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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.

Mental health – top tips from Ruby Wax, but can we also fix the structures?

We are pleased to see that our new Chancellor Ruby Wax has given a short interview in the latest staff magazine, drawing attention to mental health. [intranet only] This is clearly very well-intentioned, and a welcome intervention. Ruby reminds us to look out for the signs that someone is distressed and to be more open and honest about mental health matters. Like Wellfest – the University’s day of wellbeing – the message is aimed more at students than staff, but nonetheless this interview is a positive start to Ruby’s tenure.

UCU will be running and participating in events next week to raise awareness about workloads and stress and mental health. We hope that senior managers will begin to recognise that a key factor in reducing mental ill-health and a lack of wellbeing are structural factors e.g. excessive workloads, intolerable and unachievable performance expectations and metrics, and (as the staff survey shows) lack of the resources and support needed to do one’s job. Whilst we want to encourage healthy eating, exercise and mindfulness activities, we recognise that half an hour of these a week will not address the cultural and organisational contexts that staff and students report as damaging to their mental health and wellbeing.

Next week is UCU recruitment week and Mental Health Awareness week and so our events will focus on wellbeing at work and what we can do to help remove the stigma and discrimination that people living and working with a mental health condition or issue face. Please come along and talk to us about what you would like us to do to address wellbeing in the workplace – our reps/officers will be very interested to hear your ideas.

Schedule of events:

Monday 13 May – 1-2pm, room 2/1079, Highfield Wellbeing – An interactive session for all staff
This session will start with a brief presentation from Dr Sarah Kirby, a registered Health Psychologist in the Department of Psychology. Sarah is the FELS Wellbeing champion and has been actively engaged in this field of work for many years. Following this introductory overview, there will be an interactive discussion during which colleagues can raise their own concerns and/or concerns on behalf of their friends and colleagues.
The session will be mainly focused on well-being and everyday hassles, barriers, challenges and opportunities. The session is open to all staff, whether union members or not.

Tuesday 14 May – 12.30-1.30pm, room 58/1025, Highfield
Our sister union, Unison, will be running a Lunch and Learn event – How to Deal with Stress
Places are limited so to book a place please email unison@soton.ac.uk

Wednesday 15 May – 10-4pm, Garden Court
The University is hosting Wellfest and there will be mindfulness sessions running at 10 am and 1pm as well as other events. UCU will be hosting an infostand at the event, so please come along to say hello, pick up some information and share your ideas on how to improve wellbeing at the university. Free gifts available.

Thursday 16 May – 12-2pm, Staff club
Visit our infostand in the foyer of the staff club and discuss how you would like the University to address wellbeing and support staff facing mental health issues/concerns. Free gifts available.

Friday 17 May – 4pm onwards, Arlott bar
End the week with a coffee/beer and relax with UCU reps, officers and fellow members for an informal gathering.

We look forward to seeing you at one of our events. And please do feel free to pass this information on to non-member colleagues and encourage them to join UCU.

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.

Half time report – how are the senior managers doing with their response to the staff survey?

Southampton UCU have been collating feedback from colleagues about the senior management responses to staff survey. We learned that Arts and Humanities had a good feedback session, led by their Dean, as well as drop in sessions. It seems these were characterised by listening and recognition of the seriousness of some of the negative feedback provided in the survey. It was disappointing to hear staff in some other Schools/Faculties report less positive responses to feedback sessions. One member said their event consisted of “the senior team doing all the talking and no action plan”.

The problems identified in the survey are clear – and are predominantly about a lack of confidence and trust in the top team. The engagement plan, which appears to be designed to restate the survey results to ever smaller groups of frontline staff appears to be slightly missing the point. UCU continue to be concerned that senior management are not listening to feedback, or to frontline staff or students. We have again heard senior managers using the narrative “it was the VCs fault” and “the survey was last year and is out of date” as excuses to negate the important messages – which are consistent across surveys in previous years – about senior management failings. We think it is time that senior managers took responsibility for the problems created by the strategy and policies they have introduced.

We understand that one Dean has undertaken an alternative analysis of the text comments from the survey (which can only be circulated within the UEB due to ethics and data protection) and that this has produced helpful insights. We hope that all of UEB will look at this analysis to understand and respond to the comments so that these responses to the survey are not wasted.

One of the big challenges for senior managers here is the organisational culture in which staff still do not feel supported to speak up. Feedback about problems and constructive criticism are often ignored or punished. UCU would like to know what the senior managers are planning to do to restore trust.

