Indicative e-ballot is open
In response to the University’s Spring Term 2021 approved plan, which requires face-to-face and blended learning in all degree programmes, a motion was passed at our Essex UCU branch EGM on 16 December calling for:
- UCU to declare an official dispute with the University and seek urgent meetings with management with the aim of resolution;
- an indicative ballot on industrial action;
- consideration of the outcome of the indicative ballot and the viability of running a formal ballot for industrial action.
All eligible Essex UCU members (ie not retired nor student members) will have received an email at approximately 5pm on Thurs 17 Dec with the indicative ballot (there is a unique voting link at the bottom of this email) This email is entitled ‘University of Essex UCU indicative ballot’ and was sent from: Research Survey ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
This email went to the email address that you have registered with UCU. To check your membership file to know which email address this is go to www.ucu.org.uk/myucu
To contact the branch if you cannot find this email or have any ballot related enquiries e: email@example.com however please note that due to staff leave over the holiday, you may not get a response until Tues 5 Jan. If you have another urgent branch enquiry either email our caseteam on firstname.lastname@example.org or the branch officers on email@example.com
The branch committee urge you to vote today. Closing date is 8 Jan, however we are doing lots of work to contact members to ensure that everyone votes, so you will be helping us by voting early. We need to ensure that the turnout in this indicatove ballot is high. If we proceed to a formal vote, we will need a 50%+ turnout under the TU Act 2016
On 10 December 2020 the University Council endorsed a management proposal that blended learning including face-to-face teaching be offered to students in all degree programmes effective from the week commencing 1 February 2021. This action was taken without consultation with the recognised trade unions and management have not confirmed whether staff who refuse to work on campus will face disciplinary procedures.
At an extraordinary UCU branch meeting on Wednesday 16 December 2020 a motion was passed instructing the branch committee to enter into a formal dispute with the University regarding these plans and calling on the University to move to online learning (except for practical work) for the Spring and Summer Term 2021, allowing staff to opt-in to work on campus (where and when it is safe to do so). A copy of this motion is below.
The motion also calls on the branch committee to hold an indicative ballot of members on the willingness to vote for and take industrial action if this proves necessary. This ballo opened today and emails have gone to all eligible members.
The branch committee strongly encourages you to VOTE YES to both of the ballot questions. This will allow the committee to consider all options to protect the health and safety of staff and students.
Although we are running this indicative ballot via email, any formal ballot for industrial action will need to be a postal ballot. It is therefore vital that you check and update your membership details via www.ucu.org.uk/myucu in readiness.
Any ballot queries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
On Blended Learning and Face-to-Face Provision at UoE in 2021
Proposed by: Jak Peake.
Seconded by: David Rush.
This Branch notes that:
- University of Essex (UoE) management has not agreed to online student-facing work and teaching as a default option despite calls for this from SAGE, Independent SAGE and UCU nationally and locally;
- UoE management has proposed that blended learning – including face-to-face teaching – be offered to students in all degree programmes effective from the week commencing 1 February 2021;
- UoE management has not confirmed whether increased risk, clinically non-vulnerable and non-shielding staff who refuse to work on campus will face disciplinary procedures;
- UoE have taken this action without consulting the trades unions.
This Branch believes that:
- UoE management’s current plans for the Spring Term pose a risk to the health of staff and are likely to pose uneven pressures in different departments, schools and sections; as a consequence, real equality and fairness at UoE is under threat;
- Staff ought not to be pressured into modes of work that risk their health or the health of their families or their local communities;
- January through to March will be, in the words of England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, “the highest risk period” and that, despite the arrival of a vaccine, for “the next three months we will not have sufficient protection”;
- By abandoning the cautious approach adopted in the Autumn Term, management’s current plans will be running the risk of increasing Covid-19 infection rates significantly;
- Consequently, decisive action is needed at UoE to stem the spread of Covid-19 and to safeguard staff, students, their families and the wider community;
- UoE should move to online learning (except for practical work) for the Spring and Summer Term 2021, allowing staff to opt-in to work on campus (where and when it is safe to do so).
