UCU vote to start the possibility of launching formal dispute with Durham University

By and

On 10th May, at a meeting of the Durham University and College Union (UCU) branch, members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the possibility of launching a formal dispute with Durham University.

They have called for the University to change their approach to the recently proposed changes to pensions for future workers, as well as a further list of improvements on worker conditions suggested by Durham UCU. 97% of members voted in favour, with 0% voting against and 3% abstaining.

Durham UCU have raised concerns over both pension changes, which will only affect new employees, alongside concerns over current working conditions. Under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, for industrial action to be lawful, it must be “in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute”, between “between workers and their employer”, which includes current or former workers. There is no legal precedent for industrial action over disputes involving future workers and their future employers.

The UCU vote follows recent concerns raised by Durham UCU after Durham University proposed changing the pension scheme that new permanent staff on Grades 1-5 have access to. The proposals would mean all new staff would no longer have the option to opt-in to the  Durham University Pension Scheme (DUPS), a defined benefits scheme, and would instead be offered a new defined contributions scheme, the Durham University Retirement Savings Plan (DURSP). 

Durham UCU claim that the new scheme would mean these staff get a smaller pension, and is a way of the University saving money. The new scheme does allow employees to contribute nothing with the University contributing a fixed 10% a year — under DUPS, the employee has to contribute 6% of their salary for the University to contribute a more generous 24% of their salary a year.

Whilst Durham UCU primarily represents academic staff, who tend to be above pay grade 5, there are some members of Durham UCU who would be impacted by this: Durham UCU has some non-academic members, and also some academic members who are on pay grade 5.

At the time, a University spokesperson told Palatinate, “The new proposal offers a nil-contributory option so any colleagues who currently opt out of a pension scheme can start saving for retirement through the monthly contribution from the University. The new scheme will also provide colleagues with additional benefits to the existing Aviva scheme we offer.”

The UCU motion also references “University management’s failure to adequately inform staff about plans to eliminate DUPS in their survey about DURSP.”

Durham University says that “We have sought feedback on the proposed pension changes for staff on grades 1-5 from our staff and from all four campus Trade Unions. All of the feedback will be considered before a final decision is made.”

All of the feedback will be considered before a final decision is made

Durham University

The vote was also based on Durham UCU’s belief that Durham University had not listened to a list of proposals they recommended to the University last year. The motion referenced the “University management’s refusal to engage” with local claims. 

Speaking to Palatinate, a committee member of the Durham branch of UCU said that “We provided Durham with a list of ways in which we believe they could improve workload, casualisation, equality, and pay/progression at the local level.”

They expressed “disappointment” in what they saw as the University failing to address “the vast majority of our proposals.”

Durham University claims it has worked to improve worker conditions. They told Palatinate, “This academic year we have made significant improvements that benefit many of our staff. Examples include our updated, sector-leading support for visa and immigration costs, the introduction of Career Development Fellowships and the Durham Professional Initiative to improve career development opportunities, and making Grade 8 our entry grade for early career academics. 

“We have also continued with a major project to address concerns about workload, which has resulted in a significant action plan.”

Earlier this year, Durham University also announced a pay increase for casual workers, to match its commitment to the Real Living Wage Foundation. This decision came as part of an agreement between the University and its UCU branch.

The Durham University spokesperson continued,“It is not accurate to suggest the University has not engaged with or listened to the requests made by the Trade Unions […] Formal, regular meetings are held with representatives from all four campus Trade Unions where discussions take place on a range of matters, including any local claims. 

The ball is now in management’s court

Durham UCU Committee Member

“Discussions are sequenced and consideration is given to the position of each Trade Union so that activities and projects can be prioritised. This ensures that progress can be made on all issues that all parties recognise are of utmost importance to our staff, including in respect of pay, but mindful that we have a finite amount of resource and finance at any one time. To claim that such discussions have broken down is misleading.”

The Durham UCU committee member expressed to Palatinate their feeling that the twofold concerns – on pensions and their list of improvements – have not been listened to, and so the vote now means that if the UCU’s concerns continue to, in the eyes of the committee member, “be essentially dismissed”, they are “prepared to enter a formal dispute”, They said: “The ball is now in management’s court.”

Durham University considers the claims made by the UCU committee member “to be an unfortunate attempt to cause alarm to the student population during the examination period.”


3 thoughts on “UCU vote to start the possibility of launching formal dispute with Durham University

  • “This said, a trade dispute over the pension changes would be unlawful because the UCU does not represent the workers affected, since it would only affect workers yet to be employed.” This is a contestible claim. It should be rephrased and presented as what it is: the employer’s contestible opinion.

    Some issues:
    (a) It would be industrial action (not all aspects of a “trade dispute”) that’s in question.
    (b) The law is not so clearcut as claimed in this phrasing.
    (c) Some staff who are directly affected (i.e. who will lose the ability to join the far superior DUPS pension scheme) are already staff at Durham and members of UCU or another union: staff who are on casual contracts, who may move to employment contacts in future. (DUPS is only available to those on employment contracts.)
    (d) Current members of the trade unions (and the DUPS pension scheme) would also be affected by the creation of a two-tier workforce and by long-term reduction in the stability of a scheme with dwindling numbers of members.

  • “This said, a trade dispute solely over the pension changes would be unlawful because the UCU does not represent the workers affected, since it would only affect future, not current, employees – a trade dispute must be between worker and employer. However, Durham UCU have also raised concerns over current working conditions as part of this dispute, and are not just concerned about the proposed pension changes.”

    If Durham University management – not to be confused with Durham University – believed their own claim, they would be changing terms and conditions for future employees all the time without even consulting the recognized trade unions.

    This is what the Code of Practice on Industrial Action Ballots and Notice to Employers says:
    “Establishing entitlement to vote (the “balloting constituency”)
    21.Under section 227 of the 1992 Act entitlement to vote in the ballot must be given to all the union’s members who it is reasonable at the time of the ballot for the union to believe will be induced by the union (whether that inducement will be successful or not) to take part in or continue with the industrial action, and to no other members).”

    And who can take part in industrial action? This is what ACAS says:
    “If there’s a successful ballot, any employees in the ‘bargaining unit’ can take part in industrial action. The bargaining unit is the group of employees the trade union can act or decide specific things for, through a ‘collective agreement’. This includes:
    – trade union members who were asked to vote in the ballot – it does not matter if they voted, or how they voted
    – non-union members who cannot vote, but can join any official action.”

    According to the recognition agreement between Durham University and GMB, UCU, UNISON and Unite, the recognized trade unions have bargaining power for all staff in grades 1-10. That’s the bargaining unit that can take industrial action.


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