York UCU President Speaks Out

Joanna de Groot told York Vision the action was "a last resort".

The University and College Union has announced three days of strike action, from today to 3 December.

York branch President Joanna de Groot told York Vision that “frustrated and angered by their employers”, this was a “last resort” for UCU members.

This term’s action will be the fourth round of strikes in as many years. De Groot stressed that “unless the employers come back into meaningful negotiations there could be further action”.

She said this would mean a move from “the very negative position to claims and demands that employers have chosen to take” to open conversations where there’s “real changes on offer”.

Many students are frustrated that strikes are going to take place yet again, but some staff say they are feeling the same frustration.

De Groot said that the strikes are, in many ways, about the same things as before, telling Vision: “The 2018 strikes gained us the chance to reopen and renegotiate very important parts of our pension scheme. Putting a stop to some of the very hostile proposals that would have been very hurtful to staff in the pension scheme.”

But since then she has said “things have slid backwards”, claiming that not only were there further problems in the implementation of changes to the pension scheme, but pay inequity and the casualisation of workers became increasingly frustrating, which led to the strikes in 2019, 2020, and this year.

De Groot stressed her belief that the pay and working conditions that staff face have a negative effect on students’ studies.

In a YUSU round table discussion, one Graduate Teaching Assistant said that they were only paid for one hour of prep time, but claimed that most GTAs were doing up to seven times that.

De Groot said: “Overworked lecturers and tutors are worrying about whether they can pay their bills, and I do mean literally whether they can pay their bills, or whether they can care for their families.”

She said it was because of this that she had to speak out and said that she is pleased that UCU have had an influx of “newer and younger colleagues” who she says are “very representative of a kind of new energy”.

After years of COVID-19 disruption and strikes, she said she understands “student anxiety and anger at the prospect of more disruption to their studies”.

“How could students not feel both anxious and possibly hostile? I don’t expect all students to be pleased about what’s happened.

“I hope we can at least mutually understand each other.”

While acknowledging rising concerns around student mental health, De Groot claimed that mental health concerns are also growing for staff, and they are “related to stress due to unsuitable workloads and financial insecurity.

“Staff are not striking to hurt students but we have to do something so that student learning conditions can be as good as we want them to be.

“Treating us decently puts us in the position to do the very, very best we can for students.”

At the YUSU round table discussion, university management were resounding in their support for students during the disruption.

De Groot wondered if this would be in ways which are “unkind or unfair to staff”.

She said that she had concerns about “how pressure might be put on the postgraduates to teach, to do things over and above their contracts to substitute for other staff”.

De Groot claims this shows “the employers are more interested in undermining the strike than they are in facing the problem, which is decent pay and pensions”.

When asked how she felt students would react to the strikes, she said: “I think there will be some support, there will be perhaps some hostility, no doubt that people in the middle just will keep their heads down, and hope it all goes away.”

The thing she said she asks for most is “respect”.

In YUSU’s canvas of student opinion, 51.5% of students surveyed (a total of 357) wanted the Union to support the strikes, and over 63% of respondents said that they supported Action Short of a Strike.

YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell said: “While students have told us, in modest numbers, that they want to support the trade union’s December strike plans, it’s also clear they need more information about the term ahead before we re-canvas them.

“In the meantime we will be concentrating on supporting students’ rights and demanding that the UCU and the Universites and Colleges Employers Association find a way to end this dispute.”