Don't separate, escalate!

Ahead of the Higher Education Committee meeting on 30 January, branches have been asked to consult with members about how best to take the pensions and pay & equalities fights forward. There have been some discussions about the logic of fighting on two fronts simultaneously and whether the disputes should be “decoupled”. We offer three contributions below as a way of stimulating further debate and, crucially, to focus members’ minds on what action is needed to secure the concessions we deserve from the employers on all fronts. We also reproduce two motions – one written by ‘four fights’ negotiators and one by Andrew Chitty of Sussex UCU – that could be the basis of a discussion at your next branch meeting.

Rhian Elinor (Exeter UCU)

I’m really concerned about the number of messages I’ve been receiving from colleagues in reballoting branches who are concerned about discussions of decoupling equalities and pension disputes. This is really dangerous.

I was initially sceptical about balloting for both together. But in the course of the disputes I’ve seen why it’s essential.

We got over the line on anti-casualisation this time – after crushing disappointments for casualised staff like me from the last few ballots – precisely because of the momentum from fighting two disputes at once.

I can’t explain, as an hourly paid staff member who is struggling with casualised conditions exacerbating physical and mental health, quite what it meant to feel colleagues were willing to stand with us, as we had on #ussstrike.And it was a long time coming. 

Standing on the picket line with colleagues striking on all of the issues also helped with branch awareness and understanding, fostering solidarity between generations of workers.

I’m now really worried to see colleagues – often speaking from positions of relative employment security – advocating to undermine this solidarity. I’m not even sure what the strategy would be.

Separate strike dates for both is being mooted. This would be disastrous. It would mean casualised workers in USS branches hit hardest, and would increase feeling that some senior colleagues willing to strike over pensions but not working conditions of colleagues.

Also, it would undermine post-92 colleagues striking over conditions but not pensions. The whole point of a union is we stand together or we fall. An injury to one is an injury to all, and we don’t pick and choose what constitutes injury based on what affects us personally.

And now we’re in a peculiar position where we are reballoting branches at a point when powerful sections of the union are actively undermining this. It’s disappointing and frustrating. We need to be supporting the reballot, not throwing those branches under the bus.

We’re at the sharp end of the working conditions the disputes are supposed to combat. Please don’t abandon us now. We didn’t abandon you in 2018.

Graham Kirkwood (Newcastle UCU)

The current negotiations in both disputes really do seem to lack any sense of urgency from the employers. They exhibit a lack of concern that students have already lost eight days from their studies and are about to lose a further 14 days if the next wave of strikes go ahead. This is looking increasingly likely given the snail’s pace the employers are moving at.

As was the case in other striking universities in December last year, we had a bigger turnout on strike days here at Newcastle University than in the previous strike wave back in February and March 2018. There has been a bigger call on our local strike fund this time round due to the greater involvement of casualised and precarious staff. There is no mood here to uncouple the two disputes, our strength is in going forward together.

We have been using this time to plan the next round of action. Colleagues are currently being surveyed on what they thought went well in December and what we could do to improve. We are firming up and expanding our layer of branch representatives across the university and fine tuning our action plan leading up to the strike days.

Although we had sufficient numbers out on strike in December to carry the dispute, it is a fact that there are still too many UCU members who work through the strike. This weakens the action and isolates them from the dispute. When the dates are announced we need to get out in a similar way to getting the vote out to get the strike out. Going round floor to floor, department to department talking to people and arguing for maximum involvement for a speedy resolution. In addition colleagues have been going over to help at our neighbouring Northumbria University UCU branch to assist with their re-ballot. The two universities out on strike together will make a significant impact on this city.

Jo McNeill (Liverpool UCU)

I have been a little surprised to see the narrative emerging from some UCU members around decoupling the two disputes. 

The idea to run the four fights and USS disputes together was brought to HEC by Lancaster UCU. When moving the motion Julie Hearn, a HEC Rep from Lancaster, spoke of how members would benefit from running both disputes together and the added strength it would give negotiators in each legally distinct dispute. I voted for this motion. I was aware of how branches had struggled to meet the Tory turnout threshold in previous pay/equalities disputes to the major detriment of our most vulnerable members. I voted for this strategy because we had to do something differently and this worked. We saw record turnout in the pay/equalities ballot.

Members told us how they felt this made sense to ballot and to take action on both disputes at the same time. This strategy builds solidarity: a fundamental trade union principle! 

Yet now we have a group of people seemingly doing all they can to publicly undermine this strategy with an aim to decouple the two disputes. Their reasons for this appear to be ill informed.

