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The Dinosaur is extinct, but Solidarity is forever.

The Dinosaur of Solidarity (@of_dinosaur) was a surprising, joyful, hugely inflated, creation, born out of, and in, the strike to defend our pensions in 2018.

Just typing these words feels like a lifetime ago.

The Dinosaur has been ‘mostly sleeping’ since the strike ended, but it is with sadness that we announce today that we will be deleting the Twitter account and that the Dinosaur Of Solidarity will make her last appearance at the Southampton UCU summer celebration on 20th June.

For those that don’t know, the idea for the Dinosaur of Solidarity came from a joke started by our former UCU Branch President, Laurie Stras. Laurie was recovering from a serious operation over the early months of 2018, leaving me in the Presidential hot seat to oversee the strike. Her surgeon advised her to restrict her arm movements, with the suggestion that she should ‘think T-Rex – teeny tiny arms’; the rest, as they say, is history.

A package arrived at the Southampton UCU office, containing a gigantic inflatable dinosaur suit, and a plan was hatched to use this to rally the strikers, and to have a bit of fun. Members of the branch exec set up a Twitter account with the loose aim of supporting the strike. We naively imagined a few of our 1000+ strong membership might engage with the account and that it might inject some humour into our information sharing.

During the strike the ‘live’ dinosaur addressed the assembled pickets across our campuses, each day, usually providing an update on the pension negotiations, and sometimes instigating dancing or call and response chanting. Alongside this our ‘DoS social media team’ put out Twitter updates, some factual, but many simply dreadful puns or satirical comments. Expertise in the team meant we had some great photos, video clips and an unexpected wealth of knowledge relating to palaeontology (oh, the things you find out about your colleagues when you actually have time to talk to them). We also had the benefit of humorous responses to our tweets, which kept our spirits high.

Inspired by the LadyBird Books for Grown Ups that filled stockings everywhere over the preceding Christmas, I found an old Ladybird book, and in the evenings, after strike planning, picketing, rallies and attending teach outs, the Ed the Badger book was created as a Twitter meme. The text accompanying the 1950s illustrations of mice and woodland creatures was tried out on the social media team; if they laughed it went out. Again this was simply an attempt to keep our spirits high through the campaign. One of my most joyful memories in the strike was sitting upstairs in union house, pressing the Tweet button, and hearing the ping ping ping ping as people liked and retweeted the book pages.

The strike was hard. We were a small local team, few of us had experience of major strike action.

It was cold. It snowed. It rained. People were angry about their pensions.

Our local management were very much aligned with UUK, and unsupportive. But the strike held. We had pickets across campuses, some in venues that had never had a picket before. We had the largest and longest supported industrial action in the history of the branch. And the Dinosaur was part of that. She was shared with a few thousand people on Twitter, and encouraged some fabulous imitations (Picketing Panda became a friend) but above all she was ours, she belonged to Southampton UCU. The branch activists were clear that she was there to amplify the messages about the strike, and to boost morale. She did her best to do just that.

Behind the scenes the DinoTeam learnt on the job. Sometimes we made mistakes – learning quickly that we should read to the end and view all videos before ReTweeting, for example. Occasionally the tone of a Tweet or a comment at a rally was wrong. We apologised, amended and tried to do better. We talked as a team about how best to use the Twitter account and what was ‘allowed’ and what did not feel right. I will always have positive memories of this time because we were the union and the university at its best, we were a learning collective working for and with each other, acting with integrity, and with joy.

In the months that followed the strike, the EC lost several members, including two of the three members of the DinoTeam. I stepped into the President role. Meanwhile the Dino slumbered, and there was less room for comic interludes as the branch dealt with rising casework, severances, the VC’s early retirement and the fallout from a devastating staff survey.

We are aware of other branches where UCU members have been subject to victimization for posts made on social media in periods of strike action. Recently a Times Higher editorial criticised ‘trolling’ of University managers by parody social media accounts, claiming that these undermined the sector. These events and discussions remind us that words and ideas are powerful, and can serve multiple interests, and so need to be used with care. Latterly a disturbing parody of the parody emerged as a ‘fake dino’ Twitter account began injecting negativity into the General Secretary election campaign. This was not associated with anyone involved with the Southampton @of_dinosaur team and was, we felt, an extremely unhelpful intervention in an important democratic process.

