Why are we in dispute with the university?
Warwick UCU and The University of Warwick are in dispute because the University is failing to protect the health and safety of all staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. Warwick UCU members have repeatedly made clear that they do not feel safe carrying out face to face teaching, or working onsite, because of Covid-19 infection rates in the community and the unsafe numbers of staff and students on campus. Members have told us they are being required to work on campus rather than deliver their work online, despite:
- Having clinically vulnerable household members who are being put at additional risk
- Having to travel on public transport and be exposed to additional risk
- Experiencing unsafe situations on campus in corridors, classroom and other spaces, e.g. crowding, lack of adequate ventilation, lack of cleaning and cleaning supplies
- Unsuitable pedagogical conditions: extremely cold rooms due to open windows, difficulties hearing and communicating because of masks and room layout, anxiety of staff and students
Nobody should be required to choose between their work and their health, or that of their family. We are particularly concerned that casualised colleagues, with the least power to negotiate, are disproportionately bearing the burden of face to face teaching.
We have been raising these issues with management since June. They have failed to respond to numerous requests to reconsider their approach.
In October our All-Member Emergency Meeting had the highest attendance rate the branch has ever seen. Members voted overwhelmingly in favour of balloting for industrial action if the university management continued to refuse to move all but practical and lab-based classes online during the pandemic.
What evidence do we have that members feel unsafe and anxious?
This is clear from emails and other communications between members and departmental representatives and executive members, and from various communications between members and the central University. It is also clear from our All-Member Emergency Meeting.
From a survey conducted by the branch, but open to all University employees, in September 2020, 85% of members stated that the Covid-19 crisis had led to increased anxiety levels and pressures in their workplace. We know this in part relates to excessive workload, exacerbated by the blended learning model’s multiplication of preparation, student support and technical work. Our demands include better representation of staff in decisions about learning models, to avoid this in future.
What is happening for casualised members of staff?
The consequences of the University’s position in terms of workload, stress, mental health, and exposure to the virus have been hard for all members of staff, but have been significantly worse for colleagues in precarious positions (GTA, STP, VAM, fixed-term contracts).
- Many have little information and no voice in decision-making processes (e.g. not even aware of the risk assessments for their departments or the room they teach in)
- They bear the larger burden of f2f teaching, even in departments that have tried to distribute this fairly, because they predominantly teach large first year modules.
- In departments where there has been relatively more flexibility allowed, casualised colleagues are less likely to be aware or feel able to raise concerns and negotiate to teach online. In some departments, people have been forced to either teach face to face or not teach at all (and lose their contract).
- Colleagues on STP do not even have sick pay, they will not get paid if they contract COVID-19
- Casualised colleagues have been the first to be thrown under the bus by the university in the face of the pandemics, with the slashing of the sessional teaching budget. As a result, many PhD students or recent graduates don’t have the opportunity to teach or have less hours than they would have expected (and a lower income). These cuts have effectively led to job losses for casualised staff, and unbearably increased workloads of other colleagues.
How does the dispute help members of professional services staff?
Fewer people on campus makes campus safer from everyone. Workloads of professional services staff increased to facilitate the frequent shifts from face to face to online. More certainty would mean a more manageable workload for everyone.
What about teaching that can’t be done online?
UCU’s position is that all teaching except for that which cannot be done online (e.g. labs) should be moved online.
What support is there for Warwick UCU’s position?
In addition to the concerns we have received from members, UCU National has also called for all but essential teaching to be moved online for the duration of the pandemic. The call for universities to move online is supported by both Independent SAGE and SAGE. Notably in September, the Government ignored the advice they received from SAGE. UCU National has also initiated a legal action against the government for ignoring the advice from SAGE. We also have the support of the National Union of Students.
What would industrial action involve?
Industrial action would combine two types of action: strike, and ‘Action Short of Strike’ (ASOS). Specific guidance will be issued before we start any action. ASOS would primarily consist in moving your teaching online, and/or working to (notional) contracted hours. Strike action would mean not performing any work activities. We will not have physical pickets due to the pandemic, but we will organise virtual pickets. If we call for strike, we will do so strategically.
Why should I vote yes to strike and action short of a strike?
Many of our members have been struggling over the past few months, particularly our casualised colleagues. A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for solidarity with them.
The only reason the university is now discussing our concerns with us is because we entered into a formal dispute. While we will only take industrial action if it becomes necessary, we need to show the university that we are prepared to do so in order for them to take us seriously, so that we can effectively negotiate a resolution.
Why are we balloting for industrial action now, haven’t the negotiations just started?