For example, I’ve seen questions like ‘what if one dispute resolves earlier than the other?’ If this is the case, and it may be, then we consult members on their opinion on the offer made. If they agree to accept, then we close down that legally distinct dispute. The other dispute continues. This isn’t new. Many branches have run two disputes, usually a national and a local one.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s quite a simple industrial strategy. Some branches have both disputes running simultaneously; others just have the four fights. If the USS dispute resolves first, then all the big Russell group branches stay out with all the smaller branches.

If the four fights resolves first then we have all the bigger USS branches still out.

This adds pressure, provides solidarity, and gives additional strength to negotiators (which I’m one of). We have some branches re-balloting right now and it will be great to have them join us. But the main factor right now is the decision HEC make on the next round of action. 

USS branches had a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) to debate this and carried a motion from Liverpool recommending 14 days. There hasn’t been a four fights SHESC so we (the ‘four fights’ negotiators) are recommending these branches move a model motion we’ve written in advance of the next HEC Jan 30th.

Draft motion (prepared by ‘four fights’ negotiators)

This branch acknowledges the need to fight back against increasing casualisation, damaging workloads, antiquated gender and race pay gaps and a decade long erosion of our pay.

This branch notes the decision from HEC to coordinate ballot distribution and strike days for the Four Fights and USS disputes.  This strategy allowed for UCU’s most successful ballot turnout results on pay ever and led to eight days of impactful strike action which is empowering our national negotiators.

This branch recognises the need to increase pressure at this point and that in order to win we have to move towards escalating our industrial strategy.

This branch supports this existing strategy towards our two ongoing disputes in HE, and believes that strike action in pursuit of the Four Fights should continue to escalate simultaneously with action over USS, beginning with the 14 days endorsed by HESC in December 2019.

Draft motion: The need for consultation (Andrew Chitty, Sussex UCU)

This branch notes:

1. The Special HE Sector Conference on the USS dispute in December voted for 14 more days of action over USS in February and March and another round of ballots over USS in February to April.

2. There has been no equivalent opportunity for branches to have their say about further action in the pay and conditions dispute.

3. This especially risks disenfranchising branches, including post-92 branches, that have voted for industrial action in the pay and conditions dispute but are outside the USS dispute, when the HEC meets on 30th January to consider calling further action in both disputes.

This branch resolves:

a. To call on the HEC on 30th January to urgently arrange a formal consultation of all branches holding a mandate for industrial action in the pay and conditions dispute on how to take that dispute forward, if possible culminating in a national branch delegates meeting, before HEC makes a decision on this question at its next meeting.

b. The consultation should lay out at least two options, offering different degrees and timescales of escalation.

National Activists’ Meeting, 11am, Saturday 25 January in central London (called by Goldsmiths UCU, Imperial UCU, Queen Mary UCU and UCL UCU; organised by London Region UCU. Details here.

#PrecarityStories & the fight against casualisation

Tackling the scandal of casualisation is an essential part of the current dispute, #UCUstrikesback. A thread took during the strikes – #PrecarityStory – that illustrated the horrors of short-term contracts, insecure employment and intensive exploitation. We reproduce here just five of the stories. As some of the authors themselves acknowledge, there are other stories that are likely to be far worse and that don’t have happy endings. The current pay and equalities dispute aims to force our employers to negotiate institutional action plans that include commitments, for example, to end the use of zero hours contracts and to transfer hourly-paid staff to permanent fractional contracts. Branches need to formulate their own demands and to consider what specific challenges they face in their own institutions. UCU published a report, Counting the costs of casualisation in Higher Education, in June 2019 and has pledged to defend members in some of the most egregious cases of precarity such as Dr Feyzi Ismail who has been employed continuously at SOAS since 2011 and has yet to secure a permanent contract (please add your name to the statement here). Casualisation weakens us all and is a stain on the HE sector.

The lived (and insecure) experience of the casualised academic

Thanks to Adam Harper, @RougesFoam

Action Short of a Strike (ASOS) information for UCU branches in dispute

Members taking part in strike action over pensions, pay and equalities are also engaged in action short of a strike (ASOS) that started on 25 November. This will be especially important now that we have returned to work and there is pressure to reschedule classes and to pick up additional responsibilities following the strike. Just take a look at what Liverpool University is threatening its staff with! We need to resist this pressure and to insist on no deductions for working to contract. However, many employers are still “reserving the right” to deduct for ASOS and branches need to defend members at risk of deductions for engaging in ASOS. We offer information below about what ASOS consists of and how we should respond to threats from the employers.

What is ASOS?

