The University and College Union is to pursue nearly 30 universities for millions of pounds of pay it claims was “unlawfully deducted” from staff who took part in the two-hour walkouts earlier this year.
About one in five universities chose to dock a whole day’s pay from anyone taking part in the two-hour stoppages, held on 23 and 28 January and 10 February, over this year’s disputed 1 per cent offer.
Institutions claim the action constituted “partial performance”, which allowed them to withhold pay for the entire day – a legal stance contested by the UCU, which has now reiterated its desire to take court action to recover the cash.
With the bitter pay dispute –which also included three one-day walkouts – now resolved after union members accepted a 2 per cent pay increase for 2014-15, the UCU has written to institutions to ask them to reconsider their “unreasonable and disproportionate” action over the whole-day deductions.
“We consider any monies either taken, or threatened to be taken, from staff for more than the two hours they were on strike as unlawful deductions,” said Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary.
Reversing universities’ hard-line stance on deductions would help “vice-chancellors…to build bridges with the union locally and nationally” following the “protracted and, at times, bitter dispute”, she added.
“To be treated so shabbily by the employer leaves an incredibly bitter taste in the mouth,” Ms Hunt said of those universities taking the “punitive” line on deductions.
Five universities have so far agreed to reverse their initial decision to deduct a full day’s pay, with one – Sheffield Hallam University – saying it had changed its stance as it felt a “gesture of goodwill was appropriate in light of the significant vote in favour of accepting the 2014-15 pay offer and ending the 2013-14 dispute”.
However, 28 institutions have maintained their position, the UCU said. The cost of reimbursing staff is not known, but it is likely to run into millions of pounds, union leaders believe.
As an example of the figures involved, Sheffield Hallam University’s UCU branch has claimed that about £0,000 was deducted from its members for the three one-day strikes alone, although these deductions are not in dispute.
The university has meanwhile rejected claims that it paid a similar amount to sponsor the Tour de France, which will visit Sheffield on 6 July. It said the actual figure was commercially sensitive and could not be disclosed, but it would be “repaid many times over in the opportunities that [the Tour] brings to enhance teaching and recruitment”.
Chris Mordue, partner at solicitors Pinsent Masons and lead adviser on higher education employment issues, said there was no reason to repay money as universities “were acting within their legal rights”.
“[It] would be seen as accepting the UCU’s arguments that only two hours’ pay can be withheld for a two-hour strike and would risk setting a precedent for future action,” he said.
He also believed that the UCU would be wrong to pursue the action as it “carries the risk that the employer’s right to withhold a full day’s pay will be confirmed by the courts”.
A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said “a significant number of employers adopted this policy as a legitimate response” to the UCU action. “Unions are fully aware that their members will lose pay if they ask them to take part in industrial action,” he added.
Sign of support: thousands back disciplined strikers
Thousands of people have signed a petition condemning the “victimisation” of two university employees who were reprimanded after telling students why they were going on strike.
Two University and College Union members at the University of Glasgow were brought before a disciplinary panel after they sent an email to students explaining the reasons for the UK-wide industrial action, which led to the cancellation of lectures and classes at many universities.
Written by UCU general secretary Sally Hunt as a template letter to distribute on campus, the message explains that the staff were taking part in the strikes because universities “refuse to increase their 1 per cent pay offer”.
But Glasgow decided to take informal disciplinary action against the pair, who work in counselling services, because it was concerned that students seeking pastoral help would receive the letter.
No sanctions were imposed on the two members of staff, although it is understood they were asked to reflect on “ethical issues” relating to their communication with students.
But the action has been criticised in the online petition, with one signatory calling it “mind-boggling that adult staff have been disciplined for discussing with adult students a matter widely published in the national press”.
The petition, signed by more than 2,700 people as Times Higher Education went to press, calls on Glasgow principal Anton Muscatelli to “rescind the reported recommendations of the disciplinary investigation which found that these colleagues acted improperly”.
A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said it could not comment on individual cases but that “the appropriate procedures were followed”.