UNISON strike action at the University of Birmingham – ‘Real Birmingham Heroes’ support staff are demanding better pay, equality, and improved working conditions
UNISON branch’s demands are that the University:
- Gives an above RPI inflation pay increase to all support staff;
- Becomes a Living Wage Accredited employer;
- Eliminates the gender pay gap by 2020;
- Fixes the Support Staff pay spine & allocates a budget for it;
- Negotiates with all unions on the joint unions’ report on working conditions at the university: uobunison.org.uk/demands2018
Hundreds of caterers, cleaners, security guards and other support staff who are members of UNISON at the University of Birmingham will be taking strike action on the University of Birmingham’s Graduation Days on 16th and 17th of July (following a successful first day of strike on the University’s Open Day on 28th Junee) as they feel let down by the University’s senior management. This strike is notable within the sector, as this is the only union branch in the Higher Education to succeed in taking strike action over the 18-19 negotiations. This comes after almost a year of failed negotiations over fair pay, living wage accreditation, closing the gender pay gap, and meaningful negotiations on a joint report of demands written together with the other trade unions on campus. More than three quarters of the university staff balloted (79 per cent) voted in favour of strike action over last year’s dispute, and in the past few weeks the membership of the branch has risen by more than 10%.
Senior managers at the University have persistently refused to negotiate with the unions and instead imposed a below inflation pay rise (2%) on the majority of staff. The University has also been sluggish to address the gulf between men and women’s salaries at the institution, with women earning on average less than 20% than their male counterparts, have refused to accredit, and have only been ready to restructure the pay spine if the unions were prepared to agree on worse conditions such as sick pay, overtime pay, and holiday entitlements. The week before the strike, the University and the unions held two negotiating meetings for over 3.5 hours. The University offered to talk about the Living Wage Accreditation, the gender pay gap, and the pay spine restructure, but with no concrete timings or costings. They have not engaged with the joint unions’ demands at all (as they want to keep us divided), and their last ‘extra’ was to seek to pay a lump sum of 1% to all support staff. We put all of this to the members and they overwhelmingly rejected the offer.
A UNISON member reports: ‘To be honest, I’ve tried this trick with my Jack Russell, distracting him with a cheesy nibble in order to get him off the sofa. It doesn’t work with a pet and it won’t work with us – how do you imagine that your staff who claim universal credit and family tax credits will be affected by this one-off insult of a bribe – or perhaps you didn’t realise that your wages are so low that HM Government has to supplement it to help keep families afloat’. Other members noted during the meetings that the lump sum is possibly taken from the savings the University has made during the first day of strike action on the 28th of June 2019.
The second and third days of action are being held on what is predicted to be two sunny days: food, music, dance, and joyful discussions over our collective vision of the University will be held on all the six pickets and at the rally. Just like in June (read our positive feedback here), we will have a lot of support from members who will be delivering water, tea, and coffee at all pickets.
A free lunch will be offered on both days to all attendees. The branch reports: ‘we look forward to being part of and graduating students and their parents are finding out about the struggles staff are facing on campus. The leaflets and banners refer to support staff as ‘the Real Birmingham Heroes’, in response to a University marketing campaign that promotes impactful research done by ‘Birmingham Heroes’. Masks of the Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, cowboy hats (as the cowboy theme runs throughout the entire campaign) and ‘Real Birmingham Heroes’ stickers will be worn at each picket.
In the absence of accreditation, pay at the university could fall below the Real Living Wage, meaning staff would struggle to make ends meet. ‘We already know that members have turned to foodbanks to feed their families’, says UNISON. ‘Many low-paid staff only work 15 hours per week and often hold several jobs to make ends meet. Senior managers seem happy to promote the excellent research undertaken by academics on social inequalities but are failing to see that they are often driving this inequality through the way they treat their own employees’.
Last year, the University set up a new ‘wholly-owned subsidiary company’ called the Edgbaston Park Hotel, and outsourced 40 staff. The Hotel does not recognise unions for new members (meaning that they cannot take strike action, for instance), and new staff are being paid only £8.21/hour. Their contracts are much worse compared to those of the University of Birmingham’s employees. This year, Hotel staff received a 1p/hour pay rise, while the University’s VC earns £444,000/year from the University, is waiting to receive a one-off £80,000 bonus, and also receives £90,000/year as Chair of the academic and academic related staff’s USS pensions scheme. Branch members want to see an end to outsourcing on campus.
Recently, a member of support staff wrote a letter to VC David Eastwood, challenging him and the other senior managers to live on low pay for a week. The letter can be read and signed here: uobunison.org.uk/challenge
Watch a series of videos from the Open Day Strike: