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Strike threat at the University of Sussex

Strike threat at the University of Sussex

The three recognised trade unions at the University of Sussex are conducting a co-ordinated indicative ballot for strike action, against plans to outsource 235 campus jobs.

The indicative ballot by Unite, Unison and UCU will open on Monday 8 April and will gauge the level of support for industrial action in an increasingly bitter dispute over outsourcing. This week has seen High Court bailiffs evict the 8-week occupation of the Bramber House conference centre. As part of that operation, four students were arrested on charges including criminal damage and obstructing the police.

The ballot, described as "a first step towards industrial action" by one union official, follows 10 months of fruitless talks with management, which have seen university bosses repeatedly cancel meetings and refuse to provide information, let alone seriously discuss the outsourcing proposals. The news of an indicative ballot suggests the campus trade unions have lost patience. It also comes less than a fortnight after the launch of a 'Pop-Up Union' by campus staff, who stated:

The Pop-Up Union is a result management’s refusal to engage meaningfully with staff, students, and the recognised trade unions for over 10 months. We are now taking things into our own hands.

The anti-privatisation campaign has also acquired documents via a Freedom of Information request which cast doubt on the University's claims to meaningful consultation. The report, prepared for University management following a small focus group exercise, has been cited as evidence of staff voices being taken on board, and to claim that opposition to the plans is in a minority. However, the report itself suggests the opposite:

“In many cases it proved difficult to discuss these issues without allowing people to talk about their opposition to outsourcing these functions. For most attendees, it was their first opportunity to discuss their feelings about the decision with someone representing the university. There was a general feeling that there should have been an organisational-wide consultation, prior to the decision to outsource, which would have given in-house teams time to look at how the service might be improved without outsourcing.

This follows a poll of over 800 students by the students' union, which found 70% opposed the outsourcing plans. A member of university staff told libcom that:

The report confirms what we have been saying all along - there has been no 'consultation', only a unilateral decision to outsource 235 campus jobs. The moves towards joint industrial action are promising. Divided we are weak, united we can shut down the campus if needs be. If the recognised trade unions can do that, great, if not, there's the Pop-Up Union.

Posted By

libcom
Apr 5 2013 11:24

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  • Divided we are weak, united we can shut down the campus if needs be. If the recognised trade unions can do that, great, if not, there's the Pop-Up Union.

    Sussex Uni staff member

Attached files

Comments

Chilli Sauce
Apr 5 2013 17:49

That poster is awesome.

Keep us in the loop as things develop!

Steven.
Apr 12 2013 20:24

Appalling behaviour from the unions here: first Unison decided to drop the indicative ballot, then apparently UCU said they wouldn't do anything without Unison, and following that Unite have said there is no point doing it alone. So now there is no indicative ballot at all. Meanwhile, apparently Unison had the audacity to call the Pop-Up Union scabs!
Letter from Unite here: https://twitter.com/timhuzar/status/322765368844234753/photo/1

Joseph Kay
Apr 12 2013 20:37

Unison are apparently blaming (unspecified and imaginary) "legal reasons" and suggesting a survey about whether to have a consultative ballot about whether to have an actual ballot. This is even more convoluted and bureaucratic than the Unison industrial action handbook. And yeah, some Unison full-timers have been comparing the Pop-Up Union to the UDM in the Miners Strike.

Steven.
Apr 12 2013 20:41
Joseph Kay wrote:
Unison are apparently blaming (unspecified and imaginary) "legal reasons" and suggesting a survey about whether to have a consultative ballot about whether to have an actual ballot. This is even more convoluted and bureaucratic than the Unison industrial action handbook. And yeah, some Unison full-timers have been comparing the Pop-Up Union to the UDM in the Miners Strike.

in my workplace a couple of years ago (also with Unison) I was pushing for a consultative ballot on industrial action but it wasn't agreed until I did a survey of the membership which showed widespread support. It is very convoluted!

Joseph Kay
Apr 12 2013 20:46

It's my understanding that only the actual postal ballot is a legal requirement, and the indicative/consultative ballot is an (understable) internal union requirement to gauge whether it's worth organising a proper one in accordance with the law. Requiring a preliminary survey on top of that is a bit too meta. 'Here, fill in this survey about whether you'd like the opportunity to vote about whether you'd like a vote on industrial action'. A recipe for a crap turnout and inconclusive results.

Steven.
Apr 12 2013 21:08

yep - and importantly it delays things and drag things out, which is often crucial in terms of demobilising workers or leaving any potential action too late to have any impact.

I would say that in some disputes which are not so time sensitive an indicative ballot isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it mostly is.

One thing which really helped at my work was gathering all of the union members' e-mail addresses, then you can run a survey or indicative ballot really easily and quickly

Joseph Kay
Apr 12 2013 21:20

Bear in mind that the outsourcing was first announced in May 2012, 11 months ago, and Unison described the indicative ballot as "the first step towards action".

Chilli Sauce
Apr 12 2013 21:56

Whenever stuff like this happens I know I shouldn't be shocked, but I always am. I mean, just shocking stuff.

