UCU postpones reballots amid COVID-19 concerns

University and College Union (UCU) has confirmed plans to postpone pension strike reballots of universities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, although broader action will continue.

It noted that while member branches have been advised to call off all pickets, strike action and action short of a strike are expected to continue as planned, in a move designed to give the union "ongoing leverage” in the pensions dispute.

The reballots, originally expected to take place on Tuesday 17 March, were expected to give a fresh mandate to universities, allowing them to continue strike action after April if a resolution wasn’t reached.

The reballots are expected to resume no later than the end of June.

Whilst the dispute had recently reached a ‘stalemate’, the union has now urged university leaders to use the opportunity to address the issues, and restore goodwill between the parties involved.

In an update to members, UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “Coronavirus represents an extraordinary test of a university system that was already failing staff and students.

“We desperately need university leadership teams to show leadership and work with, not against us. Branches throughout the UK have been working extremely hard to respond to this crisis.

“An agreement to resolve our disputes and work with the campus unions to protect universities from this pandemic could be the only way to restore any goodwill towards employers before the situation becomes completely overwhelming.

“But if employers expect us to pause our action and/or take on extra duties to mitigate the effects of the outbreak without protecting us from its consequences, they will only be storing up more problems for the future."

Furthermore, the union has emphasised that while it is temporarily willing to refrain from any further escalation in the disputes, it is not willing to drop them completely.

Grady added: “If we do not get that resolution, we are willing to temporarily refrain from escalating our disputes in light of this pandemic - but we will not abandon them.

“We continue to ask members to take action short of a strike (ASOS) in institutions that have a mandate to do so. The issues we are in dispute over still need addressing.

"Continuing your action sends an important signal that we are not going away and maintains pressure on employers to resolve the disputes now.

"At the same time, the HEC has set a target to resume the reballots no later than the end of June. There will be further opportunities to consider new developments before then, including at the next HEC meeting on 24 April."

The UCU recently signalled that progress was being made in the dispute, though a spokesperson for USS Employers stated that the proposals made by the union had included conditions that were “wholly unacceptable” to employers.

Strike action has been ongoing at 60 universities since November 2019, with a further 14 universities backing the dispute at a reballot in January.

This resulted in 14 days’ worth of 'unprecedented' strike action at 74 universities throughout February and March, expected to impact around 1.2 million students.

Tripartite talks between the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) and Universities UK (UUK) and UCU have been ongoing since January, predominantly focusing on recommendations from the Joint Expert Panel’s second report and issues around the 2020 valuation of the scheme.

The USS has since issued a technical discussion document to sponsoring employers, seeking opinions on proposed changes to its 2020 valuation methodology.

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