ASOS pay deductions and how to resist

#USSbriefs87 by Andrew Chitty, Felicity Callard and Leon Rocha

Has every employer threatened to deduct pay for engaging in ASOS?

No – Sheffield University, for example, have stated that “we will not deduct any pay from staff who participate in this type of action” (see screenshot below). We encourage all branches to apply pressure on those institutions who take a hard line on ASOS – for example through lobbies, petitions, liaising with external examiners and so on- and to call for urgent meetings with HR. A number of institutions have declared that they will not deduct pay for taking part in ASOS including Southampton, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Kent, Ulster and St Andrews. Others, including Goldsmiths, have said that “Staff will not have salary deducted for working to contract”.

via Sheffield UCU

Guidance on ASOS and how to respond to requests to take part in voluntary activities

Leicester UCU’s guidance on how to deal with ASOS queries and “how to respond (nicely!) to volunteer” is invaluable.

Guidance from Goldsmiths UCU and Ulster UCU are also useful.

This is a great thread from Vian Bakir of Bangor UCU on what ASOS involves.

ASOS for hourly-paid staff

Letter to Head of Department from a Graduate Teaching Assistant (via @hopehakes)

What’s the legal opinion on deducting pay for taking part in ASOS?

Read this post from legal academics on ‘deductions for action short of a strike’

Detailed information from UCU

UCU information on working to contract

What does ‘action short of a strike’ mean for academic-related and professional services staff?

#UCUStrikesBack: picket lines are go

Music for the picket line

GU Collective’s 30 songs for UCU picket lines on Spotify

Liverpool UCU strike playlist

Birmingham Law strike playlist

We are the University strike playlist (Grace Krause)

UCL -IOE UCU strike playlist

Rosa Campbell’s Strike songs playlist on Spotify 

Leah Chan’s playlist for 2019 UCU strikes on Spotify

10 best union songs of all time (thanks to CBC)

Protest in Harmony (Edinburgh UCU) songsheet

Information about local hardship funds

Exeter UCU

Goldsmiths UCU

Leeds UCU

Strathclyde UCU

Liverpool UCU

York UCU

Cambridge UCU

Stirling UCU

Heriot-Watt UCU

Bangor UCU

Open University UCU

Pay deductions

See Andrew Chitty’s Twitter thread about pay deductions. Effectively, as of 26 November, most universities are following UCEA guidance and deducting pay in a single month. Only City, Cambridge, Essex, Queen Mary and Royal Holloway have agreed to deductions spread over three months starting January 2020 (as far as we know). USS Briefs have compiled a dossier of communications from vice-chancellors which contains this information.

Goldsmiths UCU has issued some guidance to members in the light of its management’s refusal to spread deductions which contains some interesting proposals.

Picketing Excellence Framework

Thanks to Southampton UCU

Strike handbooks

This is how to picket

STRIKE 2019: Get the pickets out resources

BSN is hosting a collection of images, emails, suggestions, videos (when they’re made) and anything else to help branches prepare for the forthcoming strikes. Send your material to us at Here’s our first batch.

Strike Handbook for UCU activists

Stickers & memes


Guidance for members

What are the issues? Slides for students

UCU branch information for students

Warwick strike FAQs for students

Cambridge UCU 4 page strike explainer (PDF)

Cambridge UCU 4 page strike explainer EDITABLE (but please make a copy first)

Cambridge UCU 2 page support the strikes EDITABLE (but please make a copy first)

Leeds UCU strike explainer for students

Goldsmiths UCU letter to students

Warwick UCU Strike FAQs for students

Royal Holloway UCU information to share with students

Strike FAQs for Sussex students

Additionally, there are leaflets explaining the strikes to students in Chinese and Arabic – produced by Universities Resist Border Controls.

Teach outs

Sheffield UCU
Liverpool UCU
Lancaster UCU

Sussex teach out schedule

Leeds teach out schedule

Bath teach out article

Goldsmiths teach out schedule

Cardiff teach out schedule

Royal Holloway teach out schedule

Model branch announcements about the action

Brighton statement here

Royal Holloway statement here

Ulster statement here

Model out of office messages

Out of Office message from Brighton UCU

Guidance on picketing

Very detailed guidance on how to organise your picket lines by Jo McNeill, former president of Liverpool UCU

Information for non-EU staff

See lots more information here from UCU

How to respond to a manager asking if you plan to take strike action


Join the UCU strike (Clare Rowan)

Queens University Belfast video

Strike BU – a message to students (Bournemouth UCU)

Employers’ responses

A comprehensive set of responses from university has been assembled by USS Briefs and can be accessed at

Fourteen days, hold tight: reflections from Leeds on the 2018 USS strike

For many branches, we have two weeks in which to prepare for eight days of strike action; for other branches, it is a time to think of how best to show solidarity and to prepare for re-ballots. We thought that now would be a good time to learn some lessons from the 2018 USS strikes in terms of how best to involve members and students, organise teach-outs, and to think about what demands we need to place on management. We are therefore reproducing Lesley McGorrigan fantastic account of how Leeds UCU mobilised members across the fourteen days of strike action.