At a branch executive in May we discussed the closure of the @of_dinosaur account and the ‘death’ of the Dinosaur of Solidarity. This decision was linked to my own departure from the University. Branch executive members agreed that the Dinosaur had been a marvellous vehicle for ideas and humour in the strike but that the responsibility for the Twitter account and the ‘creation’ could not easily be transferred. In the event of a future strike or action new approaches would be needed, and these would necessarily be supported by a new team.

The departure of the Dinosaur is tinged with my personal sadness at leaving the University of Southampton, and the local branch after 16 years, but I am proud of what we achieved in the strike and of the part that @of_dinosaur played in our success.

News last week from USS indicates that we have more to do defending pensions, but also on pay, fighting for equality, job security and better workloads. The work continues and will go on. I am leaving the branch in strong capable hands. The next generation of activists and volunteers will take us forward without the Dinosaur. And that feels right. The Dinosaur understood extinction from the start. Together we were always clear that it was the living mammals that mattered.

RIP The Dinosaur of Solidarity (@of_Dinosaur).
Years active, 2018-2019.
T-Rex, UCU member, humourist, and defender of USS pensions.

General Secretary elections #1 – we put member’s questions to Matt Waddup

We’ve asked all three candidates to answer questions posted by members. Matt has responded and we are sharing his answers with you. More to follow from the other 2 candidates Jo Grady and Jo McNeill – so please bookmark our blog.

Matt Waddup’s responses to our questions

We don’t doubt your passion for defending Post-16 education but can you give us 3 top reasons why our members, in a large pre-92 Russell Group university should vote for you.

1. I have nearly thirty years experience with RMT and now UCU in representing members at the highest level to employers, politicians and media.
2. I have a track record of organising successful campaigns, latest example being the successful USS action which saved the average member more than £200k in otherwise lost retirement income.
3. I have expanded UCU’s policy influence substantially, eg. our research on issues like TEF, admissions, academic freedom, casualisation etc. This was recognised by my appointment as a commissioner on Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission.

How will you engage a largely non-activist membership such as ours?

I believe this is the key challenge facing UCU. In the USS dispute we engaged with members because we were fighting for something tangible. Subsequent pay campaigns have by contrast been ill defined and less people have voted – a signal that the union needs to rethink. In my view we need to consult widely, including with those who currently don’t vote or participate about what they want the union to prioritise.

UCU is a large national organization with 200 staff, volunteer activists and a large perhaps less actively engaged membership. What skills/experience you have that will get the best from each of these three groups (paid staff, activists and wider membership)?

UCU is a great union with talented staff, brilliant activists and engaged members. We are at our best when the three groups work in synch rather than independently of each other. I have a great deal of experience of managing a very large team within UCU and of working with activists across the political spectrum. I have also shown that I can construct campaigns (such as USS) which capture the imagination of less active members.

What is your view of internal factions and sub-groupings within our union, and what will you do to unite our membership?

I am not a member or supporter of any faction or group within UCU. I was nominated by members who previously supported both the UCU Left candidate and Sally Hunt! I think factional politics has been very damaging to UCU, not least because the trivial arguments it engenders hinder the strategic discussion we need to have as a union about our future priorities.

What do you plan to do about unsustainable workloads in HE?

UCU needs to develop a coherent critique of the exploitative employment model at the heart of higher education which institutionalises work overload, inequality and precarity and depresses pay. From here we can formulate clear demands on workload – derived from members’ actual experience – to progress with each employer. To achieve these demands we will need to shift resources into our branches. There is no alternative to this kind of strategic approach – if we keep hitting the repeat button we will get the same results.

How will you tackle centralisation and lack of democratic processes in the University governance?

The breakdown in governance is a key factor in the managerialist agenda taking hold in universities. The managerialism project I am currently running in Education Committee brings together academics with experience of winning positive changes to governance including at DMU and Bath. Both these examples show that staff need to build alliances within the university itself and the side community in support of change. The idea of the project is to produce practical resistance strategies that can be used by branches.