Bullying

One interesting response that some senior managers have made to the survey results concerns bullying. It has been suggested that ‘the problem’ is academic staff bullying of Academic related professional staff (ARPS). This is not our reading of the survey results, or our experience from casework with members who have been bullied (who include ARPS and Academic staff at different grades). We are aware that the loss of frontline staff, and poorly managed organisational change has increased the stress and pressure on all staff, and wonder if addressing these problems might reduce poor interactions and improve working relationships. But beyond this we also believe that all staff need better anti-bullying training. More work needs to be done to find out about the nature of bullying and harassment at the University, especially to understand why some places (e.g. WSA) appear to have higher reported rates of bullying, but this needs to be approached carefully and cannot be done in the large or focus group format of the current engagement meetings.

Improved communication from the interim VC and UEB

We have been reading with interest the new UEB blogs and this is a step in the right direction, making senior management activity more transparent. However some of the current content is rather superficial and has been derided as ‘pretend communications’. Staff here would welcome UEB reports that provide more than an annotated agenda and tell us what is being done to respond to staff and student concerns. UCU also welcome the new all staff emails from Mark Spearing as interim VC although we note that the subject line could be better labelled to prevent these emails from becoming lost in the daily avalanche of emails. (Perhaps instead of ‘My Monthly Email’ it could say ‘VCs update’?).  Communication between senior management and staff  has been highlighted as a problem area in the survey, and information sharing is one response to this. Staff here would welcome more self-critical reflection by UEB and the interim VC about management decisions that have led to the distrust and lack of confidence identified in the staff survey – this would show us that they have understood the results of the survey.

To address the question posed in the title of this blog. How are our senior managers doing? We feel there are few moves in the right direction, but sadly still a lot of evidence that the messages from the survey have not been understood, so there is still a way to go.

Strike ready. An update on USS, and a warning.

Members of USS pension scheme are now paying an extra 0.8% into their pension scheme and have received a USS member letter explaining that there are more increases to come in October and next April. Our employers are no longer matching the additional 1% contributions that some members opted to make to try to restore some of the benefits they were promised.

Your pension is deferred salary. Against the backdrop of a below inflation pay rise these increases in contributions represent yet another cut in your pay.

The pension strike last year fought off threats of a Defined Contribution only scheme that would be much worse for all members. The strike also won independent scrutiny of USS via the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). At the time of the strike, UCU was in dispute with many employers (Southampton included) who, represented by UUK, were allied with USS to try to force detrimental changes to the pension scheme.

UCU responded with the longest and largest strike action we have ever taken. In the months following the strike, we have seen many employers shift their position, in the light of evidence presented to them and in consultation with staff and unions. Many employers have now accepted the JEP recommendations in full (sadly not this University). Frustratingly, at a time when UCU and UUK are in agreement, USS are refusing to listen and are insisting that the employers sign up to contingent contributions

The JEP was highly critical of the USS position and changes to the valuation of our pension. The JEP has more work to do regarding governance of the pension scheme, and the heavily contested valuation methodology. A new, 2018 valuation will be completed by the end of June 2019. The University of Southampton has invited Brendan Mulkern back to run a couple of talks on 29/4 and 2/5 to update staff (we note that Mr Mulkern is Senior Pensions Adviser to UUK, although this is not listed on the advert about these workshops.)

We are clear that increased contributions from members are unnecessary. We continue to support the recommendations of the JEP.

Members here, in a branch that does not make decisions to take industrial action lightly, were clear last year that reductions in pension benefits are not acceptable. The recent ballot also showed significant support for action on pay and equality, even though we did not quite achieve the 50% turnout required by anti-trades union law.

In the face of threats to our pension, and unnecessary increases in USS deductions from our pay and yet another derisory pay offer from our employers we may have to take action again. Reluctantly, we ask UCU members to start saving money (if they can) and to be ready for further strike action. We have had enough of cuts to pay, reduction in pension benefits and a system which casualises and overloads our staff. Our #DinosaurOf Solidarity may be sleeping, but we know that members here can, and will, “Rise Like Lions” when pushed.

 

Branch action plan update

Thank you to all of you who came to our well attended General Meeting last month, and to those who also came to the Workload Reps workshop. We are delighted to have established our new group of H&S workload reps who will take forward our actions to address workplace stress and work overload. Please save the date for our AGM which will be held on June 5th, starting at 12:30 (room tbc) where we can update you on this campaign.

The nominations for General Secretary of UCU will close on 8th April and we are hoping to arrange hustings to give members here a chance to meet and hear from all the candidates. Please look out for details of this.

Below is the update on local branch activities and our plans for the coming months presented at the GM. This action plan is very much an evolving document, supported by your branch exec, departmental reps and caseworkers, and individual members who bring concerns to us. If you can help the work of your union or want to find out more about local and national campaigns please do get in touch (ucu@soton.ac.uk).

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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