is not eligible to vote?
- What if I am employed by several institutions?
- Do student members get a vote? Can student members check and update their records and be included in the ballot?
- Do new members who have joined since the ballot opened get a vote?
- What should I do if I received a ballot, but don’t think I’m eligible to vote?
- When is the deadline to submit my vote?
- What outcome is necessary for a strike to go ahead?
- I’m not sure if I want to strike, so should I abstain?
- I can’t afford to lose pay by striking.
- What happens if the vote is in favour of a strike?
- What work will be affected by a possible strike?
- How can I help UCU reach the ballot threshold?
- What if I still have questions?
What are the current ballots about?
Members of the union are being balloted on two separate but related issues: one on pay and equality, and one on pensions. Both ballots should be returned in the same envelope.
FOUR FIGHTS ONE VOICE
UCU is demanding action on pay inequality, casualisation, excessive workload and pay deflation. Over the past decade, wages have plummeted across the UK. But compared to national averages, pay in the higher education sector has lagged behind. Since 2009, the wages of university staff have fallen in real terms by over 20%, while at the same time workloads have increased to unprecedented levels. This year, employers are once again insisting that staff accept a below-inflation pay offer—in other words, a pay cut. UCU are demanding that pay keeps up with the cost of living. But this vote is also about the various forms of pay inequality in universities. More and more people in this sector are working on precarious, fixed-term contracts, with limited rights and uncertain futures, and sometimes without contracts altogether; the recent branch’s claim on anti-casualisation shows Exeter as having the eighth-highest employment insecurity ranking among UK universities, with 58% of its academic workforce employed on casual or fixed-term contracts. Meanwhile, workloads are increasing across the board, with university staff performing an average of two days’ unpaid work every week. And the effects of this fall disproportionately on female and BME staff. Across the higher education sector, the gender pay gap is 12%: here in Cambridge, it’s much worse, at around 19.6%. UCU is fighting for fair contracts and manageable workloads for all workers. It wants employers to commit to a national plan for eliminating zero-hours contracts and closing the gender pay gap, as well as similar disparities for BME staff. Other many useful practical questions and answers were posted earlier this year.
USS PENSION JUSTICE
Pensions are deferred pay, agreed by employers to support workers once they retire. This year, workers in higher education are being forced to increase the amount they contribute towards their pensions, an increase which amounts to another pay cut. This comes in the wider context of repeated attacks on university pensions: employers have tried to slash the benefits workers receive, while hiking the amount they pay. UCU are standing against this erosion of their members’ rights, and fighting to guarantee a decent pension for all.
Why are UCU balloting for industrial action on pensions again?
You will now have received your ballot paper for industrial action relating to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Exeter UCU is recommending that you vote YES to strike action and YES to action short of a strike.
The action to protect our pensions was called off in spring 2018 when UUK agreed to work with UCU to establish a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to review the valuation and governance of USS. UCU have been negotiating with USS and UUK since this point. We secured the Defined Benefits component of our pensions in the last dispute, but employees and employers are now facing increased contributions and a continued reliance on unclear valuation methods that undermine the long-term future of the scheme.
The JEP on the 2018 valuation methodology reported in September 2018. This report recommended measures that would see the scheme in surplus and a combined employee and employer contribution rate of 29.2%. However, key suggestions from the report have been ignored by USS and the disputed assumptions, valuation methods, and associated tests remain.
Supported by UUK, USS is now moving ahead with changes to pension contributions – the so-called Option 3 – which will see employee and employer contributions of 30.7% in the next two years (of which employees pay 9.6%), rising to 34.7%. This will cost the sector an extra £100 million per year for the first two years and £0.5 billion after. UCU negotiator Sam Marsh suggests: “in Option 3 we are left with a valuation based on a wholesale rejection of the Joint Expert Panel’s report.”
UCU appointed trustee for USS, Jane Hutton, reports that she has “repeatedly been denied the information” she requested to evaluate whether the assumptions and models used for the calculations by the USS Board are valid. Hutton has now been suspended from the USS Board without proper explanation. She says: “I can only assume that the suspension arises from my persistence in seeking the necessary information”.
Before the 2018 USS Strike, our contributions to UCU were 8% of salary. We are now facing contributions rising to 9.6% of salary, which UCU estimates costs average members around £700 a year (pre-tax). You can read UCU’s full analysis of the increasing costs to members and loss of benefits since 2011 here.
You may have seen the USS pension update from the University reports that UUK offered to pay an additional 0.5% of the members’ contribution rate for two years (until October 2021), taking members’ contribution rate to 9.1%. UCU rejected this offer as it included a condition that UCU would agree not to ballot on USS for 2 years, which would cover the period of the next valuation and leave members with no recourse if this valuation again threatened pension benefits.
The University pension update also suggests the UUK offer remains open. However, it is not clear whether all conditions have been removed from this offer. The view of UCU negotiators is that unless those parts of the JEP relating to valuation and investment strategies are addressed, this battle over percentages will continue in ways that threaten the long-term value and ultimately the viability of USS as a Defined Benefit scheme.
UCU is now balloting on the proposal to keep member contributions at 8% until valuations are conducted in which they are able to have faith. This pressure on employers is needed to ensure they will act in our interest to prevent the continued erosion of the USS pension scheme.
How are the two ballots linked?
We recommend you vote YES to Industrial Action and YES to Action Short of a Strike in both ballots, and we urge all members to participate in the ballot.