Considering the constraints imposed by the anti-TU legislation, what is your preferred industrial action strategy?

When UCU balloted members on USS last April 63% registered a vote. In the last pay ballot that had shrunk to 42%. My view is that if we want USS style wins on workload, casualisation and pay inequality we need USS style planning and organisation. That means seeking members’ support for action only once we have consulted them properly over what they want; formulated a clear demand, explained what will be required and from members to get there. If we focus on those objectives we will get to the 50pc turnout required by the dreadful trade union act. If we don’t, we won’t.

General Secretary ballot – Don’t moan ‘bout the leader if you don’t bother to vote

Members will soon receive their ballot papers to vote for the person they want as the next General Secretary of UCU.

Sadly, turnout for UCU leadership and committee elections has historically been notoriously low.

I know that not all members and colleagues here understand the union’s structures, or know what many of the official union roles involve. Some think that it doesn’t matter who runs the union. Others simply forget to vote and putting a cross on ballot paper is often just one more thing that falls off the to do list in an already overloaded week.

But this vote really does matter.

The Post-16 Education sector faces a huge number of challenges. In Universities the hostile external environment includes REF, TEF, Brexit, proposed changes to fees, the demographic drop off in the 16-18 year old population, and seemingly endless league table ‘wars’. UCU continues to fight to defend our USS pension, and we urgently need to improve pay and equality, and address excessive workloads. At Southampton we will soon have a new VC, and potentially more change, after years that have seen several reorganisations, staff and budget cuts, redundancies, increased workloads and plummeting morale.

Now more than ever we need a strong union and we need a General Secretary who can lead the union through the ‘perfect storm’ in further and higher education.

The election of the next General Secretary of UCU is a chance for you to have a voice in the democratic process of our Union. We do not get the chance to vote for the VC or Vice-Presidents of our University, but we can have a say in who leads our union.

There are 3 candidates standing to lead UCU. Our branch has invited them to meet members here and, if they are able to come here, we will let you know as soon as dates/times are confirmed. Your branch executive have taken the decision not to endorse an individual candidate, but to encourage you to look at the candidate statements and social media to inform your decision.

We know that when it matters you get the vote out. In the USS dispute your votes gave UCU a mandate to strike. This vote matters too. Please use yours to select our next General Secretary.

Check your mail box for your ballot paper and look out for further details about the hustings.

Candidates (in alphabetical order)

Jo Grady
Web: https://grady4gs.com/
Twitter ‎@DrJoGrady
FB: https://www.facebook.com/Grady4GS/
email: grady4gs@gmail.com

Jo McNeill
Web: https://jomcneillucu.wordpress.com/
Twitter ‎@JomcneillUCU
FB: https://www.facebook.com/votejo4gensec/
email: j.mcneill@liverpool.ac.uk

Matt Waddup
Web: www.medium.com/unite-to-win
Twitter: @mattwucu
FB: www.facebook.com/matt.waddup.1
email: mattwucu@gmail.com

New VC. New Direction?

The Chair of Council has announced the appointment of Professor Mark E Smith as our new VC, to start in October 2019.

We are hoping that Professor Smith will prioritise coming to speak to the campus trades unions who represent frontline staff here and we look forward to welcoming him at Union House. While we were not allowed a formal role in the selection process we hope that our attempts to put forward staff views about the kind of VC we need have had some impact. We delivered the UCU petition, and put forward staff views in meetings with the recruitment firm, and to senior managers. We said that we need someone who understands the damage caused by poorly managed organisational change and poor senior leadership practices. And above all we said that we needed someone who will listen to staff. We said that the new VC should have a salary and reward package more closely aligned with the public sector pay ratio. Professor Smith’s salary will be £287000, somewhat lower than the most recent VC’s pay and close to our request that the VC be paid “no more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee in the University.” (Although this is before including the free house and other perks). We note that this salary does not seem to be much higher than his declared pay in 2015 (according to Wikipedia). We hope this is a good sign and that he might become a champion for our planned fair pay campaign.

