Following outrage over “year-on-year” cuts to pay, many Cardiff University staff members have chosen to go in strike this Halloween. On Thursday October 31st, members of the Trade Unions Unite, UCU (University and College Union) and Unison will take action to protest against their pay conditions.
Although they have been offered a 1% pay rise, up from the initial offer of 0.5%, it is claimed that due to inflation, University staff across the country have actually suffered a 13% decrease in pay since October 2008.
The unions are attempting to negotiate a ‘substantially improved offer’ for all the staff within pay grades 1-8 (who would be affected by these discussions). Staff above this pay grade (believed to be at the £60,000 level) are exempt from any outcome; senior staffs’ salaries are set independently by Cardiff University, rather that the national organisation that sets university pay.
Another area of contention is the apparent pay gap between male and female staff. Figures from the Local Equal Pay Audit indicate an alarming financial discrepancy between male and female staff at Cardiff University, especially at the higher end of pay levels. These strikes are happening at a time when Cardiff University has actively been trying to reduce its wage bill, with a Voluntary Severance Scheme running since June this year.
Michael MacNeil, UCU’s Head of Higher Education stated that, “Staff have suffered cuts in the value of their pay. Quite simply, enough is enough.” This statement is backed by the majority of the members of the unions: UCU had 62% of their attending members vote in favour of the strike action; Unite 64%; and Unison 54.4%. In the words of Mr MacNeil, this demonstrates “just how angry they are.”
The UCU pamphlet for the strike declares, “There is no alternative. We have tried talking to [them]. We have tried reasoning with them. But they are not listening.” These strong words might stress how necessary it has now become to resort to such extreme measures, but while students might relish the time off of lectures and seminars, many are now approaching mid-term coursework deadlines which could be crucial to their final year grades.
A Cardiff University spokesperson said: “The priority for Cardiff University and its staff, as always, remains is the education of its students and we will seek to minimise disruption during any strike action. Pay negotiations are conducted at a UK level and we would encourage the trade unions to continue dialogue within the agreed national procedures.”
A spokesman for UCEA (The Universities and Colleges Employers Association) said that “the vast majority of their staff understand the reality of the current environment and would not want to take action that could harm their institutions and their students.”
A spokesperson for the Cardiff branch of UCU, who said his expectation was that most teaching sessions within Cardiff University would be rescheduled.
The unions all insist that student welfare has been taken into consideration but striking at such a critical time for students has been regretfully deemed as the only way to draw public attention to the issue, and that they have, as the pamphlet continues, “no other choice.”
This view has been influenced by emerging figures that highlight the substantial increase in pay and benefits for university leaders. In 2011-12, salaries for the leaders advanced by over £5000, according to the Independent, and the average salary per year for a vice-chancellor in the UK is now almost a quarter of a million pounds.
A gair rhydd investigation last March revealed that spending on staff earning £140,000pa or more increased by a minimum of £1.12m in the 11/12 financial year, which came in the form of several pay rises and the addition of seven employees to the £140,000 to £149,999.
Cardiff University Students’ Union is generally supportive of the strikes, with a few caveats focusing on minimizing the negative impact on students’ studies. In a statement release, the Students’ Union have said:
When pay is at a level which attracts excellent staff, and helps to support the maintenance of a happy and motivated workforce, the experience of students will be positively impacted.
• Cardiff University Students’ Union believes that lecturers and other staff should be properly supported and remunerated.
• Cardiff University Students’ Union support the rights of all staff to challenge unfair practices, including to challenge pay and conditions which they democratically deem to be unjust.
• Cardiff University Students’ Union recognises industrial action as an entirely legitimate means of raising such concerns.
• Cardiff University Students’ Union would however take issue with industrial action which unnecessarily and seriously impacts on students – including on the marking and assessment of work, and the ability of students to graduate.
• Cardiff University Students’ Union will be working with the University to minimise the impact industrial action may have on students. This will include discussions over the rescheduling of any cancelled lectures and seminars.
While we recognise that Trade Union members are not required to disclose whether they are joining the strike before Thursday, the Students’ Union have requested that students are well informed of any potential disruptions to scheduled teaching and/or access to buildings.
Whilst we support the premise of the coming strike, future negotiations should address the distribution of pay at Cardiff University to allow for the lowest paid members of staff to earn what is referred to as the “Living Wage”.
As a community, it is important that students and staff work together to find common ground on the issues that impact us all, and work together in the defence of education. This is of particular relevance in light of the recent draft budget from the Welsh Government which proposes a £65 million pound cut to post-16 education in Wales. Trade Union representatives at Cardiff University have expressed support for the Students’ Union in the “Fund Higher, Fund Further” campaign which seeks to reverse the potential changes.
Lillith Hickling, Bryony Humphries & Thu Nguyen