Stop moaning and get on with your jobs

That’s the message of the university’s response to the joint union claim on Covid safety sent out on Friday. Rather than take seriously concerns among staff about its ‘Covid-aware’ policy, the University produced a defensive justification of its own position in advance of meeting UCU and Unison which rejects every union demand.

We asked senior management whether they wanted to amend the antagonistic tone of their written response, given that the demands made by the unions derived from concerns expressed at a very big meeting of staff. Not only did they decline, they sent out their response to all staff immediately after our meeting. At least it gives an insight into the attitude faced by your health and safety reps over the last 18 months.

On face coverings, we are subjected to a lesson on the dangers of selective quoting, backed up by the cut-and-paste of an entire section from the government guidance. This seems to be an effort to make the phrase ‘[The government] expects and recommends that [face coverings] are worn in enclosed and crowded spaces’ disappear. We are perfectly well aware that the guidance is contradictory but the University could choose to use that sentence to support a compulsory policy. In fact, the University has now implemented a mandatory masking policy on one of its campuses – Falmer – including in classrooms. But it still claims that government guidance prevents it from doing so elsewhere.

On ventilation, confusion reigns. The unions have long asked for ventilation data to be provided for each room so that staff know whether the minimum standards are being met. Last Wednesday, the University released FAQs which appeared to admit that they are unable to do the necessary calculations for mechanical ventilation systems and instead are relying on CO2 monitoring to assess air quality. On Friday, we were told that ventilation data does exist and that CO2 spot checks are only used for confirmation. But we seem no closer to having that data published where it needs to be: in the rooms to which it applies so that staff and students can see it. It is neither acceptable nor sufficient under health and safety law, for management merely to say to staff, ‘trust us when we tell you it’s safe’. 

Last week, CO2 monitors were installed in teaching rooms on Falmer campus. These provide real-time monitoring of air quality which allows room occupants to take action if levels of CO2 reach unsafe thresholds. The unions called for these monitors to be installed everywhere, but the University’s response is that they are only necessary in rooms where occupation capacity has not been reduced, in other words, only in really unsafe situations. This leaves those of us working on other campuses wondering if our session is going to be subject to a spot-check, and not knowing how many windows should be open or whether the room needs purging. 

The unions did not get a satisfactory reply to our question: If mandatory face covering and continuous CO2 monitoring can be implemented at Falmer, why not everywhere?

In response to the unions’ efforts to secure protection for clinically vulnerable staff, the message is clear: if you are employed to deliver in-person teaching, you need to report for duty on campus or go off sick. 

The University concludes by issuing a threat: don’t even think about relying on the law to claim that your working conditions are unsafe – talk to your manager instead. We agree that staff facing unsafe conditions should speak to their manager and insist that their concerns are addressed. Doing this collectively as groups of staff is likely to be the most effective. But whether our employers like it or not, Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 does provide some protection from the tendency of employers to put ‘business interests’ ahead of the safety of their employees.

UCU advice:

  • Discuss with students the benefit of mask-wearing in class for the protection of everyone. Cite the ‘expectation’ in the government guidance quoted in the University’s own response to staff. 
  • Put pressure on your Dean or manager for continuous CO2 monitoring in your teaching spaces and for the ventilation data to be provided.
  • Report safety concerns and issues to your H&S rep.
  • If you are particularly vulnerable to Covid or share your home with someone who is, ask for ‘reasonable adjustments’ to minimise your presence on campus where possible. There is no reason why individual tutorials, for instance, cannot continue online, and indeed students may find that more convenient. 
  • Attend the forthcoming UCU members’ meeting – details below

Victory at Liverpool!

Liverpool University UCU have won complete victory in their battle against compulsory redundancies.

Earlier this year, using bogus performance metrics, their VC threatened the jobs of 47 staff in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. Who needs health researchers during a pandemic?! UCU members responded magnificently by voting overwhelmingly for industrial action, instituting a marking and assessment boycott and taking two rounds of strike action over the summer. At the start of this term, the number of compulsory redundancies was down to two. But like us at Brighton, Liverpool branch’s position was that two compulsory redundancies was two too many.

On the eve of further strike action scheduled for this week, Liverpool’s management removed the threat to the final two members of staff. This is a fantastic victory for our union and for the position of fighting to defend every job. If we learn the lessons of the Liverpool dispute, we can start to turn the tide on the attacks staff face right across the HE sector.

Jo McNeill from Liverpool UCU will speak about the dispute at our members’ meeting next Wednesday.

Brighton UCU Joint branch members’ meeting

To discuss safety on campus and ballot preparations for the Four Fights. 

Plus a speaker from Liverpool University UCU.

Wednesday 13 October, 1-2pm, online. Teams link in email. If you have any trouble accessing the Teams group, please contact any UCU branch officer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email