Action Short of Strike (ASOS) advice to BUCU members

The following is guidance for Birmingham UCU members on action short of a strike (ASOS). This is general and non-exhaustive advice and it may not cover all circumstances, so please feel free to contact your College contact below, or if your College is not listed, please email the branch at admin@birminghamucu.org.

CAL: Amy Burge dramyburge@gmail.com or Tom Cutterham tcutterham@gmail.com

The following guidance is drawn from and in addition to guidance from central UCU (https://www.ucu.org.uk/working-to-contract), from the University of Edinburgh (https://ucuedinburgh.wordpress.com/help-and-support/asos-guidance), and Warwick University (https://warwickucu.org.uk/campaigns/pensions/asos-faq/#asos6). Thank you to our colleagues in UCU branches for sharing their hard work!

Additional resources: A simple spreadsheet for working out your weekly hours to 37.5 and a spreadsheet useful for those on three-legged contracts for balancing teaching/admin and research.

What is ASOS?

Action short of a strike began at the same time as the strike action (so on 25 November 2019) and will continue until the union calls it off.

While a strike is a complete stoppage of work, action short of a strike (ASOS) is normally action which affects only certain aspects of your work. Since the changes introduced by the Trade Union Act 2016, UCU have to determine and ballot members regarding the types of action short of strike we are calling.

Action short of a strike in these disputes means UCU is asking you to:

  • work to contract
  • not cover for absent colleagues
  • not reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action
  • not undertake any voluntary activities (such as attending voluntary meetings)

Universities, and many other organizations operate on goodwill, rather than contractual obligation, and the point of ASOS is to draw attention to this fact.  This will result in the university running at slower pace than usual.

It’s worth bearing in mind:

  • It is management’s job to be specific in terms of both the task you do and the order which they are undertaken
  • If you are unsure about what your priorities ought to be you should refer your query to your line manager or HoD

Working to contract means abiding by the terms of your contract (including your obligation to perform your duties in an efficient manner), but to do no more than that.
In general, while engaging in ASOS, if you are asked to do a specific task, seek clarification as to why it is being asked, what it involves and what you should deprioritise instead. Based on the provided information, decide whether this counts as you having to redo work you were already docked pay for or not. If you’re ever unclear, ask for further clarification and contact BUCU.

What are my weekly hours?

The Head of HR, Gillian McGrattan has confirmed that the University will not be making any deductions of pay for individuals who work strictly to 37.5 hours per week and who refuse to take on areas of responsibility beyond their normal range of duties.

Your contractual hours may be written on your contract but not all staff have clearly expressed contractual hours in which case the University has indicated a notional working week of 37.5 hours. We advise that you check your contract in the first instance.

In some cases, established hours can be derived from local workload collective agreements. In that case, you should work no more hours than expressed in this agreement. These may be notional, but we advise you stick to any notional hours. Under UK law, all employees are entitled to a 20 minute break in any working day longer than 6 hours. In any case, you should not work more than the European Working Time Directive (48 hours).

You are entitled to ask your line manager for:

  • Your personal workload data
  • Workload hours to attend a meeting if it is seen as necessary/compulsory and allowance not currently given

What counts as voluntary activity?

  • Guidance from the University of Edinburgh branch has suggested that the following activities may be voluntary (unless part of a formal role taken on for which workload allowance is given) – please note this list is non-exhaustive:
  • Surveys, questionnaires, consultations etc from anywhere in the university (eg. estates, library). It may be pertinent to send an email. For example: ‘I am currently engaged in action short of a strike to defend USS pensions, which involves working to my contract. My union has requested that I and my colleagues do not undertake voluntary activities as part of this action. For this reason I am unable to complete your [questionnaire/survey/consultation] and I would urge you to abandon it given that a fully representative response will not be achieved at this current time.’
  • Open Days
  • Away Days
  • Non-compulsory meetings
  • Non-compulsory training sessions
  • Attendance at any event on Saturdays: delivery and collection of Saturday exam papers
  • Attendance at any event after 5pm (if 9am start) or in lunch break
  • Conducting annual reviews/appraisals (interviewer) if this is not already part of a formal role (for example, as the line manager) for which workload allowance is given.
  • Mock REF assessment of outputs (if not part of a formal role for which workload allocation is given).

