“Stop spinning and start talking” – Sally Hunt issues strike warning to university bosses

If universities want to stop unprecedented disruption on their campuses then they need to show courage and call on their representatives to negotiate meaningfully with the union, the UCU general secretary will tell a London conference today.

Sally Hunt will be speaking less than a fortnight before UCU members at 61 universities are due to walk out in a row over changes to the USS pension scheme that the union says would see a typical lecturer lose around £10,000 a year in retirement.

She will say the time for corridor diplomacy is gone and only vice-chancellors prepared to speak out can stop universities drifting into weeks of industrial action and more negative headlines. Not ruling out the possibility of a deal before the first walkout on February 22, Hunt will say  Universities UK need to “stop spinning and start talking”.

Taking particular exception to Universities UK’s efforts to spin plans to slash the pensions as an “agreement”, Sally Hunt will say this would be the first time in history that an agreement leads to months of disruption. She will also say that any vice-chancellor who tries to explain away the strikes to a student or parent as the result of an agreement is a brave one.

Speaking at UCU’s Cradle to Grave conference, Sally Hunt will reiterate that the union is happy to go into talks led by the mediator Acas – something that the National Union of Students has called for.

Sally Hunt will say: “As things stand, in 12 days’ time tens of thousands of staff – including many in this room – will begin 14 days of strike action. When the employers first set out their plans to axe the guaranteed pension for USS members I said it was the worst offer I had seen in 20 years of negotiating for university and college staff.

“Our members agreed – in overwhelming numbers – with 88% voting for strikes on a record turnout. We are running out of time to stop what will be, if it happens, the most substantial disruption of universities ever in the UK. Yet, while UCU is working hard to resolve the dispute if we can what we have from Universities UK is obfuscation and delay.

“How else to explain their briefing of journalists that an “agreement” had been reached on the same day that UCU announced that strike action would go ahead. It’s a funny kind of agreement where the employers say one thing and the union another.

“This would be the first time in industrial relations history that an “agreement” had been followed by a month of disruption. But good luck to any vice-chancellor who tries to explain to students or their parents that the cancelling of classes is the result of an agreement.

“My message to Universities UK is simple: stop spinning and start talking. Students have called for both UCU and UUK to go to Acas and UCU is happy to say yes to that. We believe it is still not too late to reach an agreement that avoids disruption.

“I have spoken to many vice-chancellors in the past few weeks who are deeply unhappy with what is being done in their name by UUK. Unhappy with the proposal yes. But also with the perception that goes with it of an uncaring, unyielding employer who refuses to negotiate.

“My message is that you can only change that by speaking out. We are long past the time when corridor diplomacy works – what we need now are university leaders with courage.”

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