We have had one Dispute Resolution meeting with the University and another is scheduled for November 26th. We took the decision to open the ballot before the second meeting for two reasons:
- We have a mandate to ballot from the membership that we are obliged to act on. In particular, the All Member Meeting acknowledged that while we would not be able to ballot in time to take action in Term 1, it would be essential to ensure we are prepared to take action at the start of Term 2 if need be. It is recommended by UCU that the ballot remain open for four weeks, and we are required by law to give the University two clear weeks notice of any planned industrial action. So as to be prepared for this and to not have the ballot open over the Christmas holiday, we had to open the ballot as early as possible.
- The University has had many months to consider and respond to UCU’s concerns, and they have not done so. Initiating the ballot demonstrates that we are serious.
But the University says that campus is as COVID-secure as possible, and there have been no documented cases arising from teaching?
Campus cannot ever be fully COVID-secure; nowhere can be. Moreover, many of our students have contracted COVID-19 on campus, despite the measures in place. We are also aware that the Residential Life Team has been affected. These cases, and the knock on effects on our local community, are unnecessary. In addition, our members’ concerns are not just about campus but long commutes on public transport.
We are also concerned about the increased workloads that have arisen as a consequence of the blended model.
But my department has been very understanding and ensured that colleagues with serious well-being concerns relating to working on campus have been able to work online/at home?
The university’s stated policy is that only those that are extremely clinically vulnerable are exempt from teaching face to face. However, in practice, some departments have exercised more discretion than others and have taken a more flexible approach. It is important to recognise that even if your experience has been relatively positive, we have many colleagues who are teaching face to face when they would strongly prefer not to, and to use your vote to show your solidarity with them.
There is no guarantee that flexibility and exceptions granted to/within departments in Term 1 would continue into Term 2.
What about those staff members who prefer face-to-face teaching or who want to work in their offices?
Most of us would prefer to teach face to face, and we are eager to return to the classroom when the public health situation improves. In the meantime, our main concern is that no one should have to teach face to face during a pandemic if they feel uncomfortable doing so, for any reason.
Furthermore, we believe there should be more support for online teaching in order to make it an accessible and rewarding experience for students and staff in otherwise difficult circumstances.
What about student wellbeing? Students, especially first years, deserve some face-to-face teaching?
We know members are extremely concerned about the wellbeing of our students. We appreciate arguments about the need for face-to-face teaching, particularly for students who were affected by the A-level fiasco earlier this year, or by industrial action in previous years, but we believe the uncertainty of trying to provide f2f to students is only exacerbating the problem. While a fully online programme comes with many challenges, we believe that frequent periods of self-isolation and lockdowns, flipping with little notice from f2f to online, and large numbers of students in many online seminars, is not good for students’ well-being either.
The NUS supports UCU’s demands for all but essential teaching to be online during the pandemic. Management decisions to choose a ‘blended model’ and require students to be on campus are what have put students’ mental and physical health at risk – not staff demands for safety in the workplace.
We understand and empathise with students who would prefer f2f teaching, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the physical and mental health of staff members, vulnerable students, or the local community.
What about the vote the Students Union took?
You may be aware that Warwick Student Union voted against a motion “Warwick SU Supports UCU’s Call for Online Teaching.”
We are of course disappointed in this result, but we want to reiterate that UCU has called for teaching to be online in the interests of health and safety, and with the support of NUS.
We are not surprised that students feel this way, and we sympathise. The vast majority of us would prefer to be back in the classroom, too. However, we can’t vote away the pandemic, and we do not believe that any students or staff should be required to take risks with their health by attending campus against their will in the context of a global pandemic. Lockdowns, social distancing, wearing masks – all of these measures are taken not because we want them, but because we have to take them in order to control the spread of the virus.
Moreover, the face to face teaching we are currently able to provide not only presents significant difficulties for effective pedagogy, but it has also needlessly led to hundreds of positive cases amongst our students.
We would fully support increased face to face teaching if the public health situation improved considerably, but that’s not where we are right now. We believe the university should have invested in, and planned earlier for, excellent online provision to see us through the pandemic.
How is this strike action any different from last year, or the year before?
We would stress that this is a local action, so the pressure is much more immediate and the negotiations are being conducted on a local level. Given this, our chances of success are much higher.
The Four Fights dispute is still ongoing, but strike action did force UCEA to negotiate on issues they had never accepted to discuss before, and we put issues of precarity, pay gap, and workload front and centre. The current pandemic highlights how deep these problems are.
The offer made by UCEA was disappointing and we have learned lessons from these strikes. The current dispute has clear and achievable demands, which mean the university can promptly resolve it if they choose to.