Industrial Action 2021 – FAQs

UCU members at Cambridge will be joining colleagues across the country in taking strike action for three days this term, from Wednesday 1st to Friday 3rd December. We’ve put together some questions and answers about the forthcoming strikes, with a special focus on the situation here in Cambridge. This page will be regularly updated over the next few weeks, but if you have a question that isn’t answered here, let us know at admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk

You can also check out the FAQs prepared by UCU nationally: on the practicalities of the disputes here; on USS here; and on the Four Fights here.

1. What does striking involve?

A strike is when we withdraw our labour and refuse to work for a given period. It is the last resort for a union, once every other avenue of influence has been exhausted. Going on strike means not doing any work for the University for the entirety of the strike period (1st to 3rd December 2021). We urge everyone not to enter university premises, and to join the picket lines outside them instead.

2. Why are we taking strike action?

UCU members have voted for strike action on two separate but related issues, USS Pensions and the Four Fights. On USS, employers are threatening to push through a series of devastating cuts, which could see 25% or more of our pension savings wiped out. At the same time, they want lower-paid staff to put up with a reduced level of benefits in the future. All this is on the basis of a valuation of the scheme which even employers have admitted is ludicrously flawed. You can find out more about the specific issues here – and you can see how much you personally stand to lose with our pension calculator here.

The Four Fights dispute centres on four interrelated trends causing havoc in the university sector: falling pay, rising casualisation, increasing workloads and increasing inequality. Over the past ten years, pay in the university sector has fallen by over 20% in real terms (you can check out how much you’ve lost by clicking here). At the same time, workloads have been going up, as has the number of workers employed on insecure or zero-hours contracts. The effects of those trends are unevenly distributed across university staff, and fall hardest on those at the bottom – and disproportionately on female, BME and disabled staff. The average gender pay gap across the sector is 15.1%, while here in Cambridge it’s over 20%; meanwhile, nationally, Black staff earn 17% less than their white counterparts.

Our pension scheme is in good health – as are university finances. Yet we’re being strong-armed into accepting another real-terms pay cut, on top of the swingeing cuts to our pensions. By slashing our pay and pensions, employers are putting the future of UK universities at risk: this isn’t just unfair, it’s unsustainable, and we can’t carry on.

3. What have members voted for?

On both issues – USS and the Four Fights – members have voted for both strike action and action short of strike (ASOS). Turnout for both ballots stood at around 52% at Cambridge. Among those who voted, an overwhelming majority support taking strike action and action short of strike. Voting to strike is never an easy decision, taken only as a last resort when other approaches have been exhausted. But these figures show the level of concern and frustration among university staff. That’s why we are asking our members to observe the strike and ASOS. Not doing so undermines the union’s bargaining power, both locally and nationally.

4. Why are we striking again?

We’ve been here before: in 2019/20, staff took action over pensions and pay, and in 2018 fought off devastating pension cuts with an unprecedented series of strikes. Despite this, employers haven’t accepted that they need to address the underlying problems that are making university life unsustainable. On the Four Fights, they used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to halt, or even reverse, any progress they’d agreed to make: pay was frozen last year, while pay gaps went up. On USS, employers accept our critique of the latest valuation in principle, but they won’t do anything about it. 

Strike action is always tough, this year more than ever, and it’s always a last resort. But in the past, it’s proved the only way to get employers to listen. In 2018, they wanted to eradicate our defined benefit pensions entirely, based on an equally flawed valuation. Time and again, we showed them the evidence for why that valuation was flawed, but they didn’t budge; only after staff across the country went on strike did they start paying attention. If we hadn’t gone on strike then, we wouldn’t have any pensions left to defend. If we don’t go on strike now, we risk losing everything we’ve fought so hard to achieve so far.

5. Why now?

Because time is running out, especially on USS pensions. The cuts that employers are ramming through will come in from April 2022, with changes being baked in essentially from next February. In our negotiations over the summer, we’ve been trying desperately to come up with a more acceptable solution, but employers haven’t been negotiating in good faith. There’s still time to find a way out of this, if they come back to the table; but they’re hoping they can wait it out until it’s too late.

6. What is UCU asking for?

On pensions, our demand for employers is simple: take these cuts off the table, and negotiate a better solution to a valuation we all know is worthless. We’re also calling for USS to undertake a new valuation as soon as possible.

On the Four Fights, UCU is demanding:

  • A pay rise of £2,500 on all pay points;
  • A sector-wide plan to eliminate precarious contracts;
  • A binding, time-specific national framework for bringing down workloads and pay gaps.

7. I am not a member of UCU, if I join can I then take part in the action?

If you are a university staff member – including CUPA and other departments – then yes! If you join UCU you will be able to participate in the action with the protection of the union as soon as you are signed up. While non-members have the legal right to participate in strike action, our strong recommendation is that you join UCU so you have the protection of a trade union before you go on strike.

8. What does action short of a strike entail?

Beginning on 1st December, and continuing until May 2022, we will also be taking Action Short of Strike (ASOS). What this entails may change over that time. For the moment, however, you should:

  • Work to contract: stick to the terms of your employment contract (hours minus strike days, breaks, workload and so on). Check your offer letter, statement of terms and conditions, or staff handbook;
  • Not cover for colleagues unless required by your contract;
  • Not carry out voluntary or discretionary activities: if you have a choice, choose not to do it!

