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The importance of joining the UCU: Brighton University's experience

Members of the UCU at the University of Brighton have successfully fought off an attempt by their management to achieve the de facto derecognition of the union.

The University had unilaterally cancelled part of the promotions procedure, breaching an agreement with the UCU, demoted a group of part-time lecturers to the grade of demonstrator, again without approaching the union, and issued redundancy notices to three lecturers despite having failed to implement a recently signed workload allocation agreement.

When the UCU tried to address these issues through the University's disputes procedure, the Vice Chancellor refused to acknowledge the dispute, stating that 'the University does not require the agreement of the UCU in respect of these issues'.

UCU members voted by more than three to one in favour of industrial action in response to this clear attempt to marginalise the union and manage the institution by imposition rather than by agreement. In response to members' doubts about the effectiveness of one-day strikes, a campaign of escalating strike action, beginning with a two-day strike was drawn up. The union also instituted a work-to-contract to enhance the effectiveness of strikes by preventing members from catching up on lost work between strike days.

The industrial campaign underwent a hiccup caused by the new trade union law coming into effect during our ballot. We were forced to reschedule our initial two-day strike planned for last term and squeeze in a half-day strike on the last day of term in order to keep our ballot live. Members responded magnificently by walking out publicly at lunchtime to protect the legality of the ballot and prepare for serious action in the summer term.

New strikes were scheduled, but the prospect of escalating action throughout this term, combined with the threat of lower recruitment due to reputational damage caused by bad publicity, forced the University to the negotiating table before they began. Crucial to securing management's retreat in the talks was the fact that they received notification of a three-day strike before we had taken our first two-day strike. It became clear to them exactly what we meant by escalating action. When management asked us if it had been necessary to schedule more than one strike at a time, we were able to say that we had no choice - it was forced on us by the new law's doubling of the notice period to 14 days!

In the end, management backed down before any further strike action was necessary. The agreement which resulted, endorsed overwhelmingly by members, represents an unequivocal victory for the UCU. The University was forced to reinstate the promotions procedure and promise that no changes can take place without UCU agreement. It agreed to an independent review of the demotions and made a statement clarifying and limiting the role of demonstrators which protects lecturers from being replaced by staff on lower grades. Crucially, the University conceded that no area of staff terms and conditions was off limits for union negotiation and agreement, and committed itself to abiding by the disputes procedure in future.

This successful outcome was achieved by UCU members' determination to fight to defend their colleagues and their union, and is a clear vindication of the strategy of escalating strikes adopted by the committee. The University has suffered a serious setback in its attempts to erode the terms and conditions of academic staff and in its stated aim of reducing its wage bill. There will undoubtedly be more battles to fight in the future, but Brighton UCU is better placed to face them as a result of this victory.

Mark Abel
Chair, UCU Coordinating Committee
University of Brighton