From the folks on campus, have you heard any feedback from workers on the ground?

Joseph Kay
Apr 16 2013 20:48

So a sort-of indicative ballot is on, but it's being called a consultative survey or something. UCU and Unite's version asks a single question about industrial action over outsourcing. Unison have circulated a 4-page survey with a prize of M&S vouchers, which buries questions of outsourcing and industrial action in among preferences for how many emails you receive and other such pressing matters. Apparently this is the region's fault, but the branch sec is a marketing manager with a penchant for pointless surveys, so who knows.

Today there was a fairly well-attended demo, which ended in a mass breach of the injunction, occupying Arts Piazza Cafe, one of the sites proposed to be outsourced. There's video from the Argus: http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/videonews/ (won't embed, unfortunately)

Joseph Kay
Apr 16 2013 21:27

Occupy Sussex wrote:
STATEMENT – 5pm – Tuesday 16th April 2013

Today marked an important step in the continuation and growth of the Sussex Against Privatisation Campaign. After 11 months of campaigning, a seven week long occupation, the launch of the worker led Pop Up Union, an EDM signed by 31 MP’s and continued expressions of support from across the campus community, management still ignore the will of the University.

At 1pm today, hundreds of students and staff from Sussex University came out on campus to demonstrate, despite the injunction that management have obtained outwardly banning all forms of protest on the Sussex campus. The assembly was once again addressed by students and staff, and led to an occupation of Arts Piazza Café. To any staff members who may have felt concerned by the students and numbers of private security guards entering the Cafe we apologise, and we continue to ensure the relationship that exists between our community continues.

Today the campaign also heard from a member of staff, who announced that as of Monday 15th April 2013, an indicative questionnaire/ballot has been sent to all campus trade unions (UCU, Unite and Unison) to demonstrate the Unions willingness to support their staff and show management that action will be taken if they do not begin to listen to the University in crisis, and halt their privatisation plans.

A further statement will be released shortly.

4 of the 5 students arrested over the #Mar25 demo and/or the during the eviction are in court on Thursday. Supporters will gather at (I think) 9am outside Brighton Magistrates Court.

Steven.
Apr 16 2013 22:19
Joseph Kay wrote:
So a sort-of indicative ballot is on, but it's being called a consultative survey or something. UCU and Unite's version asks a single question about industrial action over outsourcing. Unison have circulated a 4-page survey with a prize of M&S vouchers, which buries questions of outsourcing and industrial action in among preferences for how many emails you receive and other such pressing matters. Apparently this is the region's fault, but the branch sec is a marketing manager with a penchant for pointless surveys, so who knows.

indicative ballots are organised on a branch level - they don't need any involvement from regions, so I don't really see how they could blame the region for this.

Similar to the legal excuse given above, indicative ballots aren't covered by any kind of laws so they shouldn't have any kind of legal excuse either (although of course they could say it is not worth them doing an indicative ballot if they have been told that the industrial action wouldn't be legal).

When do the ballots close? And importantly of the unions making a recommendation with the ballot for a vote one way or another? Because most members normally vote in line with the unions recommendation. And if the unions are not making a recommendation, are rank-and-file workers/students campaigning for a yes vote? This would seem to be quite a key task at present, as if there is not a decisive yes vote then the unions' regions will be able to block any action.

Joseph Kay
Apr 17 2013 06:10

- There's a bit of a history of the branch blaming the region and the region blaming the branch at Sussex. In fact shifting blame for inaction is the one thing they do well. They had a national official down pushing the indicative ballot days before it was called off/mutated into a survey, so it's not at all clear where the inertia originates.

- Yeah, on the legal front, Unison themselves won a Court of Appeal precedent in 2001 that outsourcing can be a trade dispute. Even then, they could ballot over pensions or lack of consultation, or fuck it, bang in a 5-10% pay claim to make up for years of sub-inflation 'rises'. The law is anti-worker, but it's not impossible to find a trade dispute.

- There was no accompanying info for the Unison ballot, dunno about Unite and UCU. Activists are going round encouraging a yes vote, but we had basically no notice of this after all the on-again off-again bureaucratic wrangling. My feeling is Unison want a weak/inconclusive response to justify their 'strategy' of doing fuck all and sabotaging anyone who does, including Unite and UCU.

Steven.
Apr 17 2013 08:26
Joseph Kay wrote:
- There was no accompanying info for the Unison ballot, dunno about Unite and UCU. Activists are going round encouraging a yes vote, but we had basically no notice of this after all the on-again off-again bureaucratic wrangling. My feeling is Unison want a weak/inconclusive response to justify their 'strategy' of doing fuck all and sabotaging anyone who does, including Unite and UCU.

that sounds quite likely - especially if they stick one question in the middle of a big survey that sounds like a recipe for a miniscule turnout after which they can say there is "no mandate" for an official ballot, even if most respondents vote yes.

