This post was written by David Harvie, 2023 candidate for honorary treasurer.
Don’t ask, don’t tell?
Strike preparation raises some perennial questions regarding declarations.
Should we declare to our employer that we have taken strike action? And,
if so, how?
First, let’s get the legalities out of the way. The law is clear that, before
the strike, an employee is under no obligation to inform their boss
whether or not they intend to participate. Universities managements will
often seek this information anyway, citing their ‘overriding priority’ (or
some such) of minimising disruption to university business and students’
learning. I’ll say some more about disruption below. And if university
leaders really cared about students’ learning conditions, well… So: if your
employer asks you beforehand, don’t tell!
You might tell students, however. Turning up to a cancelled class is just annoying. I
tend to post an announcement along the line of the following. ‘The University and
College Union has called strike action for DATES. I am a member of UCU and therefore will be striking on these dates. The class(es) on DATE(S) are unlikely to go ahead, but please note, that it is managers who have the power to cancel classes. It is possible – though unlikely – they will seek to find someone else to lead these classes. If you want further certainty, please email NAME HEAD OF SCHOOL OR VC.’
After the strike, the legal situation becomes somewhat ambiguous. UCU’s
advice is that, ‘once you are back to work following the strike action, you
should respond truthfully to any query from your employer as to whether
you have taken or are taking industrial action.’ I think this advice is
What is clear is that you shouldn’t respond to your employer’s query with a lie – claiming you were not on strike when you were. The ambiguity here concerns whether you need to respond at all, and, if you do, how quickly and in response to what prompt.
At this point, things open up and become much more interesting.
I have taken strike action on many occasions over the past decade and only on rare occasions has either of my two employers of that period ever asked afterwards whether I participated. If they don’t ask, why tell? (I’ll come to that.)
But each time I have struck, my employer – via its HR department – has created an online reporting mechanism, that I am expected or invited to use in order to declare my participation in the strike. Sometimes the link to this online form has been shared by the employer, before the strike (when it can obviously be ignored), occasionally afterwards; most commonly the link has been promoted by the UCU branch.
The argument given – and I have heard this many times – is that we must tell our employer we have been on strike because otherwise they won’t know. And if they don’t know, then they will pretend we’ve been working as normal, that the strike had little impact. The argument given is that we should use the HR form because that will make it easy for the employer to know who struck: they will quickly know how many of us took action, they will know the strength of our collective feeling.
I still don’t understand this argument. It seems to treat a strike like a private online demonstration or petition to the employer. Private, because the employer will never share the numbers – unless it can work them to its advantage. Moreover, this is a demonstration or petition that we must pay to add our name to – because the consequence of ‘signing’ is loss of salary.
Following the logic of this argument leads back to a troubling premise: the effect of our strikes is primarily symbolic and strikes’ only material impact on our employer is that they save on their wage bill.
Troubling, but clarifying. It’s essential that central to our industrial strategy is the question: how can be best disrupt our employer’s business. Let’s remember strike’s etymology. In April 1768, sailors in Sunderland prevented ships leaving port by striking – lowering – their sails, a tactic repeated a month later by sailors on the Thames. That is, the word originates in an act designed to make impossible business as usual.
To be fair, many discussions within UCU do accept the centrality of this principle, which is why we weigh up the pros and cons of striking during term time, during assessment periods, during Clearing, etc. In my opinion, however, there is much more we can do, particularly at branch level. Marching and demonstrating noisily on campus – drums, whistles, vuvuzelas, etc. – make it difficult for any university management or employee attempting to work ‘normally’ to do so. (Marching and demonstrating noisily on campus can also be incredibly empowering.) Branches can also easily find out (from their university’s almanac) whether there are particular management meetings due to take place (Council, Senate, SMT, executive board, etc.) and target those. Such tactics should be the subject of another blog. In a nutshell, though, we should have no need to declare to our employer that we are striking. Our employer should know because it discovers it unable to conduct business as usual, because it is incurring costs as a result of our action – because its ship won’t sail.
