Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) are striking in a local dispute, for six days from 25 November, in parallel with national strikes. UCU activist Camila Bassi spoke to Solidarity about the dispute.
Q: What’s the background to the local dispute at SHU? What are the issues, what are the workers’ demands?
A: Our dispute is over unpaid work and stress. Specifically, changes to our academic work planning and the restructuring of our professional services have led to an unprecedented intensification of workloads and a crisis point in academic staff health and wellbeing. SHU records reveal dramatic increases of referrals to occupational health and the usage of the university counselling service by academic staff — just one indicator of the problem. In talking to members, it is clear that our workplace conditions are unsustainable.
Our demands are concrete, we are asking for: 20% of our work plans allocated to general academic duties, bringing us up to the sector average; a doubling of the time currently allocated to us for academic advising — a university benchmark role and promise to students of 1:1 academic and pastoral support which they have thus far not adequately resourced; an increase in the time we have to mark assignments, from 10 minutes per 5 credits to 15 minutes; and finally, for the university to implement an academic work planning policy that is genuinely equitable and translatable to the hours that we actually work.
Our message to students is that our workplace conditions are your teaching and learning conditions. Our industrial struggle is to improve both.
Q: How does the dispute intersect with the national strikes?
A: Pre-92 universities were balloted over pay and pensions. Post-92 universities were balloted over pay. We are one of a handful of the post-92 HE sector on strike alongside the pre-92 universities. The issue that pushed a critical mass of the pre-92 HE sector on strike is the long-standing dispute over their pension scheme, USS, namely the effective robbery of their delayed salaries.
What pushed SHU UCU on strike in the national dispute is our local dispute on unpaid work and stress. There are four pillars to the national pay dispute: pay inequality, job insecurity, rising workloads, and pay deflation (an almost 20% real wage cut over a decade).
Q: How is the dispute being directed locally — via the branch, via a strike committee, or some other body?
A: Our local dispute is being directed by our well-attended branch meetings. This is our democratic mandate and sovereign body. Our branch committee of elected officers and reps currently forms our strike committee and runs the day-to-day of the dispute.
Q: Are there links with students? What about other unions on campus?
A: We have and continue to make efforts to engage with the elected representatives of SHU students’ union. Officially, like the NUS, they are in support of our dispute, which means a lot to us. Other organic groups of students have emerged and are organising solidarity action on social media and on the picket lines. As academics, at the front line of the student experience, we care deeply about our students’ education. The holistic politics of this dispute, which link workload intensification to zero hours contracts to not enough time to mark students’ work, or prepare lectures, or support students, is what we as a union are talking to students about. Again, our workplace conditions are their teaching and learning conditions — and our fight is to progress both.
Q: What are the key lessons for other HE workers looking to spread this kind of action over local workload issues?
A: We are leading the HE sector with our local industrial dispute on “workload intensification”, and we have a 84.4% strike mandate. The strength of our strike mandate is because this is the local issue, longstanding and widespread. Any gains for our membership locally would be hope for members across the sector.
Our local struggle is part of a process that has already begun with the USS pensions dispute: members drawing connections, seeing the holistic picture, and saying “no more can we be shock absorbers for a broken higher education system, enough!”