Joseph Kay
Apr 17 2013 09:53

Thank god for the cheap deals on pet insurance hey. I might phone the advice line and ask whether I should get a cat or a dog.

no1
Apr 17 2013 10:46
Steven. wrote:
When do the ballots close? And importantly of the unions making a recommendation with the ballot for a vote one way or another? Because most members normally vote in line with the unions recommendation.

The indicative ballot closes at the end of next week. I don't know about Unite, but UCU are recommending that their members vote yes. UCU have the most members by quite some margin (~600, compared to maybe a couple of hundred for Unison), but only a handful who are affected by the outsourcing. In their message to members UCU argue that outsourcing is the thin end of the wedge and that academics should not assume they'll be safe from privatisation in future if the current outsourcing goes through, before criticising management's the authoritarian style. However then they make it clear that the substance of the disagreement is the lack of consultation with the unions, and that they "demand a staff voice be included in the process" - i.e. right from the start UCU just want a seat at the table.

Joseph Kay
Apr 18 2013 11:38

There's now a 45 minute documentary about the privatisation and the campaign, haven't watched it yet...

Edit: replaced with the latest version, which apparently fixes the audio

slothjabber
Apr 18 2013 13:03

What are the best sources for what's going on at Sussex, do you think?

The fact that there are still demos and occupations going one even after the legal challenge is fantastic. But I haven't got a very clear idea of

1-what the pop-up union is doing (other than trying to bring staff together - is it it only Unison, Unite and UCU members who re involved, or is it non-unionised staff too?)
2-how Occupy Sussex and the Pop-up union relate to each other (I know they're supporting each other but are the organisations calling mass assemblies at which staff and students - and people from the town - are all allowed to speak?).

OK, I know I'm just an old 'assembly-fetishist' but seriously, this is one of the most exciting and inspiring things happening in the UK at the moment and I really would like to try to assimilate the lessons of what's going on here.

Joseph Kay
Apr 18 2013 14:01

The best sources are probably the facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/407080325992943/

And the campaign blog: http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/

This piece covers some of the groundwork to the campaign and the early Bramber occupation.

1. I'd characterise the Pop-Up Union as 'self-organised legalism', with all the contradictions that implies. As I understand it, the idea is to form a temporary industrial union in accordance with the law (which would allow it to do the things trade unions can do, but the existing ones have been reluctant/refused to). I belive it includes previously non-union staff as well as rank-and-file members from the three recognised unions.

2. There were some big, open, general assemblies in the Bramber occupation, but I don't think it's wise to say much about the logistical/organisational specifics since, as management have a gang of private security and aren't afraid to deploy them to surveil and intimidate (and even a meeting could be deemed 'protest activity' under the injunction). In general terms, the students and workers have been supporting one another to a far greater extent than I've known before, and perhaps more importantly, 'workers' is mainly support staff/235 rather than academics (though they are involved too). There's definitely a strong current of horizontalism in both workers and students actions and organising methods. Sorry to be vague.

It's kinda hard to get any perspective on it when you're involved, but yeah it's quite exciting, but also scary. They're not afraid to use force, the courts, the cops, as well as disinformation and intimidation to ram this through. 4 students are in court today on criminal charges. Unlike a public sector organisation there's no (notional) accountability to a higher power/'democratic accountability' which could pressure them to back down to restore normailty, but unlike a typical private sector organisation there's few revenue streams you can block to exert leverage (except occupying/boycotting conference and catering facilities, now outlawed under the injunction...).

That said, if staff can pull off industrial action, and students can support that in, ahem, creative ways, this could still be stopped. And bidders for the contracts should know they're gonna face a fight if they do come in and try and attack workers conditions. I'm sure there will be some big write-ups when it's over, and everyone gets a chance to take a step back. Gonna try and beat the fuckers first though!

slothjabber
Apr 18 2013 14:07

Thanks for the info and links, that's a big help.

As for taking a step back after it's all over, it's more 'generalising the lessons while it's still happening' that I'm after!

Joseph Kay
Apr 18 2013 14:13

Yeah, there's been various discussions with other campus groups and campaigns. Hopefully that will lead to some generalisation and more autonomous struggles elsewhere. That kind of tactical discussion's difficult to have in public, for obvious reasons.

Joseph Kay
Apr 30 2013 07:47

Indicative ballot results:

UCU - 75% in favour of industrial action (in principle) on a 60% turnout (impressive, as only a handful of UCU members are directly affected by outsourcing). UCU's also by far the largest union, so in absolute terms this is a lot of people.

Unite - 97% in favour, on a 70% turnout.

Unison - Still pissing about with their competition to win M&S vouchers and will announce the result in a fortnight. Reportedly some of the most militant affected workers (including a rep) never received their 'ballots' (surveys), which I find hard to put down to accident or incompetence.

I think it's pretty safe to say there's an appetite for industrial action over this, though I doubt the recognised unions will oblige (UCU have said they won't act without Unison, Unison refuse to ballot, which leaves Unite following suit rather than making a stand alone).

Steven.
Apr 30 2013 14:01

Those are great results so far.

I guess let's see what happens with UNISON…