PIC: Wiki | Creative Commons

The decision to hold industrial action over planned changes to staff pension schemes by the University and College Union (UCU) has been met with threats by the Ulster University management, who are claiming they will be ‘under no obligation’ to pay participants for any work done during the marking strikes, currently planned for 6 November.

The action – which will impact upon student coursework and formal marking – was decided after 78% of those voting in a supported strike action over proposed changes to staff pensions.

In what the UCU have labelled an ‘anti-union’ and ‘intimidating’ response, University of Ulster management sent an email to staff containing the following paragraphs:

“Where an individual member of staff chooses to take this action, the breach of contract will lead the University to withhold 100% of pay, at a daily rate of 1/365th of annual salary from the date on which you begin to participate in industrial action short of a strike.”

“If you take part in action short of a strike in the form of a marking and assessment boycott but perform the rest of your duties as normal, this would be at your discretion and the University will be under no obligation to pay you at all for any work done during the period in which you participate in this industrial action. Those services you provide during the period, whether in the University, at home, or elsewhere, will be voluntary on your part and will not be paid.”

Previously, after failed negotiations between the union and employment reps, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt was that “employers failed to convince us of the need for their dramatic changes or the reasons behind the methodology for its deficit reduction plan. Their proposals remain full of holes and the information they are apparently relying on to back them up keeps being exposed as misleading.”

The Northern Ireland draft budget 2015/16 was recently published and is currently in an 8 week public consultation stage, ending 29 December. The plans outline heavy cuts for a number of government departments including the Department of Education and Learning (DEL) which currently faces a reduction of over 10% of its resource budget.

You can read more on UCU Ulster .

UPDATED (5th November)
Full email will be transcribed below:

SECTOR PENSIONS DISPUTE AND INDUSTRIAL ACTION

UCU has notified the University that it is asking its members to take industrial action short of a strike across the 66 HE institutions that offer USS pension.   UCU has further notified the University that their intention is for there to be continuous action short of a strike in the form of a marking and assessment boycott commencing on 6 November 2014.  I am now writing to communicate the University’s position with regard to the breaches of contract that would arise where individual staff take part in UCU’s industrial action in the form of a marking and assessment boycott from the 6thNovember 2014 onwards. 

UCU membership at Ulster is 39% of the relevant staff categories and therefore this communication is not relevant for the majority of academic and academic related staff.  However, UCU has not provided the names of its membership at Ulster and regrettably we have to write to all relevant staff (academic and academic related) in the terms laid out below.

The Issue – Potential Changes to the USS Pension Scheme

This particular action is being called by UCU in response to the employers’ proposals for changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).  The University hopes that all members of USS understand that future benefit changes are unavoidable, both to address the substantial deficit in the scheme and to mitigate the risk that contribution rates will become unaffordable for both employees and employers.  The Vice Chancellor, in previous communications, has sought to keep all staff appraised of the employers’ proposals for reform of USS and why reform is necessary.  The USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), a Committee of which the UCU has equal membership, will determine the benefit changes to be made.  Given that the employers’ initial proposals were only discussed at the first meeting of the JNC held on 22 October 2014 and future meetings of the JNC have been scheduled in November 2014 and January 2015 to provide further opportunity for UCU to discuss the implications of the employers proposals and for any counter proposals to be tabled, the University believes that the actions of UCU in inducing its members to undertake industrial action at this stage to be unhelpful and premature and counter to the interests of all staff and students.  It might also suggest that UCU does not have confidence in any alternative proposals that would meet the requirements of the Pension Regulator.

Unfortunately one indisputable fact is that USS has a significant deficit and no amount of industrial action can remove that deficit or change the current risks to the future viability of the scheme.  The task of all the parties involved in the negotiations at the JNC will be to ensure that necessary reforms to the benefit structure are agreed while delivering an alternative affordable and sustainable scheme for future and current employees and for employers. 

The University’s Position in Relation to Industrial Action

In accordance with the legislation relating to the conduct of ballots for industrial action, UCU members were advised on their ballot papers that taking industrial action might constitute a breach of their contract of employment. I am writing to confirm that the action being called by UCU would indeed involve a breach of an individual’s contract and it is the policy of the University to withhold pay of staff who participate in both strike action and action short of a strike that also constitutes a breach.  The University will not accept the partial performance of the contract of any member of staff.  This means that if you were to decide to take part in strike action or the currently notified continuous action short of a strike by refusing to carry out duties associated with a marking and assessment boycott and did not fulfil all the requirements of your contract, you would consequently not be entitled to your contractual pay from the date when you started to participate in the action.  

The University regards this action called by UCU as going to the heart of the contract of employment for academic staff involved in student learning and teaching and that it would therefore affect the fundamental duties of such academic staff.  Student feedback on their learning is crucial to their learning experience and fundamental to the role of the institution and its academic staff. 

The University judges this UCU action as having an immediate and very serious adverse effect on our students who are innocent parties in this.  Where an individual member of staff chooses to take this action, the breach of contract will lead the University to withhold 100% of pay, at a daily rate of 1/365th of annual salary from the date on which you begin to participate in industrial action short of a strike.

If you take part in action short of a strike in the form of a marking and assessment boycott but perform the rest of your duties as normal, this would be at your discretion and the University will be under no obligation to pay you at all for any work done during the period in which you participate in this industrial action.  Those services you provide during the period, whether in the University, at home, or elsewhere, will be voluntary on your part and will not be paid. 

Individuals choosing to take part in this action should also note that the University reserves the right to join an individual member of staff as a party to any claims for damages made against the institution that have arisen as a result of the non-performance of their duties, as a result of which that member of staff may be personally liable for any damages awarded in those claims. 

A pro-forma is attached which we ask each staff member who chooses to take part in the action to complete and return to the Human Resources Department, indicating the date from which you will be refusing to carry out your duties associated with marking and assessment.

Please note that although the pay to be withheld for participation in the action short of a strike may relate to one or more particular month’s payroll run, it may not be possible to administer adjustments to pay by the payroll cut-off point for that month and therefore the proportion of pay withheld may fall into the subsequent month.

If you are a member of a pension scheme, UCU can advise you on the implications for your pension cover if you decide to take part in the industrial action.  The University is not obliged to make employer contributions to pension during industrial action when full pay is not being paid.  The University will provide more information in relation to this presently. 

The University very much hopes that you will decide not to take part in the industrial action, and that it will not be necessary to implement the above policy on pay in your case. 

If you do choose to take part in the action being called by UCU and, at a later stage, you decide to change your position regarding your involvement in the industrial action and resume working normally, you should notify your Head of School/Department immediately in writing.  Your salary will then be reinstated to your normal contractual salary from the date on which you return to normal working.  Pay withheld will not be reinstated.   

I appreciate that most of you are not members of UCU and many others will not wish to participate in this action and I deeply regret having to write to staff who would not intend to take part in the action.  However, the proposed action by UCU requires us to ensure that we have fully communicated the University’s position to all staff, and we hope that you will understand why it is necessary. 

Yours sincerely,

(Names redacted) 

Jason Murdock | |