Newcastle University UCU branch threatens industrial action

Lucy Adams reports on the UCU branch's Extraordinary General Meeting

Lucy Adams
16th October 2020
The Newcastle University branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has declared a formal failure to agree with the University. The branch also passed a motion to potentially ballot for indefinite industrial action and indefinite action short of a strike.

The events took place at an Extraordinary General Metting (EGM) held on Wednesday, and were relayed via the UCU Twitter account. The meeting had the highest attendance of any Newcastle University UCU meeting so far, with almost 300 members present.

Both motions were passed with a high majority in favour.

The UCU branch said the formal failure to agree with the University came from Newcastle's “inadequate engagement with the union” over health and safety.

If a resolution is not reached by 5pm Monday members will ballot immediately and without delay

Consequently, the union set a deadline of 5pm on Monday 19 October for the University to address concerns. If the union do not receive a resolution on their health and safety concerns by 5pm, members will begin balloting for industrial action "immediately and without delay”.

To prevent potential industrial action, the union say the University must provide resolution over:

  • Failure to default to online for all learning - except where essential - for the remainder of the year or until the UCU’s five safety requirements are met
  • Failure to share data with the UCU relating to outbreaks and case numbers at the University in a timely manner
  • Failure to complete satisfactory risk assessments for all buildings where essential Present in Person (PiP) teaching will be carried out, and share it with UCU-appointed health and safety representatives
  • Failure to review the risk assessment for working at home
  • Failure to allow time off for UCU-nominated health and safety representatives to carry out health and safety duties

Newcastle UCU’s Vice Chair Matt Perry spoke to the Courier about unease amongst staff over returning to a PiP teaching model.

"Staff feel that they are being coerced onto campus"

Matt Perry, Vice Chair of the UCU

He explained that “[Members] are really genuinely frightened” and argued that this anxiety was reflected in the unprecedented number who attended the emergency meeting. He explained that many staff members are more vulnerable because of their age or concerned for vulnerable family members and yet “a number feel that they are being coerced onto campus.”

When the organisation requested risk assessments “lots of [them] arrived late” or arrived to staff within days of them being required to teach in the building.

“When we’re asked by our members ‘Is the campus safe?’ We’re not even in a position to say."

"The University is being extremely evasive about the rights that trade union health and safety reps have.”

He said that 'COVID-safe' and 'COVID-secure', which are repeatedly used to refer to campus, are “complacent phrases... the virus doesn’t respect that.”

With teaching yet to begin and the campus desolate, Perry said it is far more difficult to gauge students’ views on the UCU stance than it was with previous strikes. 

“I’d like to see UCU and the Students' Union organise some joint events so that we can put our case and find areas of common agreement that we can campaign over.”

The Vice Chair was confident that an equally valuable learning experience can be delivered remotely. He criticised 'blended' learning that was achieved through reducing seminar capacity, saying “You double up the teaching you have to do and then you have to cater for the people who can’t make it into the room."

"I think about my own teaching practice and what I can do on Zoom is so much more effective than a 'masked ball'.”

He added that there is “absolutely no question about the quality of the online resources that I provide."

“I find it professionally insulting [that the University considers them inferior].”

When asked about the likelihood of indefinite industrial action, he replied: “No one’s striking yet!" 

“There’s a timeframe in which the differences could easily be resolved. With lots of ballots for industrial action, the dispute gets resolved before any action takes place.”

Featured Image: Simarchy on Flickr

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