Striking academics threatened with loss of pay; University and College Union will fight back

David Hartmann 6 February 2014

Several two-hour walkouts by members of the University and College Union (UCU) are likely to have financial consequences for participating employees, leading UCU to threaten legal action.

On 23 and 28 January, staff refused to work for two hours to protest against UK universities’ refusal to improve on an offer to increase wages by 1%.

Sixteen large universities, including Anglia Ruskin, have threatened to deduct an entire day’s wages for staff participating in the first day of the walkouts, treating time outside these periods as voluntary work. Other universities have reserved the right to do the same in case of further strikes.

In retaliation, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt warned: “Any university that tries to dock a full day’s pay for a two-hour walkout will face a legal challenge from us.” She also condemned the action as “vindictive and bullying” and warned of longer strikes at institutions withholding workers’ pay.

According to Christopher Mordue, head of the national university employment team at solicitors Pintson Mason, a lawsuit by UCU is unlikely to be successful. He holds that with “partial performance” being offered, “the employer can then withhold pay in full for each day of that action”.

The UCU contends that its case is based on the advice of its own legal counsel, which stresses that while “the legal position in relation to action short of a strike is not entirely straightforward”, universities have to inform their staff beforehand that appearing to work is voluntary if there will be no pay.

The striking staff have received support from political campaigner Peter Tatchell, who discussed the topic with administrative staff at De Montfort University. Student groups have also described the 1% pay offer as “measly” and support the action, while hoping for a quick end to the disputes so students’ education will not be compromised.

“It’s clearly a difficult situation, but for the most part I support the strikes,” said Jamie, a first-year English student at Corpus Christi. “The response by universities to the situation is particularly unfair and merely cements a reputation of meagreness and disrespect to their staff. However, I would mention that there are many employment sectors not lucky enough to be able to dispute their pay in such a manner, let alone bring on such large-scale legal action.”