If the employer were later to claim, on the basis of declarations, that only a small proportion of employees took strike action then there is an easy riposte to that: Look at how effective that small number were, imagine how much more powerful we would be if more joined us!
Make the employer pay!
Let’s return to UCU’s legal advice regarding declarations, which we accept: ‘Once you are back to work following the strike action, you should respond truthfully to any query from your employer as to whether you have taken or are taking industrial action.’
First, and most obviously, we should wait until our employer does in fact enquire whether we have taken strike or are currently taking action short of a strike before giving any response. Of course, it’s easy and cheap for the employer to make this enquiry: a simple email to all staff from the HR department. Nevertheless, we should still wait until they do.
Second, although our employers create online proformas which they – or our union branches – expect us to use in order to declare our strike participation, we are under no legal obligation to use such forms. These forms perhaps make it slightly easier for us to report strike action. They make it much easier for our employer to record this information and deduct salary accordingly. Why on earth would or should we facilitate this? At University of Leicester, during the USS pension strikes of early 2018, we experimented with an alternative approach. We recommended that members use a variety of means to declare their strike action. We suggested they might send an email, a letter or a postcard. That they might send this to their line manager, their head of department/school, to the university’s HR department, or the vice-chancellor. That they might send one such communication for each day they were on strike. Finally, that the only identifying details they should include were their name and their department. Given Leicester UCU’s size at the time, likely participation in the strike and the number of days of strike action (14), we estimated this tactic might result in at least 5000 discrete communications being sent and received. In each case, the recipient (whether the line manager or the VC – or their secretary) would have to forward to the HR department, which, in turn would have to link names and departments to payroll numbers and so on. The amount of work – and thus the cost to the employer – would be considerable.
I have heard voiced the objection that this additional work falls primarily on lower-paid clerical and administrative staff. This is true. But although such staff are, like most university staff, typically overworked, they are likely to work defined hours: the employer must decide the priorities or pay overtime or draft in more workers and that is their – the employer’s – problem. Moreover and more importantly, the objection denies agency to our professional-services colleagues. It implies that they are powerless to struggle in defence of their own employment conditions and to resist taking on additional work.
In 2018, however, it didn’t come to this. Our advice to members was motivated by our desire to increase the cost to our employer of our strike. But University of Leicester’s management understood it as a threat. At least they were desperate to avoid this outcome. In our first meeting with the University’s executive in the days immediately following our return to work, Leicester UCU’s negotiators had little difficulty getting the executive to agree to spread salary deductions over a period of seven months. Of course, winning no deductions or partial deductions would have been preferrable, but no UCU branch achieved a better deal than Leicester UCU in March 2018. In exchange we agreed that we would recommend to our members that they report their strike participation using the HR department’s form, not our method. If there was any remaining doubt as to the inconvenience – the disruption, the cost – our more disassembled means of strike reporting would have caused to our employer it was dispelled by the then-director of HR, who, as that meeting ended, made a quip about having avoided the use of carrier pigeons.
Leicester UCU later formalised this advice, creating its own strike-reporting form, reducing the effort required of its members, whilst retaining the maximise-cost-to-employer element. The system produces a set of chits like the following, which can then be dispatched as you wish. Goldsmiths UCU has adopted a similar, make-it-hard-for-the-employer approach: you can read their advice to members.
We should not seek to conceal our strike activity. We should take pride in striking, but we should declare this to our comrades, our colleagues and students, and to those outside our workplace who might be moved by our action. The picket line is one traditional and obvious way to make this declaration – and it can be amplified via social media. But the act of immediately informing the employer is not ‘moral’ or ‘correct’; the act of sacrificing one’s salary is not ‘noble’.
In previous disagreements about strike declarations with other UCU organisers, ‘moral’, ‘correct’, and ‘noble’ have either been explicitly used or implied.
We make our declaration to our employers in a different way, we seek to move them in – by materially disrupting their business, by imposing additional costs on them. The lessons from Leicester UCU are clear. By strike-reporting in our own way, we can do just that.