From now on, BSN will be publishing emails, letters, images, posters, and memes that can be tailored for individual branches ahead of the 2019/2020 action. Please send materials to

Mobilising members

A defining element of the USS dispute was that, from the outset, UCU branches operated like we were the winning side.  The union nationally was organising well and sending out the right messages and this gave us confidence.

In the run up to the strike our branch committee organised extra meetings and sent frequent member emails. These showed that the branch was making serious plans. The emails anticipated and responded to questions that people were asking.  We held general meetings where we reassured members that a hardship fund was being created; this meant we could reach out to those who were financially vulnerable and may otherwise have felt excluded.  We gained agreement from the branch to spend our local funds – that rainy day had arrived (it snowed too!).  We bought a pink gazebo for our picket muster point, we hired a van for the fourteen days, we bought a new PA system.    It was evident that UCU was taking this dispute seriously and our members responded in kind.  This led to the most exhilarating fourteen days of union solidarity we have experienced.

As soon as the strike started, it was clear from the social media reports and images that we were part of something massive with the potential to win.

At Leeds, we’d had a dry run back in October when we went on strike over changes to University Statutes.  The press had already witnessed that we could organise well and, on the first USS strike day, Channel 4 News and BBC Look North sent their camera crews to the Leeds picket lines.  Our branch President, Vicky Blake, had a comment piece in the Guardian and featured on the Today programme as members were waking up and getting dressed to join day one on the picket lines.  The more exposure we received, the more our members wanted to be part of the action.  New faces joined the picket lines every day during the fourteen day period.

We have an incredible diversity of talent on our local committee; our branch president harnessed this to the full with her own skill, dedication and drive. Our endeavours became infectious, we re-wrote and dubbed the lyrics to the Spice Girls, creating the infamous ‘Strike up Your Life’ video which we sang on a massive rally at the front of the University.  The next day, members turned up with their own dubbed song lyrics and branches up and down the country began creating their own picket line anthems.

Taking action, day after day, was in itself a mobiliser.  The dominos began to fall: On day two Sheffield University reversed its punitive pay docking policy for lectures cancelled due to the strikes.  A twitter campaign amongst alumni had forced their management to cave in.  St Andrews was next, then Keele.  Loughborough management and several others agreed to spread pay deductions for the strikes over 3-4 months. Some VCs were clearly breaking rank and sympathising with staff, chatting with them on picket lines. Two Cambridge Colleges spoke up to say that the view from Cambridge submitted on their behalf to the USS consultation did not represent them ie the consultation process was being exposed as a sham. A Congregation meeting of over 400 staff outside Oxford University forced Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, to urge Oxford Senate to reverse its position on the USS valuation.

After saying they were imposing the defined contribution scheme on us, UUK now agreed to talks with UCU.  We were winning.  We knew it was up to us to ensure that those inside the talks knew we were not backing off – we had everything to win.  

We stood, sang, danced and ‘taught out’ on picket lines for fourteen days in defence of our pensions. But it was apparent very early on that this strike had created an outlet for so much more.  It brought members together in ways that allowed them to express their feelings of anger, frustration and disdain towards the effects of marketisation on their jobs, lives, students and the sector as a whole. This was evident from the sardonic messages on home-made placards that members brought along, from the magnificent flourishing of song, poetry and verse that we witnessed and through the ubiquitous social media.  Not only had the balance of forces in the dispute shifted, members themselves were changing.  People talked of the confidence they had gained, how colleagues became real friends on the picket lines through fourteen days together; instead of isolated in the office.  Members had found new ways of expressing themselves; new ways to be heard and be listened to. 

Members mobilising themselves

The confidence that members’ had gained through their action was apparent when an ACAS brokered ‘deal’ was announced ten days into the strike on 12 March.  The deal was progress but nowhere near what we were prepared to accept.  

A meeting at UCU HQ witnessed every delegate call for the Higher Education Committee (HEC) to reject the offer. Branches had hastily convened mass meetings from their picket lines on unprecedented scale to debate and dictate how their delegates should respond and their decisions were transmitted into the meeting via social media.  It was clear the deal was dead in the water, that the membership had forced their will when the Chair said:  ‘In recognition of the emerging mandate…’.

