A [single pay spine] covers most of the UK Higher Education sector. Annual bargaining rounds have been formalised where, under the banner of the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) five trade unions representing HE staff negotiate over pay and pay related conditions with the employers’ representative body, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). So… How do the collective bargaining mechanisms actually work? How do they connect to the ‘single union bargaining table’ that has been operational during the current UCU Four Fights dispute? 

This post builds on my [earlier post] explaining the formation of JNCHES, prior to which there was a greater degree of variance in pay and contractual arrangements for the same types of roles across institutions and negotiations in the sector were conducted through ten different negotiating bodies.

Who bargains?

Every year UCU agrees principles of a claim for pay and pay-related conditions with the four other higher education trade unions (Unison, Unite, GMB, EIS). The five trade unions and UCEA operate under the revised ‘New JNCHES’ agreement (2013) which sets out the ‘bargaining machinery’ for formal negotiations regarding pay and pay-related conditions for university staff. 

The claim itself is the product of negotiations between these unions. UCU’s position is founded on policy that is democratically decided by delegates at the annual Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) which takes place each year at UCU Congress. Once finalised, the joint union claim is pursued in formal negotiations by teams composed of elected negotiators and officials from each union. You can read the full text of the original joint union claim for 2019/20 here [link]. 

What do we bargain for?

UCU believes that the full scope of the New JNCHES agreement is often left unexplored. UCU and the other JNCHES unions hold that pay-related matters should be negotiated at the UK level sectoral bargaining table alongside pay, whereas UCEA have repeatedly claimed that these are issues for local institutions to negotiate and agree with their locally recognised union branches. UCU and the other unions insist that pay inequality, the prevalence of insecure work,  increasing workloads (with resultant decrease in real terms pay rates for the job, and increase in stress) all intersect with the issue of headline pay. There is frequent disagreement between the unions and UCEA about where the bounds of possibility lie under the agreement, and to what degree UCEA is able to drive change at the sectoral level. 

How do we bargain?

A minimum of four formal meetings are held per year under the revised New JNCHES (2013) arrangements [here]. If no agreement can be reached the formal Dispute Resolution Procedure is invoked (laid out in ‘Annex A’ to the 2013 agreement). If no resolution is achieved through these further talks, the ‘JNCHES unions’ follow their own procedures to decide whether they will pursue a trade dispute by balloting for action.

When an offer is rejected, as the 2019/20 offer was by each of the five unions, formal dispute talks are triggered via New JNCHES with all unions. If no further progress transpires, or further iterations of any revised offer are also rejected, this can in turn trigger a formal industrial dispute. In 2019/20, all five unions representing staff in higher education moved to ballot their members for industrial action. The restrictions placed on unions include the 50% minimum postal turnout threshold under the Trade Union Act 2016. This makes it very difficult for unions to take industrial action even where their members have made clear that such an offer is unacceptable to them. 

Four Fights and plenty of dispute talks

In 2019, UCU bucked its recent trend for pay and conditions ballots. 56 branches smashed the 50% postal turnout threshold dictated by the Trade Union Act 2016, voting in favour of strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS). Following an 8 day strike beginning in November 2019, a re-ballot in early 2020 brought another 14 branches into a live mandate for action. 70 UCU branches took sustained strike action in February and March 2020, and were joined by members of the EIS union who struck over pay in February and March. 

In gaining our mandate for action, UCU were able to force the employers representative body, the UCEA, back to negotiations in pursuit of a better offer that might form the basis of a settlement of the 2019/20 JNCHES bargaining round. Following intense negotiations between UCU and UCEA, UCEA has produced two further ‘full and final’ offers which it posited could form the basis of resolution to the 2019/20 JNCHES bargaining round. (Note that the 2020/21 bargaining round was due to begin in Spring 2020 but talks were postponed by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

What next for Four Fights?

As noted in [this statement] from the UCU negotiators, following delays and frustration over arrangements for an agreed further meeting, talks with UCEA have come to an end. The latest ‘full and final’ offer from UCEA has been passed to the union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) which meets on 27 May to determine the next steps. The HEC needs to decide whether to put the offer to members in an electronic consultation, or to either reject or ‘note’ the offer in favour of plans further the dispute through some means. An advisory Branch Delegate Meeting (BDM) has been convened for 26 May, which is designed to inform the HEC’s decision-making.

Whether the decision over what to do with the current offer is put to an electronic member consultation, taken by HEC, or deferred to a sector conference (pending logistical considerations of planning a special HESC online), the options for what UCU can do with the current UCEA offer are:

  • Accept the offer
  • Reject the offer
  • ‘Note’ (neither accept or reject) the offer

If the decision is made to accept the offer, further decisions will need to be made about the implementation process. If a decision is taken to proceed with re-ballots, further decisions will be required regarding their timing, and how to configure them in connection with any course action decided regarding following outputs from the 2020/21 round of JNCHES negotiations. 

Whether a decision is taken to reject or accept the latest UCEA offer, the JNCHES machinery is expected to continue with the next annual round of collective bargaining for 2020/21, and beyond. UCU has strong policy commitments to strengthening collective sectoral bargaining for Higher Education.

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