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Why we Must Reject the UCEA Offer

by Corona Contract
July 13, 2020

UCU members should vote to reject the offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association to keep the current dispute live and build solidarity. 1219 words / 5 min read

Reject the Offer

After our previous intervention, we will keep this short and sweet. Some UCU members have been reporting technical difficulties in voting the consultative ballot. Keep refreshing your browser and reject the offer. Contact as many sympathetic union members as you can to remind them to vote. If they are unsure, have a friendly discussion where you explain the arguments. We’ve mapped them out below to help you out. A stitch in time saves nine, and keeping our disputes live now will save us from having to plead in future as our increasingly insecure employment rights dwindle to nothing. It is worth it — indeed, we believe it is an essential part of our strategy for the upcoming year. Please vote to REJECT.

Here are the key points:

1. This will not be a normal year.

Coronavirus has changed everything. We have already seen massive job losses for precarious staff, often accompanied by the wilful refusal to furlough. Combined with the switch to online teaching, we can anticipate skyrocketing workloads for remaining staff. Across the sector, we anticipate the introduction of policies that we all hugely oppose, such as deferring promotions and pay progression, elimination of research leave, slashing holiday time, extending work weeks to 6 days/week and work days until the late evening, and, of course, redundancies, all of which will have an impact on the health and safety of staff and students. Much of this has already started and we should not wait for employers to announce further bad news.1 Most importantly, we need leverage. An unresolved dispute gives us a basis to argue against these plans, and a threat to back up our words.

2. Individual branches are already heading into local disputes with employers. We need the ability to back them.

This is no longer a speculative issue. The UCU branch at the RCA, which has some of the worst precarious staff working conditions in the sector, on “terms of engagement” rather than contracts, have given notice that they will be heading into a dispute if a deal cannot be reached by July 17. Dundee, KCL, Goldsmiths, and SOAS are entering disputes and we know there are many more disputes forming, alongside those like University of Birmingham who have already been in dispute. UCU nationally has been announcing that they will support individual branches going into dispute because in all likelihood branches will be forced to do so by their employers’ draconian proposals.

Individual negotiations with employers cannot end the race to the bottom for all of us, especially in the current context. We must insist that our struggles across the sector are linked and that we have the right to bargain collectively. We must show solidarity with others who are being forced to go into local dispute to defend their jobs, and we must do what we can to back their negotiations. Keeping the dispute live on a national level is one key way to do this.

3. Our employers are uniquely vulnerable.

We know this, because we are already being made part of their pressurised PR machine. We know how much everything has to go right this year, that nothing can go wrong. Thus, the obvious argument is that we have a unique opportunity to make things go wrong. Imagine, as a thought experiment, that we all simultaneously unplugged our computers for ten minutes in the middle of our scheduled teaching, meetings, or other face-to-face workload and claimed “technical difficulties” just once a week. These kinds of collective stoppages can have a disproportionate impact in the move to online because trust is already low and vulnerability is high. The fragility of our employers’ brand — and the ways in which they are taking financial advantage of students by preaching that full tuition is justified while they simultaneously cut corners and lay off staff — cannot be overstated. The employers need us if they are to stand a chance at online delivery. We should not give up the fight going into this pivotal year just as they become most vulnerable to collective action.

Through all of our industrial actions in recent years, we have had the support of students, both locally and through the NUS, who have consistently understood how our struggles are linked to theirs. Given the absence of shiny buildings and university marketing, this year’s intake of students will see this even more clearly. We can encourage this solidarity through planning our actions intelligently and strategically — focused on disrupting the university business model, rather than students’ pursuit of education — and lending our support to students’ demands towards university management and the government. For once, our teach-outs can be as simple as switching to a public online platform to engage with students, and offering teach-outs that make clear to students how it is education, not the university brand, that matters.

4. Our own negotiators don’t think this offer is the best we can do. Neither did branch delegates.

End of.

Under these conditions, the idea of accepting the offer is now dangerous in the extreme. Accepting a subpar offer on pay, workload, precarity, and equality, in the middle of the slew of altered working conditions caused by Covid, would leave us open to every form of depredation imaginable by our employers — or open to continued depredation, in the case of what many precarious workers like us are currently experiencing. UCEA has already announced a 0% offer on pay for 20/21 and we can already hear our employers arguing that they refuse to implement anything on the basis of non-binding agreements negotiated pre-Covid. We are particularly concerned by the reference in the offer’s wording to “objective” justifications for precarious contracts (as we assume they will argue the current situation is an objective justification), and the insistence that “working conditions and contractual agreements are important but local”, which would kick these issues back down to individual branches left on their own to wrangle with employers just as they are doing now.

Finally, for those who are concerned about the union’s financial position after the strikes: We can build a stronger union, but we cannot turn back the clock on concessions we make now, at a time when we must be doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our colleagues at work. We can reach out to our co-workers and bring more people into the union. We can fundraise. We can connect to others in our community. We can ensure that the timing and strategy of any future action is on point and that we experiment with lower-stakes actions to get the most traction possible. Every bit of that is easier for us to do and far better than sacrificing our last line of defence as a union: a live dispute. As rank-and-file members, we have always had criticisms of our union, but we have to couple these criticisms with the need to come together, build solidarity, and organise collectively. These values cannot be optional at such an urgent moment.


  1. We anticipated in March that employers would institute a hiring freeze, although at the time we wrote the document this was not yet confirmed. Similarly, we urge other union members to anticipate and practice building up opposition to potential overreach by employers, even if it has not been implemented yet.