This Branch therefore resolves:
- For the University of Essex branch committee to write to management informing them of the branch’s concerns regarding its proposals and to enter into a formal dispute with the University on this issue and to call for urgent meetings to resolve this matter.
- To hold an indicative ballot of members calling for industrial action in some form over UoE management’s plans for the Spring Term 2021.
- That the University of Essex branch committee will consider the outcome of this indicative ballot and consider the viability of running a formal ballot for industrial action.
The following statement was sent to UoE USG from Essex UCU
On 30 October 2020, Essex UCU was mandated by members to declare an official dispute following an inadequate response to our requests (outlined in our open letter of 19 October) to move all student-facing work online by default, publicly correct inaccurate messaging surrounding the University’s Covid-19 antibody tests, and allow students in University accommodation to return home in a safe and managed way, providing rent fee rebates for those who chose to do so. Shortly after we obtained this mandate, the UK government announced a further ‘lockdown’, and the University of Essex moved teaching and some other student-facing work online by default for the remainder of the autumn term.
Essex UCU welcomes the University’s initiative in acting to protect the wellbeing of staff and students despite the lack of a clear steer from the UK government. In addition, we are heartened by the recent introduction of antigen tests, having previously raised our grave concerns about the University’s earlier reliance on antibody tests for Covid screening purposes. In light of these changes of circumstances, Essex UCU branch has not declared a dispute.
However, we are conscious that the next term is less than two months away, and that the University may revert in the spring term to requiring staff to engage in face-to-face work where such work can be done remotely. We are therefore seeking an assurance that this will not happen and hope that the decision made by USG on 8 December will be in line with our call at Essex UCU. Specifically:
We seek assurance that the current status quo will be carried over at least to the whole of the spring term, and preferably for the rest of the academic year. This means that all work that can be done remotely will be done remotely by default. ‘By default’ means that this will be automatically assumed to be the arrangement for all staff whose jobs can be done from home, with deviations only where a staff member requests to work face-to face and where their safety can be adequately protected.
In support of this:
- SAGE has stated in a 19 November 2020 paper on the ‘Festive Period’ that the ‘prevalence [of Sars-Cov-19] could easily double during a few days of festive season, with further multiplicative increases as new infections go back to their “routine” networks’. A SAGE report on ‘Celebrations and Observances’ (5/11/20) asserts that major celebrations are ‘highly likely to precipitate nationwide increases in transmission particularly when celebrations are also public holidays’. In further documentation (18/11/20), SAGE states: ‘If pre-Christmas prevalence is high and a lot of indoor mixing takes place, the increase in prevalence could be very large indeed. A parallel can be drawn, albeit on a different scale, between the return of students in Autumn and people from different households mixing intensively over Christmas.’
- We note the UK government’s advice that all who can work from home should continue to do so until April 2020. Our request that working from home apply for the rest of this academic year is roughly in line with this. The position of UCU as a whole is that all members working in HE (including academic-related/professional services staff for example in libraries), FE, ACE and in prisons should be allowed to work from home in line with government public health guidance and with no financial detriment. This also applies to those employed on casualised contracts of any form.
- Feedback about online teaching has been broadly positive so far, as has been acknowledged by People and Culture, and student-facing staff, academics and students throughout the University of Essex.
We hope to use the time gained through the current suspension of non-essential face-to-face work at Essex to arrive at an agreement that would allay our members’ concerns and prevent a possible re-escalation on this issue of online working by default, which our members overwhelmingly called for in our EGM of 28 October. We note that Northumbria University UCU recently won a ballot for strike action over health and safety relating to Covid-19, with 66.5% of members voting to strike on a turnout of 67.3%. Similarly, Birmingham City University UCU members are demanding a move to online teaching and are prepared to take industrial action as shown by an impressive 60% turnout in their consultative ballot, while the UCU branches at the University of Birmingham and University of Warwick are also about to open ballots for action to move all non-essential working online. Nationally, there is strength of feeling on this issue which we believe has been reflected by Essex UCU members in surveys and meetings conducted by the branch in 2020. Since the pandemic began, the unions and the University have managed to work together successfully in many instances. While we may have differences of opinion on various matters, Essex UCU branch very much hopes to continue to have a good working relationship with the University now and in the future.