Sussex unions plan ballot over outsourcing

Three unions at the University of Sussex have begun the process that could lead to strikes over outsourcing plans at the university.

April 5, 2013

Unison, Unite and the University and College Union plan to hold an indicative ballot asking members whether they would be prepared to take industrial action.

The unions say they are concerned about management’s lack of consultation over plans to transfer 235 estates and catering jobs to private companies, announced in May last year and planned for August 2013.

Times Higher Education understands that bar a major change in the university’s stance, the ballot will be issued following a meeting with management on 8 April.

“Unions have been in meetings with management since last May and we haven’t made as much progress as we’d like,” a Unite representative at Sussex told THE. “We feel that management have been reluctant to give information or answer our questions, so we do feel that this is the road to go down.”

Privatisation of services at Sussex has become a national issue in recent weeks after an eight-week-long student occupation in protest over the plans drew celebrity and international support.

The occupation was evicted on 2 April after the university was granted an injunction and possession order over the campus following a protest on 25 March which led to property damage, documents being burnt and graffiti drawn on walls. 

A perceived failure by management to engage in meaningful dialogue with staff and students has long been a central complaint of the protesters, who called the occupation “a last recourse”.

Documents obtained by the campaign through a Freedom of Information request and seen by THE show that some focus groups run on behalf of the university in June last year revealed staff’s concerns over the plans.

The discussions were intended to seek views from staff on current and future services, in order to feed into the contract procurement process already underway.

However the report of the event said “in many cases it proved difficult to discuss these issues without allowing people to talk about their opposition to outsourcing these functions”.

“For most attendees, it was their first opportunity to discuss their feelings about the decision with someone representing the university. There was a general feeling that there should have been an organisational-wide consultation, prior to the decision to outsource, which would have given in-house teams time to look at how the service might be improved without outsourcing,” it adds.

In a recent statement, Sussex registrar John Duffy said the university remained focused on how to deliver better facilities management and “how to offer more choice to staff and students, for example in our catering services, which currently runs an annual deficit of £500,000”.

“We are continuing the proper discussions with the three campus trade unions, and the support to transferring staff, in relation to our plans to work with external partners,” he added.

Students are planning to hold a further demonstration on 5 April, for which they are seeking permission from the university through solicitors.

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