So what do we know about Professor Smith? His disciplinary background is as a physicist interested in nuclear magnetic resonance and this may make him understand parts of our University better than others. He is not be confused with the singer songwriter associated with the post-punk group the Fall. He did his PhD at Warwick in 1987. His bio leads us to hope that he retains some understanding of life at the frontline of teaching and research. (We are always hopeful here at UCU). While at Lancaster new links were forged with China, so he may have similar expansionist ideas to those of our previous VCs. This campus may account for his record as 14th highest VC spender on flights,  and we note the environmental issues raised by these ‘offshore operations’ that perhaps conflict with our ‘sustainability’ ambitions. We are hopeful that he will have learnt from his experiences at Lancaster and perhaps understand why large expense accounts are so problematic when frontline staff have had below inflation pay rises and cuts to pensions in successive years.

Those wondering about his relationship with the campus trades unions at Lancaster, might like to see him in action addressing the UCU Picket Line there last March. We will be talking to comrades at Lancaster UCU to find out more over the coming weeks, but our view at this time is to welcome this important appointment and to retain our optimism that Professor Smith will reverse some of the damaging senior management practices we have experienced.  We sincerely hope he will work with us to help University of Southampton become Simply Better.

Appraisal guidance – a welcome pause

On behalf of members we have raised several concerns about new appraisal guidance and performance expectations documents that have been appearing in different Faculties and Services. Members and reps in Arts and Humanities recently had a very constructive meeting with their Deanery team and reached agreement that the guidance document issued recently is to be considered ‘paused’ at present. We are looking forward to further discussions with senior managers across the University about improving how we appraise, support and develop staff.

As a reminder, UCU recently got senior managers to confirm that Weekend open day/visit work by level 4 and above staff is voluntary and should not be set as a performance expectation. We continue to push back on other unreasonable expectations creeping into appraisal processes. We also note your continued concerns about excessive workloads for academic and academic-related professional staff and we are delighted to announce that we have recently trained our first group of Health and Safety Workload reps. These new reps will be focussing on using the support offered by H&S legislation and the collective power of our union to address workplace stress and work overload. This work is part of the national campaign on workloads, and more details of our involvement in this can be found here.

No place for racism at our University

We are sad to have to use this blog to remind members about the distribution of potentially offensive/intimidating posters on our campuses. Our Estates and Security teams are aware of this and are doing their best to remove these.

Staff and students should not approach anyone seen distributing these posters, but should report this to Security on ext 22811 and email Diverse@soton.ac.uk with details. Please don’t attempt to remove the posters yourself.

These posters appear to be from Generation Identity, a far right and white nationalist movement. This movement and these posters have no place on our campuses.

The TUC developed the Migration Messaging project with Hope not Hate and Migrant Voice as a way to promote progressive messages which shift the blame for workplace and social problems away from migrant communities. Some of the case studies supporting the TUC work were taken from the campaign in Southampton against the screening of the Channel 4 documentary ‘Immigration Street’ in 2014, and some of our members were involved in this work. The appearance of vile posters on our campuses is a reminder that our community cannot and must not stop fighting racism. So please do let Security know if you see any of these posters around campus.

We also remind members that there is a stand up to racism march in London this Saturday 16th March linked to the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

Following the news on 15 March we have added the following link to the NEC statement on the New Zealand terror attack.

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International Women’s Day 2019 – our embarrassing gender pay gap

Another one bites the dust (but the top team is still the problem)

Staff and students here at University of Southampton say goodbye to another VC this week. This one didn’t last as long as the last, but managed to oversee a period of great turbulence, poor morale, and cuts to frontline staff.

We are not alone – University of Leicester announced this week that their VC Paul Boyle is departing. Reading their branch blog we feel, again, that sense of déjà vu. As at Leicester, one of the first acts by Sir Christopher was to rename his role ‘President and VC’. This led, naturally, to the creation of Vice-President roles, and not long after, to the expansion of their number and the senior salary pay bill.

