Pay and equality ballot

Dear friends and colleagues,

This week’s email update will focus on the pay ballot and underlying dispute.

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 imposing a below-inflation pay offer—in other words, a pay cut – despite no agreement being reached at JNCHES, the joint negotiating committee that negotiates the UK-wide pay and conditions for UK higher education institutions. You will have received an update (12 September) from our Vice Chancellor claiming that Keele has generously implemented a pay increase as “rewarding staff is a key element of our People Strategy.” To be clear – this is the across the board proposal that our employers have proposed through JNCHES, and is not a penny more. UCU has rejected both the proposal and the imposition and is currently balloting members in all eligible institutions (almost 150 universities) over it.

Our Vice Chancellor also stated that “the overall pay increase is around 4.8% for more than half of our staff who are eligible for pay progression.” (emphasis added) This increase is the result of the below inflation pay offer plus the yearly progression through the pay spine – if you were on a point 38 and are now on a point 39, that increase is included in the calculations. However, if you are at the top of the pay spine for your grade, you will have ‘hit a ceiling’ and will only receive the consistent below inflation pay increase offered by our employers. If you are a professor, because of the local pay increase freeze imposed for that grade, you will also only receive the 1.8% increase. In any event, progression through the pay range is categorically distinct from the nationally negotiated (in this instance employer imposed) pay award. By conflating the two, the Vice-Chancellor is attempting to muddy the waters to pass a pay cut for a pay rise. 

For a more in depth explanation of this, UCU pay negotiator Robyn Orfitelli gives an overview (delivered to University of Sheffield UCU) in this video

Why is there a ballot?

UCU are demanding that pay keeps up with the cost of living. The current offer is a 1.8% increase, with colleagues at the absolute low end of the pay spine receiving up to 3.65%. The 3.65% increase is the result of unions representing those colleagues demanding this (backed up by ballots for industrial action), and that was needed to bring those colleagues barely above the ‘voluntary’ Living Wage. For UCU members, we are once again facing a below inflation pay increase, which is akin to yet another pay cut. 

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. 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 BAME staff. Across the higher education sector, the gender pay gap is 12%: at Keele it is around 18.6%. 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 BAME staff. 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. To date, our employers have refused to engage in serious negotiations about crippling workloads, about casualisation, and about closing pay gaps.

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.

What are we asking for?

Nobody wants to have to ballot every year over issues that never seem to get better. We know that in recent years, our pay has been cut by about 20% in real terms. We know that casualisation is endemic in the sector, with close to 50% of Universities now using zero hour contracts to deliver their teaching. We know that there are severe pay gaps for women and other colleagues with protected characteristics, with the gender pay gap as high as 20% in several institutions. We know that staff spend hours every week effectively working for free.

Senior managers are equally aware of this, but they are not interested in working with us to find long-term answers that will apply across all institutions. Each year UCU lodges a detailed, multi-faceted claim with employers that seeks to address the fundamental issues. What we are asking for is realistic, and it can be implemented with gradual, manageable changes to employers’ business models. This year, our demands include:

  • a pay increase of 3% plus RPI or £3,349 (whichever is greater)
  • a plan of action to close the gender and ethnicity pay gaps
  • a reduction in the use of zero-hours and hourly paid contracts
  • proper enforcement of a 35-hour working week
  • recognition and management of the stress and health and safety issues caused by excessive workloads.

National agreements covering these areas will go much further than piecemeal gains on a local level. If you move institution, you don’t want to have to worry about whether your new employer observes the same standards for workload or gender equality as your old one. We don’t want employers undercutting each other with ever more precarious employment practices.

Pay and Pensions are linked

And, of course, there are clear and obvious links between pay and pensions. At its most basic, a pension is nothing more than deferred salary. It is part and parcel of our remuneration ‘package’ and any detrimental change to our pensions is a form of pay cut. Conversely, the better the pay, the more money gets put into USS every year, making the scheme stronger in the long run.

The link goes beyond that, though. As our pay decreases in real terms, we are unable to save privately for the future. Colleagues on fractional or casualised contracts are more likely to opt out of pension contributions – they either simply do not earn enough to be able to afford a pension, or they do not have guaranteed employment after the end of their contract and cannot risk putting money into a pension fund when they may need that money to live while waiting for the next contract to come along. We also know that the gender pay gap significantly impacts the pensions of women. On average across the UK, women face a reduction of pension wealth of 28% due to factors such as pay differentials or career breaks. Pay gaps for BAME colleagues also result in a reduction of pension wealth.

Pay, working conditions and pensions are fundamentally and intricately connected. This is why two ballots are being run simultaneously. Both are needed to improve our living conditions, in work and in retirement.

The bigger the mandate for strike action, the better the outcome

Employers have refused to enter meaningful negotiations with us on these issues, but a nationwide strike mandate will bring them to the table, just as it did when we went on strike over USS last year. The more members vote, the sooner employers will make concessions, the better the deal we will get, and the lower the likelihood we will have to ballot again in the future. A vote for strike action and action short of a strike gives our negotiators leverage. Our negotiators are asking for this strength. It is up to us to give it to them.

Ask our General Secretary

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady will be at Keele on Monday 30 September for an open meeting at 12pm (CBA0.061). She will be discussing the current ballots as well as the reasons for them. She will also be available to answer questions, and to hear about local issues that we are facing. This meeting is an open meeting – all staff at Keele are welcome to attend regardless of UCU membership. Please help spread the word to your colleagues.

In solidarity,

Mario – on behalf of the Keele UCU committee