What is industrial action?
The best known form of industrial action is the strike, when the workers of a union collectively refuse to work. Instead, they gather together outside their workplaces, to discourage colleagues and others from going inside: these gatherings are called picket-lines. There are also other forms e.g. action short of strike: workers might refuse to work overtime, or to provide cover for absent colleagues.
How does industrial action work?
Industrial action is the last resort we have when negotiating with employers. It is not something we treat lightly. But it’s a proven way of defending or improving working conditions—in this case, by making the university a fairer place to work.
Why should I vote?
These are crucial ballots, aiming to secure long-needed advances in staff conditions at a time of real uncertainty in the sector and to protect staff from lost pay from below inflation pay awards and increased pension contributions. We want as many members as possible to participate in the ballots 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.
How do I vote?
You should have received a ballot in the post in early September, either at home or at work; the envelope looks like this. Fill out your ballot papers and return both ballots in the included envelope. It’s prepaid, so no need for a stamp. Then please use the survey form sent to you by the branch and let us know that you have voted (but not what your vote is).
Why should I notify the branch 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. We will stop sending reminders to people once they have notified us.
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.
What should I do if I am not able to vote or not available during the entire industrial action period because I’m away or on leave?
The possible strike period is 6 months following a successful ballot result (minus two weeks notification). IF you will be (1) on parental leave, (2) on long term illness leave, or (3) out of the country for that ENTIRE time period, then you should not be balloted. Please inform your Branch via the survey form, or your rep if you prefer (or contact us here if you have not yet been contacted).
But if you will be available during part of the industrial action period, then you can still be balloted. If you are on research leave but are in the country, you should be balloted.
If you are abroad during the BALLOT period, you may request that your ballot paper be sent to your non-UK address. You can apply for a new ballot here. The last day to request a replacement ballot paper is Wednesday 23 October.
I want to have a ballot sent to a different address or I haven’t received my ballot.
You can apply for a new ballot here. The last day to request a replacement ballot paper is Wednesday 23 October.
I can’t find the envelope with my ballot, what should I do?
You can apply for a new ballot here. The last day to request a replacement ballot paper is Wednesday 23 October. If you’ve lost the envelope you can apply for a new one with the link above, or just use your own (with a stamp), posting to: Electoral Reform Services, London N81 1ER
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 teaching, in particular students (most likely doctoral students) who are contracted to teach (Standard Free membership) – even if you are on an hourly rate.
Who is not eligible to vote?
Not all UCU members are eligible to vote this time round. Those who won’t be balloted are:
- Students registered as Graduate Student Members. Graduate students who teach for the university should make sure they are on Standard Free membership so that they will be balloted.
- Retired members.
- People who will be on long-term sick leave, maternity leave, or abroad on research over the whole period of the potential industrial action (from mid Nov 2019 until the end of April 2020).
- Staff registered as self-employed.
What if I am employed by several institutions?
If the University of Exeter is not your sole employer, then you should be voting for each branch/institution where you work. Please use all of your votes in all the institutions where you work and that are involved in the disputes (see list of institutions involved in each ballot if applicable here and here). Ask for your additional ballots if you have received less than you should. You can apply for new ballots here, but if you are not sure for which branch you need to request a new ballot for, then please get in touch here with the ballot serial numbers you already have. The last day to request new ballot papers is Wednesday 23 October.
Do student members get a vote?
Postgraduate students who are contracted to teach (‘Standard Free’ membership) are eligible to vote but not students on the free membership who aren’t employed.
Can student members check and update their records and be included in the ballot?
Yes. Student members on the wrong category can check and amend their details here and they will be sent a ballot paper if they do this before Tuesday 22 October.
Do new members who have joined since the ballot opened get a vote?
Yes new members will be automatically issued with a ballot paper if they join before Wednesday 23 October.
What should I do if I received a ballot, but don’t think I’m eligible to vote?
If you’ve received a ballot, but think you might be ineligible to vote, it’s important you let us know via the survey form. Alternatively contact your rep or the contact form as soon as possible, and we can remove you from the ballot register if necessary. It’s crucial that you don’t just ignore your ballot papers, as the 50% voting threshold that we have to pass is based on the number of ballot papers sent out.
When is the deadline to submit my vote?
Completed ballot papers must be received by Wednesday 30 October. Remember to allow good time for postage – no later than Monday 28 October. 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 locally will have to participate in the vote. Then out of those who turn out to vote, 50% will have to vote yes to strike.
This means that every vote is important. Some recent ballots failed not because people voted against striking, but because not enough people returned their ballots.
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. Access to UCU’s national fighting fund will be changed to enable better support for members in the event of strike action being taken.
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 mid-November. Provisional first date for possible industrial action is Monday 18 November (tbc).
Due to the trade union act, unions can call a strike up to 6 months after a ballot has taken place. This means the latest we could call a strike would be the end of April 2020.
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).
Put up your ‘I’ve Voted’ poster from the ballot pack and wear your stickers with pride. If you like Tweet us your displays.
Volunteer to help survey other members (phone, email, door-to-door) to remind them to vote.
What if I still have questions?
Come and ask your questions at the Special Strike Ballots Branch meeting on the 16th of October or the “Unions Working Together for HE Pay” Joint Emergency Meeting on the 23rd of October. Alternatively, contact us and we’ll be happy to help.