Myth #1 – The University offered a good pay rise, and the Unions accepted it
The University management offered most staff another real-terms pay cut in 2018, following many years of real-terms pay cuts. Staff in band 400 and 500 only received a rise of 2%, while RPI inflation was running at close to 3% at points in 2018.
Staff further down the scale received slightly better rises, but the only staff who received a pay rise above inflation were those the University management had to bring above the living wage rate due to political pressure – and they need that rate to live on!
We also have absolutely not accepted this pay deal – the reason we are only taking action now is because we gave the University management every opportunity to make us a fair pay offer but they refused every reasonable suggestion we’ve made.
Myth #2 –The University is a Living Wage Employer
The University has “matched” the Living Wage rate ever since we last took strike action in 2014. This has been generally late (the rate being announced in November, but only applied the following August) and only won from the University every year through constant campaigning including postcard campaigns, press articles and meetings between the VC and prominent local politicians.
The latest victory where we’ve finally got the University management to match the living wage in November was only due to our consistent pressure and campaigning, and the VC facing the embarrassing situation of having promised to a local MP, Roger Godsiff, that this year’s pay talks would have positive news in relation to the Living Wage. Fortunately, Roger called out the VC on this when the University management initially refused to match the Living Wage rate for the entire year, with Liam Byrne – MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill – also calling the university out on this recently. We shouldn’t have to rely on such circumstances simply to have the bare minimum of financial security.
The big question is, why won’t the University management accredit formally and commit to paying it in the long term? They can afford it, this would give staff security and it would mean that all suppliers would need to pay the Living Wage Rate too. A strike will push the University management into finally seeking formal accreditation.
Myth #3 – Unions are always striking
Strike action is always the last resort, and this is true here at the University of Birmingham. It’s taken year on year of below inflation pay rises for staff to be pushed to this point, and we do not affect services, or lose a day’s pay, lightly.
We are asking members to strike because the strong mandate given us by the consultative ballot last year explicitly stated that we would ballot for strike action if the University management didn’t improve the pay offer. Union reps and members in general have been incredibly patient with the University management and have given them repeated opportunities to make an improved offer.
Myth #4 – If I take strike action, the University can take action against me
You are protected from any formal action or harassment if it’s because of strike action. Our protection comes from two sources:
- The law (in particular section 64 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992) – we can take the University to court if they punish you for industrial action.
- Sticking together – if we meet the threshold for industrial action we will have shown the University management that hundreds of people are unhappy with working conditions at the University and prepared to act together to change them. This is actually the best protection for all of us – we’ve shown we will stick up for each other!
Myth #5 – Strike action never achieves anything
It has been successful in the past at the University. Our last strike in 2014 led to the University management committing to match the living wage for 2 years and increased the offer they made from 1% to 2%.
Strike action also acts as a clear signal of a branch’s overall strength, particularly following the additional hurdles we have to get over due to the Trade Union Act. If we can show the University management a really good turnout for action and combine this with vibrant, lively and impactful strike action we can supercharge our negotiating efforts on a broad range of fronts.
Look at other recent, successful strikes like the Birmingham bin workers – if enough people stick together and take action then we can definitely win!
Myth #6 – I have to tell my manager if I’m going to be on strike
UNISON will be telling the University management on behalf of support staff members that we will be taking strike action, and it is down to managers to confirm which of their staff are taking action by establishing who was due to work on a particular day (i.e. who isn’t on leave or sick) and who didn’t come in.
Your manager is allowed to ask if you plan to strike or (afterwards) if you did take action, but you are under no obligation to answer this question. Saying we’ve advised you not to answer is obviously another way of saying yes, so feel free to say you’re still making your mind up, or otherwise be non-committal when they ask.
Myth #7 – It doesn’t matter if I don’t vote or if I’m not a union member. I can rely on the Unions to get a better pay offer for me.
Union recognition, density and engagement translates directly to better pay, safety and terms and conditions for staff – recent successful campaigns to improve working conditions have generally happened alongside both increasing member numbers and member engagement.
Some of the most successful campaigns in London against outsourcing, for example, only succeeded because you had a large proportion of members willing to be active and to fight for better rights for them and their colleagues – the SOAS justice for cleaners campaign is a really good example of this – https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19149-victory-for-outsourced-workers-at-soas.
We already have enough members to make a real impact on the University in strike action but the following is the source of our strength and directly leads to our ability to improve things:
- The number of members we have
- The number of members voting in ballots
- The number of members who come to meetings, are active in campaigns, demonstrations and picket lines.
The more engaged and active branch members are the more of a chance we’ll have to get you a better pay deal and to protect your terms and conditions.
Myth #8 – Students will not support strike action because it will affect their studies.
The Guild of Students’ “Beliefs and Commitments” document specifically refers to supporting strike action by default. At the last strike in 2014 we had a lot of support from students and we share many of the same aims in improving the governance of the University and improving working conditions (many students also work at the University). As long as we demonstrate that the action is necessary and that we’re trying to improve things at the University in the medium and long-term, we feel that the vast majority of students will be on our side.
Myth #9 – We shouldn’t be damaging the University’s “brand”.
The approach we will take at strike action when talking to members of the public, current/prospective students and any visitors will be that we’re only striking because we care about the University as a workplace and we want to make it better. We’ve repeatedly pointed out to the University senior management that failing to seek Living Wage Accreditation has a negative impact on their brand, when many other Universities are starting to accredit (Liverpool, Manchester in the last few months alone). The University’s brand would be improved by paying its staff fairly and by negotiating properly with us about equality and terms and conditions.
Myth #10 – It will damage services or make things more difficult for my colleagues.
The strike will cause only a temporary disruption to services, which is nothing compared to the retention and morale problems the University senior management’s failure to address our other demands are causing.
As stated above, this is an absolute last resort and we’re hoping this will bring home the message that things need to change at the University, which will improve services and make working conditions better for all staff in the long term.
Myth #11 – Strikes involve confrontation and anger
Campaigning, lobbying, sticking together, and being creative on strike day are positive activities that bring people together. We will hold banner making sessions, ask the most creative members to help out with fun and cheery materials, slogans, songs and ideas, and on strike days it always happens that those who are not members will be showing heartwarming solidarity in various ways: either by sending us messages, bringing us tea and biscuits, or not crossing the picket line.
Photo and link to the video TBC