At the moment, Action Short of Strike does not involve refusing to reschedule teaching or other activities that were cancelled due to strike action. Therefore, if your manager asks you to reschedule your work, you should explain that rescheduling will mean working beyond your normal working hours, or postponing/cancelling other duties. If your manager will not allow you to postpone or cancel other duties, ask them to confirm in writing that they are requesting you to work beyond your normal hours, and by how much.

For more information, see here. In all cases, tell your employers why you’re doing what you’re doing. And if challenged by management, suspend your particular action and let us know immediately: we’ll get advice from our regional office on your behalf.

9. Are supervisions – or other college duties – affected by the strike?

Our dispute is with the university, not the colleges. Teaching and other duties organised within and between colleges – generally those arranged by a Director of Studies, or connected to a college office such as Tutor – are thus unaffected. If you are paid for the work by the University (either on top of or as part of your normal wage), regardless of whether the College refunds the cost to the University, then it is covered by the strike action. But any work that is paid directly to you by the College will not be covered by strike action, even if the University is responsible for organising the sessions. 

Although college teaching does not fall under the remit of the strike, we do ask, in these cases, that – as far as possible – you:

  • Reschedule supervisions to non-strike days, explaining the reason to your students;
  • Relocate supervisions away from university premises – for instance, by using teaching rooms in colleges. Entering University buildings would count as crossing the UCU pickets.

These measures will increase the impact of the strike without undermining the performance of college duties.

The University is claiming that all supervisions are exempt from the strike, but UCU is acting on its own legal advice. Members should not bow to pressure to break the strike. We realise, though, that these distinctions are complex and often unclear. So if you’re unsure about a particular case, contact us at admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk, and we’ll do our best to answer.

10. Why can’t we strike against the colleges too?

Ideally, going on strike would mean withdrawing all our labour. However, the tangled relationship of University and Colleges in Cambridge makes this difficult for various reasons. First of all, it would mean balloting each college as an individual employer, as well as the University: in effect, running 32 separate ballots at once. That risks making it harder to reach the restrictive 50% threshold mandated by trade union law. Secondly, according to advice we’ve received from the national union, it would open the results to legal challenge. Our information about which colleges people do work for just isn’t secure enough at the moment to run college ballots. Finally, self-employed staff – who constitute a large number of people working for the colleges – cannot be balloted for industrial action.

This is a disappointing situation, and rest assured we’re trying to remedy it. Our priority has to be building our numbers and improving our mapping in colleges, so that we’ve got the strength and the data to win a ballot campaign. If you’re a college employee, you can get involved by acting as a college rep or contact, or by joining the campaign for college supervisors we’re running, in an effort to get the colleges to listen to us. And of course, if you’re due to do any work for the University, you can and should refuse to do so during the strike period: you don’t have to have been balloted to take action against the University!

11. I’m a PhD student – can I strike?

Yes! You can cancel any paid work you do under contract for the university on the basis of the strike. Supervisions organised by colleges will not be affected, and for more information on this, see the advice above. But we’re also fighting for better conditions for college supervisors, and you’re welcome to join our Justice for College Supervisors campaign.

12. I’m on an hourly-paid contract – what should I do?

The situation of hourly-paid workers and other casualised staff are at the centre of these strikes. We encourage you not to work on strike days, and to join our campaign for casualised staff. We’ll be holding meetings and events to highlight the effects of casualisation during the strike, so keep an eye on our website for more details. If striking has the potential to leave you in financial difficulties, you can claim some money from our national and local strike funds – see the information below for how to claim.

13. Do I have to tell my employer that I’m going on strike?

No. Contrary to what some administrators and managers are saying, you have no legal or contractual requirement to let your department know you’ll be on strike. UCU recommends that you ignore all requests to notify your department in advance, or to return any paperwork declaring your intention to strike. However, if your manager asks you after the strike whether you took action, you should answer truthfully.

14. My employer is telling me I am required to reschedule my teaching if I take strike action – is that true?

At the moment, this is true, yes. While ASOS often involves refusing to reschedule teaching or other activities, the ASOS we’re taking at the moment does not, though this might change. So if requested to reschedule, you should explain to your manager that this will require you working beyond your usual hours or postponing/cancelling other duties. You should ask them whether they will allow you to postpone/cancel those other duties; and, if they say no, you should ask them to confirm in writing that they’re requiring you to work beyond your usual number of hours. This is so that they have to put it on record whenever they’re expecting staff to work more than a standard number of hours – which we anticipate they will be extremely reluctant to do.

