Landmark strike vote at King’s College London

Proposed job cuts leave scholars with ‘no alternative’ to industrial action, says union

February 27, 2010

Union members at King’s College London are to undertake their first-ever vote on strike action amid fears over proposed job cuts.

The University and College Union will open a ballot for industrial action on 4 March unless negotiations produce a breakthrough following the college’s proposals to cut 205 jobs.

Scholars from around the world have criticised the plans, which include abolishing the UK’s only chair in palaeography – the study of ancient handwriting – and making redundant two leading computational linguists.

The ballot is further evidence of growing national unrest among higher education staff. Dozens of universities have sought to cut jobs in the wake of funding reductions.

Jim Wolfreys, chair of the UCU branch at King’s, said the decision to ballot was not a “gung-ho” move.

“People feel there is no alternative,” Dr Wolfreys said. “They [college management] are not listening.” He noted that the union was “expecting a high turnout and a ‘yes’ vote”.

The School of Arts and Humanities is among the areas hardest hit by the college’s savings plan, where all 220 academic staff have been told their jobs could be at risk.

A consultation document says: “Selection of those roles which will be redundant will be done through an assessment based on the performance of each role holder.”

Dr Wolfreys said any loss of jobs at the college would damage its academic reputation and “lead to an increase in workloads of those who survive the cull and inevitably impact most seriously on students”.

He added: “There is more anger than I have ever seen at King’s. There is a sense that management are not in control of the situation… We have never had a local ballot for action. That, as much as anything else, is an indication of the strength of feeling.”

The UCU is due to host a “teach-in” at the college’s Strand site today between 11am and 4pm. Literary critic Terry Eagleton and author Michael Rosen will be among the speakers.

The UCU said the college had £180 million in reserves, and criticised it for proceeding with the purchase of the east wing of Somerset House at a cost of £20 million.

A spokesman for King’s said the college was “extremely disappointed” about the decision to ballot for industrial action.

He said: “Following discussions between UCU and King’s on 22 February, the college formally reiterated a desire to respond to the concerns raised by the union and to continue discussions. The college believes a ballot on industrial action before these discussions have concluded is ill advised, particularly during a time of financial strain.

“There is particular concern that industrial action will impact on exams and that our students, who have worked so hard towards these, will suffer as a result.”

He added that the east wing of Somerset House had been acquired on a leasehold, funded largely by a specific government grant and a £20 million fundraising campaign.

News of the King’s ballot comes after planned industrial action was averted at the University of Leeds.

Talks between UCU and Leeds saw the action suspended after progress was made on compulsory redundancies and university governance.

UCU members at the University of Sussex are currently being balloted over industrial action in another row over job cuts.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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