by Russell Caplan, LSBU UCU Branch Secretary
On 2 May 2018 the the Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University called officers of the joint unions (UCU, Unison and GMB) to a meeting informing them that the university needed to make savings of between £5-8 million in staffing costs across the university. We calculated that this would amount to large scale redundancies of well over a hundred jobs.
At this meeting, UCU enquired what the state of the university reserves were. We were told that they were around £43 million. UCU with the support of the other unions then challenged the VC in the spirit of meaningful consultation to put the plans for staff reductions on hold for a year in order to fully consider the situation and what was best for the university, both students and staff. Any budgetary shortfall could be met from the cash reserves. This would be less than what they needed to save because the courses they plan to close would continue with the resultant income from students attending these courses. The VC flatly rejected such a proposal.
Tactically it was important to establish how much the university held in reserve so that we could put management on the back foot with the unions assuming the moral high ground by proposing a reasonable interim alternative.
On the conclusion of this meeting the joint unions put together a joint statement for all members and staff that would immediately follow the VC’s communication to all staff informing them of the university plans the next day. The statement on the home page of our website attacked the plan for staffing cuts for the damage it will do to the university in terms of teaching quality, student choice and staff morale. We were able to occupy the moral high ground of being reasonable and interested in defending HE against greedy Vice Chancellors and their Executive teams.
While it is important to coordinate a joint union response, it becomes more problematic for a number of reasons that at LSBU hinges on the balance of membership forces and the nature of branch leadership. UCU is the biggest and most militant of the union branches and tends to take the lead but not always followed by the other unions. We called an emergency branch meeting on 4 May that was well attended where we unanimously passed two motions. The first was to declare an official dispute and oppose compulsory redundancies and resolve to ballot for industrial action should there be a threat of compulsory redundancies. The second was an emergency motion for the Higher Education Conference Sector at UCU National Congress calling for UCU solidarity and support from UCU region in our dispute and in preparing for a ballot in the event of compulsory redundancies.
It was a important to establish a sense among members that we are not fighting in isolation but that our struggle is connected to other branch struggles and that the union bureaucracy is available to support us. Here it is worth mentioning that in the statement referred to above we already sought to feed off the recent successes of other branches in resisting wholesale redundancies such as the Open University and Oxford University and in particular the USS strikes across the country. To this end we set up
The situation at LSBU began to take on a national profile. But the other unions were not mobilising with same sense of urgency. In order to try and get them to do so we would send them every bit of communication we were sending to our members and to management.
So far this is all good news (with the exception of the lack of urgency among the other unions). We have been doing all the right things. But from the time of UCU Congress up to now things have become stalled while management has been ploughing ahead with its plans. Here is where lessons can be learned. While we have now succeeded in opening a consultative ballot with the other unions doing the same, this may turn out to have been too late.
1. To some extent we lost control of joint negotiations. This coupled with the reluctance by the other unions to take a more militant stance led to a situation where we were persuaded to talk with management to see if we could get any concessions. The carrot was to open the ‘enhanced’ voluntary severance scheme to the entire university where it was originally to be targeted at those areas that needed to be cut. This we were persuaded would reduce compulsory redundancies. We also requested that the severance package be improved. At the moment it is described as enhanced because it lifts the statutory cap. Management agreed to open it up with some caveats about being able to refuse it if they felt they could not operate certain posts without the respective post holder. They also refused to improve the severance that would have made it more attractive for people to take up.
2. Having lost local control of negotiations, we lost control of the timing so crucial when management deliberately implements redundancies at a time they know is least propitious to union action.
3. Realising that we were being outmanoeuvred we sought to insert some urgency in to the process by calling another branch meeting and passing another motion calling on branch officers to begin a consultative ballot should management not provide assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies. We then conveyed this to our Regional Official and the other unions. Unison was at this point having its own branch meeting. The majority of officers were opposed to running such a ballot. Fortunately the members voted in favour.
4. At a joint union meeting of branch officers and Regional Officials we agreed that at the next meeting with management we will seek an assurance that there will be no compulsory redundancies failing which management will be informed that we will be moving to a consultative ballot.
5. While it is important to be seen to be reasonable and amenable to talk to management, talking on issues such as redundancies without some kind of leverage that the threat of a ballot, albeit only a consultative one, provides, is really a waste of time. Unless management knows that the unions have a credible threat that can do damage to the business of the university and its reputation, you are pissing in the wind.
6. Finally, we tried to speak to LSBU Student Union even though we anticipated the response. They think what is happening at LSBU is what is required to be competitive. The neo-liberal university is a force of nature to these student ‘leaders’. I write this not to write students off. They can be an important constituency in the fight. But we need to find student support elsewhere among the politically conscious and interested students if the student union does management’s bidding.
Talks with management are proceeding. There have been a couple of meetings these last two weeks. I am waiting to hear what transpired and how the ballot is playing out.
The biggest lesson to be learned is not to delay. The union needs to prepare as quickly as possible for action. Even if it does not take it. But to face management on the other side of the table with any sort of leverage, you have to have something to make them sit up and think.