While we were promised no more destructive organisational change it took a mere 18 months for a series of projects to unfold – each with more *hilarious* monikers: we had the Wellington Project – the voluntary severance scheme that accompanied – yes, you’ve guessed it – the reorganisation of the University (from 8 Faculties to 5). We wondered if the senior management were having a laugh (Wellington being a type of boot, and so many staff being ‘given the boot’). We also had a Hartley project that entailed, what we considered to be quite heart-less, voluntary redundancies. Like so many other Universities, we endured these losses from a live building site. The slogan “Buildings not Brains” seems to accurately summarise the situation.

The delayed staff survey results, discussed in a previous blog, confirmed what most already knew, that this University has some serious problems. The survey showed that staff lack confidence and trust in the highest levels of leadership here. Staff feel that senior managers are not honest or open, and do not respond to feedback. Southampton UCU and our Senate have responded robustly, calling for serious and meaningful action by senior managers to address this disastrous staff survey.

With Sir Christopher’s departure there is a danger that the organisational narrative will become “It was the last guy’s fault”. We feel a need to push back on this, now, before it takes hold. Yes, Sir Christopher was part of the problem; he oversaw and agreed to many of the negative changes and processes enacted in recent years. But he was not alone. The University strategy, the direction of travel and the tactics employed, are owned by the senior management team. This group, all earning excessive salaries, seem out of touch with frontline staff and the real work of higher education. They have consistently failed to listen to staff and students. Instead of working collectively and supportively with us to defend higher education they have been seduced by metrics, league tables, bonds, and marketization.

With the VC’s departure we have a chance to reclaim the university. We ask the senior managers, especially the Vice-Presidents and Deans, who will be ‘in charge’ in this interim period to remember what higher education really is.  This is their moment to engage properly with frontline staff and students to address the real problems we face.

Visa concerns, and pushing back against the hostile environment

Southampton UCU has been responding to concerns from members this week about University communications with staff and students about the UKVI audit and visa status. We are well aware that many in our community are negatively affected by national policies on migration, as well as the Brexit process, and we have been urging senior managers to ensure that the University does not follow the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ agenda, or feed people’s stress and anxiety about these issues.

We asked the senior managers what the VC has done to support our international colleagues and students, and we were directed to the press statement from the Russell Group, and told that the VC has helped influence the debate through this group and UUK. We were also informed that “the VP International, Winnie Eley has plans to engage this issue systematically in the coming months as an integral part of our international strategy.” We welcome moves by the VC and senior managers to support our diverse community and remind members that UCU has teamed up with Thompsons Solicitors to publish this guidance for EU workers applying for settled status which explains the current legal rights of EU workers and how this might change post-Brexit.

It doesn’t mean we aren’t angry.

Members will have seen the result of the HE ballot, which saw a turnout of 41%, with a 70% vote in favour of a strike and 80% for action short of a strike (80.5%). The turnout was disappointingly short of 50% threshold required by the current legislation.

Our employers will no doubt be relieved that they will not be faced with strike action (some members may feel the same, especially those still paying debts incurred from the USS strike action this time last year).

But this does not mean that staff are not angry about the issues at the heart of the ballot.

Talking to members here we know just how furious staff are about successive below inflation pay rises (and the prospect of paying more for our USS pension despite the recommendations of the JEP). We share your outrage at the casualization of the sector. We too are infuriated with the failure of employers to take meaningful action to address inequalities. We also know how overloaded everyone is due to increasing workloads and performance expectations.

Staff here have sent a clear message, via the recent staff survey, to senior management about their dissatisfaction with their leadership of the University. Staff reported a lack of confidence, a lack of trust and a sense that the senior managers do not listen or respond to feedback. Over the past few years staff and students have also repeatedly spoken out against excessive pay at the top of our University. And in the recent ballot many staff here also voted for strike action over pay and equalities.

Our employers should take note.

The message from the national ballot is that a significant number of UCU members are very angry about Pay, Precarity, Inequalities and Workloads. Locally, the staff survey signals problems at the top of the University of Southampton.

This is a moment for the senior managers to show that they can listen and respond.

The University Executive Board could seize this opportunity to work with staff and students. They could stand with staff on Pay and defend our pensions. They could take meaningful action on equalities. They could work towards ending the over-use of casual contracts. They could tackle excessive workloads, presenteeism and bullying. We believe they should.