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LUSU Council has voted in favour of supporting strike action by the University and College Union (UCU). The decision follows the news that UCU has set a date of Thursday, Week 4 (October 31st) for the strike to take place. Unison and Unite, two other unions which represent Lancaster University staff, have also voted in favour of strike action. LUSU Council voted by an overwhelming majority in support of the unions’ strikes during their meeting on October 17th.
The meeting was attended by Alan Whitaker and Jason Wood, who spoke to the Council on behalf of UCU and Unison respectively.
Whitaker, the local branch chair of UCU, told the Council that the strike is due to a breakdown in negotiations with the University over staff pay. While the University has apparently offered a 1% increase in wages for members of staff, this comes after “staff over the last five years have seen their pay eroded by something like 13% in real terms” Whitaker said. Whitaker also pointed to the number of younger members of staff who are “struggling” as a result of the decline in wages, as well as the University’s use of zero-hour contracts.
Wood, of Unison, echoed Whitaker: “the decline of wages in real terms have led our members to be balloted for strike action – 1% doesn’t cut it when you’ve taken a 20% cut over the last five years.” Unison represents around 120 Lancaster University staff members, most of whom are some of the lowest paid in the University. Its demands also include a pledge from employers that no worker in the university sector would be paid below the living wage (currently £7.45 outside London).
LUSU Council voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of supporting the strike, with only two members of the Council voting against and two abstentions. LUSU Councillor Lizzie Houghton, who supported the motion, told the Council how important it was for the Council to show “solidarity” with the staff at the University. As part of the motion in favour of strike action, the Union has resolved to mandate the LUSU Vice President (Campaigns and Communications) to educate students on the issues surrounding the industrial action alongside trade union representatives. The motion also mandates the LUSU President to lobby the university to accept the pay demands of the trade unions in the University Management Advisory Group. Otherwise known as UMAG, the Group acts as an advisory body to the Vice Chancellor.
LUSU Vice President Joe O’Neill, who proposed the motion to Union Council, told SCAN: “I’m delighted that LUSU Council have decided to vote in solidarity with the unions on campus. It reaffirms my view that this union really does value the staff that work here – lecturers, cleaners, porters, everything. I am absolutely delighted to have proposed the motion, have speakers from two of the three main unions here and for council to pass it pretty much unanimously.”
Lonsdale College President Charlie Edwards, who voted against the motion, questioned the support for the strike from Lancaster staff. Whitaker said that while statistics for support for strike action from Lancaster staff were not readily available, ballots taken earlier in the year suggested that there was support for strike action amongst staff at Lancaster University. During the Council’s first meeting which was held on Thursday, Week Two, Edwards also enquired about the level of disruption the strike could have on University services, putting particular emphasis on whether the library would remain open and free to use for students during the time action was taking place. In response, Wood said that decisions had not yet been taken on an individual University basis and therefore it could not be said with confidence the level of disruption students will face by industrial action.
UCU also balloted their members on whether they would support “action short of a strike”, adding what Whitaker labelled a “complexity” to the events over the coming months. It is believed that if no negotiations take place before or immediately after October 31st there may be other days of action, while from November 1st, UCU members will be advised that they should take “action short of a strike.” “Action short of a strike” means that staff will do only the minimal amount of work required within their contract and no more. Whitaker said that staff represented by the UCU will be advised to work to contract, staff “doing what they are supposed to do and nothing more.” Whitaker told the Council that if this action does not result in the University making concessions to the UCU and its members by January 2014, then more serious action will be taken.
Whitaker described to the Council how action will “ramp up”, including staff refusing to mark work or marking work and refusing to release the marks to students. “That is one area of the activity where the student body of Lancaster will get nervous… if that continues for a long period of time, it creates anxieties and difficulties for the students with their degrees,” Whitaker told the Council. “We hope it doesn’t get to that. We have an opportunity to try to bring the employers back to the negotiating table. I’m not especially optimistic but with help from the student union body of Lancaster we can get pressure to pray on the employers to say ‘get back into the negotiations.’ The UCU have already issued an invitation [for the University to come back to the negotiating table]… We have two weeks to resolve this without any need for action.”
The University and College Union voted on Thursday October 10th in favour of strike action. 12,754 members voted in favour of strike action (61.5% of the vote) while 15,967 members (77%) voted in favour of “action short of a strike”. Of the Unison members who were balloted, 54.4% voted in favour of strike action. Members of the Unite union were balloted on October 14th, with 64% voting in favour of strike action, rejecting the employer’s one per cent pay offer, on a 28.2% turn out. In a statement released on its website, Unite said it is “urging the Universities and College Employers Association (UCEA) to return to the negotiating table with a vastly improved offer – a substantial pay rise is needed to ensure the retention of dedicated staff to keep Britain in the top 10 world university league.”
Urging the Universities and College Employers Association – the body which represents and negotiates for UK Higher Education Institutions – is something which Whitaker put particular emphasis on. In a closing observation to the Council, once the motion had been passed, Whitaker said: “it would be really helpful to the situation at Lancaster if LUSU’s members – and students generally – could be persuaded to email, write to the Vice-Chancellor, encouraging him to speak to UCEA to go back into negotiations. He’s quite able to do that… and it would be very, very helpful.
“For those of you who were in University Council last week, the Vice-Chancellor, when asked about whether the University could afford to pay more, I think he – perhaps somewhat embarrassed – did say “yes we can.” And I think we need to move this on for the benefit of students as well as staff.”
LUSU Council is the main policy-making body of the student’s union. The elected membership of the Council is made up of all presidents, Vice Presidents (with one vote), Full Time Officers and Cross Campus Officers.
Any student can attend the meeting and question officers. Any student can submit an item for discussion at LUSU Council and LUSU actively encourages students to do so by emailing the Chair, Ronnie Rowlands. Other motions passed during the Week Two meeting of the Council include a Combating Rape Culture motion as well as several bye-law amendments. To show solidarity, the next meeting of LUSU Council has been re-scheduled from the day of the strike, Thursday, Week 4 (31st October) to Monday, Week 5.