UNISON strike action at the University of Birmingham – ‘Real Birmingham Heroes’ support staff are demanding better pay, equality, and improved working conditions
Hundreds of caterers, cleaners, security guards and other support staff who are members of UNISON at the University of Birmingham are taking strike action on the University of Birmingham’s Open Day on Friday 28th June 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, says UNISON today. More than three quarters of the university staff balloted (79 per cent) voted in favour of strike action over last year’s dispute.
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 first day of action is being held on a very sunny day: food, music, and joyful discussions over everyone’s vision of the University are being held, and prospective 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’. The flyer itself includes an image of four cleaning staff. Masks of the Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, cowboy hats (as the cowboy theme runs throughout the entire campaign) and ‘Real Birmingham Heroes’ stickers are being 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.