ASOS & coronavirus

I would like to take a moment (while the computer network goes into meltdown due to everyone trying to log in to Blackboard at the same time) to discuss a complex issue: the relationship of our response as UCU members to the rapidly changing pandemic (hereafter “the Emergency”) and the ongoing industrial dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions. Most of us had only just come back to work after fourteen days of strike action—a total of twenty-two days this academic year, or thirty-six if we go back to the 2018 action over pensions—when the pandemic finally became a crisis that has required the ending of face-to-face teaching. It is vital that whatever we do, we do not undermine the success of our disputes, which involve existential problems with universities, to solve a short-term problem.

The industrial dispute is a crisis entirely made by university leaders. They have allowed it to continue unresolved, draining away the last bits of good will amongst staff. Now they need that good will to respond to a genuine crisis. We all care about our jobs and want to do our best to help colleagues and students during the Emergency, but at the same time, we must reflect on how our equally serious concerns have been treated over the past two years. In order to retrieve the good will that is required now, employers must settle these disputes.

We have continuously been told that the disputes are national and cannot be solved locally. There is a certain amount of truth to that, but it is also an evasion of the responsibility of leaders of individual universities, including our own, to stand up and do what is in the best interest of their individual institution. In UCU, we routinely challenge the leadership of our union from the grassroots when we believe it is not representing us properly. It is time for powerful university leaders, who are much better insulated from the repercussions of such challenges, to show the same courage and moral fibre in relation to the bodies representing their institutions.

The immediate change to online delivery of teaching amounts to a change in our contracts. Newcastle University management has acknowledged that any changes we agree to undertake are voluntary and in no way constitute an agreement to vary our contractual arrangements, individually or collectively. We are still in a period of ASOS (action short of a strike) until the resolution of our dispute or the expiration of our mandate at the end of April. Our General Secretary reminded us two days ago in her email about the Emergency that “An agreement to resolve our disputes and work with the campus unions to protect universities from this pandemic could be the only way to restore any goodwill towards employers before the situation becomes completely overwhelming. But if employers expect us to pause our action and/or take on extra duties to mitigate the effects of the outbreak without protecting us from its consequences, they will only be storing up more problems for the future. . . . We continue to ask members to take action short of a strike (ASOS) in institutions that have a mandate to do so. The issues we are in dispute over still need addressing. Continuing your action sends an important signal that we are not going away and maintains pressure on employers to resolve the disputes now.” Just as our employers have told us that this is a national dispute that they cannot solve locally, we need to explain to our employers that ASOS is a national instruction from our union, and the only way to change that is to settle the dispute.

There is a balance to be struck here. We want to be in a position to offer good will and make the extraordinary efforts required, in a time when many of us will be worrying about matters of life and death of loved ones, economic pressure, precarity, and all the other matters that form the basis of our action. We want the University to be able to continue to carry out its functions as best we can in this difficult time. But what we do not want is this: we overwork ourselves (as we always do), some of us falling by the wayside as a result, with a vague sense that the University will do the responsible thing and reward us for all this extra effort by dealing honourably with the ongoing disputes. Then, once our mandate has expired, once students have managed to get degrees, once things calm down by the end of the summer, we find that the 2020 USS valuation has shown that our pensions are unaffordable. We lose our DB pensions. Universities throw up their hands in panic at the costs of the Emergency and call for further casualisation and redundancies. At the point, all of our effort for the past two years and at this moment has been for nothing.

We did not create the pandemic Emergency. We did not create years of structural problems that led universities, including this one, to rely on casual labour, to overwork all of us, and to accept that we will continue to have a gender and race pay gap for decades to come. We must have a settlement of the disputes before we put in the extra effort to get through the current situation, not after. To put it simply, we have long since lost any trust we have that our employers will treat us decently and do what they should by us.

Continue to work to your contract until the dispute is settled. Working from home and providing support for students removely is considered a reasonable request and should not be refused as part of ASOS. But ASOS does mean that it may not be possible to do everything you may wish to do for students. That is okay. For more information from UCU, please see the FAQ here: https://www.ucu.org.uk/coronavirus.

Bruce Baker (on behalf of Newcastle University UCU branch committee)