15. Our students have put up with so much – why are we making them suffer more?

We know that nobody wants to disrupt their students’ education. And thanks to the pandemic, this year’s cohort of students have suffered more disruption than most already. After the upheavals of the last two years, we’d all much rather be teaching, lecturing, and supporting students in all the ways we usually do. But it’s not overstating things to say that the cuts we face to our pay and pensions pose an existential risk to higher education in this country. We’re going on strike so that we can go on doing what we do. So our action is in the interests of staff and students alike, to stop the university becoming a more unequal place to work and learn 

The last two years have been tough for us all, staff and students. One common strand of our experience is the way we’ve been misled and sacrificed by universities for the sake of profit. Across the country, staff were pushed back into unsafe working conditions, and students were lured into unsafe accommodation, for the same reason: because universities wanted the income. At the same time, employers have used the pandemic as an opportunity to push through these cuts. They’re banking on staff being too shattered by their inordinate workloads, and too sympathetic with the situation of students, to stand up for themselves. So it’s shameful that they’re now posing as the defenders of students – when they’re the ones using students as pawns in this dispute.

That’s why the National Union of Students supports our strike, as does the Cambridge SU, who are calling on students not to cross picket lines. Throughout the strike, we’ll be running a series of events to engage students in broader conversations about the modern university, and you can encourage your students to take part. You might also want to explain to students why you’re on strike, and discuss some practicalities that they might not know – for instance, the fact that going on strike means not getting paid.

16. Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action?

All effective industrial action may constitute a breach of your employment contract. But because UCU has acted throughout in accordance with trade union law, workers are entitled to certain legal protections. The law protects employees from dismissal whilst taking part in lawful industrial action, or at any time within twelve weeks of the start of the action; and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place after the strikes have ended. These sorts of reprisals have never happened in higher education.

17. How much money will I lose?

Cambridge will deduct 1/365th of your annual salary for each day you take part in strike action. In previous years, the university has phased its deductions to minimise the financial hardship on striking members, and paid those deductions into student hardship funds; we will be seeking the same commitments again this time. During action short of strike (ASOS), provided you stay within the limits of your contractual obligations, the university will have no legal basis for docking your pay.

18. Is there a strike fund?

Yes. The strike fund is there to make sure that all members can exercise their right to strike, including those who may face financial hardship as a result. We’re still waiting for details from national of how you can claim.

There is also a local Cambridge UCU strike fund, to further help members facing financial hardship. Information and an application form are available.

19. Will striking affect my pension?

No. Like most university employers, Cambridge will not withhold pension contributions from workers on strike. Full employer’s and employee’s contributions will be paid to USS as usual. This is worth remembering when you’re reckoning up the cost of striking.

20. What does the university do with the money withheld from striking staff?

Cambridge’s policy is that all deducted pay will go into a range of student support funds. This is a point worth emphasising to students.

21. I am on leave during strike days – can I still take part?

Yes you can. You might want to tell your employers after the action has ended, and claim back your leave if pay is deducted; or you might want to cancel your leave and take strike action instead. But you are under no obligation to notify the employer in advance, and we recommend that you don’t.

22. Do I answer work emails from home?

No, not on strike days. We suggest that you use the following automated reply for the entirety of the day:

I will not be responding to work-related emails between Wednesday 1st December and Friday 3rd December, because I will be on strike. The University and College Union is taking industrial action to defend pay and pensions for university staff, and to push back against the widening inequalities across higher education. You can find out more about the dispute at ucu.cam.ac.uk.

23. Can I go and do my own work in university buildings?

No – that also constitutes breaking the strike.

24. What if I’m giving a talk, or have other external commitments, on a strike day?

Since you are on strike, you should not be giving talks or seminars at the University. We would also ask you to remember that if you are engaged separately to give talks at other universities during the strike period, and if members at those universities are also on strike, then you should not be crossing union picket lines and so should cancel any engagements. A full list of participating universities can be found here.

25. If I work part-time, will I have a full 1/365th deducted from my pay per day of strike?

No – Cambridge calculates deductions on a pro-rata basis for part-time staff.

26. I’m a researcher fully funded by external bodies – should I go on strike?

You are an employee of Cambridge University, wherever your funding comes from. We are asking all colleagues, members or not, to take part in the strike. Anyone can join the union at any point before or during the strikes: just visit www.ucu.org.uk/join.

27. What can I do if I am:

  • A college employee? Because our dispute is with the university, not the colleges, college business continues as usual. This doesn’t mean that college employees aren’t affected by the issues at stake in these strikes. College employees belong to the same USS pension scheme; meanwhile, college pay is tied to the national pay scale, so an increase in national pay means an increase in college pay too. We therefore encourage college employees to reschedule supervisions for non-strike days, to avoid teaching in university buildings, and to come along to our pickets. 
  • A graduate student? Grad students are on the front line of casualisation in higher education – overworked, underpaid, and often working without contracts altogether. That’s why we’re encouraging all grad students to join the union and become part of our campaign. UCU membership is free for graduate students: click here to join. And to hear more about our Justice for College Supervisors campaign, click here.
  • An undergraduate student? There are many ways for undergraduate students to support staff members during the strikes. Keep an eye on the Cambridge SU website for more details, and look out for teach-outs that we’re holding in collaboration with students. These strikes are fighting to make things better for students and staff alike, and to secure a better and fairer university for us all.

28. Of course I’ll be on a picket line. What COVID-19 safety measures should I observe?

Please read our health and safety advice for picketing. We’ll see you there!