The Higher Education Committee met immediately after that meeting and the deal was withdrawn without a vote.  Members had lobbied the HEC  outside of the meeting and via email; it was the most democratic decision making I have experienced in my six years on the HEC.  

The General Secretary subsequently angered many members when she repeatedly emailed them with a steer to vote yes to a second proposal from the employers, despite the union not agreeing a ‘yes’ recommendation.  In the absence of the heightened engagement through strikes and picket line democracy, members felt less confident to overturn the GS this time round and voted for the deal.  We will need to work hard to turn the massive progress into a full and concrete victory. 

The post-strike machinations of many on the HEC are a grave worry.  Apparently oblivious to the transformation in our union, they are carrying on with business as usual.  However, there are layers of newly engaged members with awakened confidence who are seeking to hold the GS and UCU leadership to democratic account.  Congress 2018 needs to be a forum to push for the democracy, transparency and accountability that we desperately need.

Worker/Student unity

Our students played an amazing role.  The dynamism of this strike struck a chord with many, themselves facing debt for exorbitant fees and little prospects of jobs with salaries to pay them off.

In many ways the management at Leeds helped build worker/student unity.  They had nothing original to say during the whole dispute. Their anodyne announcements to staff and students appeared bland and boring in the face of the creative space that became our picket lines.  Many students were drawn to the open, democratic and inclusive agenda thrown up by our strike, the picket lines, the teach outs and our social media.  They brought us snacks, made banners and placards, stood with us in solidarity, leafleted and led our marches into town.  

It felt like, not only our students, but the whole Leeds community was behind us.  Workers from Unison, Unite and the NEU invited us to speak at their meetings and collected donations for our hardship fund.  The Unison branch at our University provided a strikers breakfast to round off the final strike day.  

At each post-picket rally dozens of cars, vans and lorries drove past, beeping their horns in solidarity. They probably didn’t all know what we were fighting for but they knew we were workers because we had placards, banners and picket armbands and they knew we were fighting back against our employers.  We looked numerous, strong, energised and happy. Moreover, they were witnessing the vibe that we could win and they wanted to be on our side.

Lessons from the USS Teach-Outs

Our afternoon teach outs kept people connected after the unity of the morning picketing sessions. At Leeds we’d had experience of organising successful teach outs in our recent local strike over changes to university Statutes.  The sessions were both edifying and liberating; we got to know what our colleagues and students were genuinely interested in, their ideas and passions, unfettered by the strictures of the lecture theatre, standardised learning outcomes or the lens of lecture capture.  A student captured the dynamics: ‘Can’t we do this more often; I’ve never felt so close to my lecturers, normally you are up there and we are down here but today we’ve all been so much closer’.

The strike threw up anger at the inequalities of VC pay, the gender pay gap, that University buildings are mostly named after men. The energy and imagination from the picket lines and rallies spilled out into the teach-out spaces.  We wanted to talk about everything, we wanted to take on everything that was rotten about the neoliberal university and the world beyond.  The USS debacle had highlighted that, for management, staff and our pensions are their liabilities whilst iconic buildings are their assets. But this powerful strike had confirmed that ‘We are the University’.  

Alaric from Leeds UCU organised our Teach Outs.  He outlined reasons doing them:They show students that their teachers aren’t just putting their feet up. We care about students’ education and are willing to educate unpaid — just not to do the kind of educating we’re normally paid for. We only go on strike when bad things are happening, but promoting the teach-out allows us to focus conversations on a positive activity. Attending allows students (and anyone else!) to show support for the strike. The teach-outs also give members a communal, productive activity to do on strike days that builds ideas, capacity, and community — and reminds us what higher education is really all about. Not all members are willing or able to be involved in picketing, but are happy to participate in teach-outs, broadening the possibilities for activism on a strike day.And luckily, organising teach-outs is very easy! Almost everyone in UCU organises conferences, open days, meetings and talks professionally. Moreover, it’s in the nature of teach-outs that they’re ad hoc, a bit improvised, even carnivalesque. So basically, it’s about doing what we’re good at, yet no-one minds if it goes wrong!Alaric’s guide for organising a teach out is here: . We shared this with other branches via the national UCU activist list and encouraged them to put on teach outs; they did and they flourished. 

Lesley McGorrigan, Leeds University UCU Campaigns Officer and NEC. Reproduced with her permission; originally featured in UCU Left’s Another Education is Possible magazine, 2018