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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anna Fazackerley

Universities condemned over threat to dock all pay of striking staff

UCU general secretary Jo Grady, centre, on the picket lines in Manchester last week.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady, centre, on the picket lines in Manchester last week. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

Two universities have threatened striking academics that they will be docked all of their pay “indefinitely” in a move that has been described by a union as “brutalising staff into submission”. The University and College Union (UCU) claims record numbers of its members, at 150 higher education institutions across the UK, went on strike on Thursday and Friday. More action is planned for Wednesday.

Academics expect to have their pay docked for the three days they are striking. However, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), a member of the prestigious Russell Group, and Wolverhampton University have caused outrage by threatening to continue docking 100% of academics’ pay unless they reschedule all the classes they have missed.

Dr Zara Dinnen, co-chair of the Queen Mary UCU branch, told the Observer: “The impact of having no pay now, during a cost of living crisis, would be devastating for people. Many members here are already using credit cards and loans to get by.”

QMUL has already shown it is prepared to crack down harder than other institutions on those who take industrial action over pay, contracts and pensions. In July the university deducted 21 days of full pay from more than 100 staff members, because they refused to mark students’ work in June. Many staff opened payslips with nothing in them.

However, Dinnen said her branch had seen its highest-ever turnout on picket lines last week and insisted staff would not be cowed. “This isn’t putting people off. It’s making them really angry,” she said.

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said: “Vice-chancellors are using immoral pay deductions to bully staff and intimidate them from taking lawful industrial action. It is beyond disgraceful.”

She added: “They are attempting to brutalise their own staff into submission. But they need to know that our members will not take it lying down, and nor will our students.”

Both QMUL and Wolverhampton have told union members that failure to reschedule teaching activities will be regarded as a breach of contract and that they will deduct pay for “partial performance”. But academics feel they would be undoing the whole point of the strike if they conceded.

Queen Mary said that its “overriding priority has been to protect our students’ education”. It said strikers had been asked “to prioritise all educational activities” when they returned to work, stopping all other work, including research, if necessary.

But one lecturer in Queen Mary’s humanities and social sciences faculty, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “This threat that you could have your pay docked indefinitely is really scaring people. These are real people with bills to pay and children to look after. No one can afford not to get paid.”

The lecturer said these threats were “completely demoralising” and would have a lasting effect on staff wellbeing.

“After the strike we will return to extremely high workloads, committing long hours, evenings and weekends,” he said. “And all the while management tells us we won’t be paid unless we make up the cancelled teaching.”

Striking academics at Wolverhampton are similarly outraged. Dr Catherine Lamond, negotiating chair of the local UCU negotiating committee, said: “I’ve had so many emails from staff who are really worried about how they will pay their rent or mortgage or put food on the table. It could knock people off the edge.”

Wolverhampton University said: “We will only deduct pay in the event that people do not adhere to their contractual requirements and proper discharge of their duties.”

It said Wolverhampton reserved the right to withhold up to 100% of staff members’ salaries for each day they were considered to be performing action short of a strike.

But Lamond said: “They are reserving the right to deduct full pay indefinitely for every day we don’t rearrange the classes we miss in this strike.”

She added: “People are legally allowed to take industrial action, but this feels like they are trying to frighten people into giving up that right.”

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