How can I determine whether an activity is voluntary?

If you are in doubt you should ask your head of department whether the activity is voluntary or mandatory. If they say you must attend, ask them to put in writing direct to you and take it up with your local branch. A written instruction to you does not count as a general instruction to all, so other members should seek individual confirmation that they are also required to attend. You could write using the following formulation:

‘As you know, UCU members are currently working to contract and this action includes not undertaking voluntary activity. Consequently, I am writing to ask you to confirm in writing whether this activity is voluntary / my attendance at this meeting is voluntary.’

Does ASOS imply breach of contract and if so, what does that mean?

Sticking to your hours (‘working to contract’) is not a breach of contract, however anything beyond working to contract (which includes refusal to reschedule, refusal to cover for absent colleagues), could be construed as a breach of contract, but is covered under the ballot and hence implies that you cannot be disciplined for taking this action. However, you may be subject to pay deductions for breach of contract arising from ASOS.

What is Birmingham’s current position regarding ASOS Pay Deductions?

Currently, the Director of HR, Gillian McGrattan, has indicated that not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to make up lost teaching do constitute a breach of contract and will be subject to deduction of 25% of pay as soon as these actions have been identified and a possible further 100% of pay for any future actions. However, we are not currently clear as to how such actions will be identified nor what guidance is being issued to Heads of School. We advise you to wait for further instruction from your Head of School.

In the past, many other universities, such as Cardiff, Sussex, Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway have provided guarantees to staff that they will not deduct any pay for ASOS. Please feel free to contact our Vice Chancellor indicating that you would like these guarantees provided for colleagues at Birmingham.

I am hourly paid what should I do to support the action?

When working to contract, hourly paid staff should ensure that they work no more hours than those for which they are contracted and receive payment. This means, for example, not exceeding the allocated preparation time for seminars/lectures; not doing any additional admin and advice and feedback work besides your allocated and paid hours; not spending any more time than what you are allocated for marking essays and exam scripts. If you find that you cannot fulfil your workload by sticking to your contracted hours, we advise that you refer to your HoD or module convenor, advise that you are working to contract and ask for instructions about how to deal with your excess workload. This includes marking. If you find that you cannot finish your marking in the allocated hours, perhaps as a result of unreasonable expectations set out in the STP framework, we advise you to contact your HoD. Explain that you have fulfilled all your contractual hours, but that a portion of the marking remains unfinished. Consequentially, inform your HoD that you will not be carrying out any unpaid work as part of ASOS. You can also ask them for alternative solutions.

Where payment is comprehensive i.e. it includes an element of preparation/marking/administrative time/holiday pay for every teaching hour it is important to know how much additional time is being paid. If this is not clear from the contract and/or payslip, we advise that you request from your Head of Department an explanation of how your pay is calculated.

What will happen with marking and marking deadlines that I missed because of the strike? Do I still have to keep to the 15-day marking deadline?

If you receive pressure to hand in your marking on time, we recommend the following:

For employees: write to your line manager asking them if they would like marking to be your priority and, if so, what they would like to be deprioritised. In case they ask you to prioritise marking, consider this to a reasonable request. However, we would suggest that you stick to your contracted or notional hours and do not work beyond these.

Hourly paid staff: you are also subject to your department’s regulations on marking deadlines. However, it is reasonable that marking deadlines will be missed as a result of the strike action. Our advice is that hourly paid staff act similarly to employees: Prioritise your marking to the extent that is reasonable in relation to your additional commitments stemming from alternative roles (including PhD work or second job related activities). This is to ensure that your total weekly working hours do not exceed your contracted or notional hours. Do not put yourself under unreasonable pressure to carry out marking at greater speed. With regard to marking, we advise you to stick strictly to your contractual hours. If you find that you cannot finish your marking in these allocated hours, perhaps as a result of unreasonable expectations, we advise you to contact your Head of Department. Explain that you have fulfilled all your contractual hours, but that a portion of the marking remains unfinished. Consequentially, inform your HoD that you will not be carrying out any unpaid work as part of ASOS. You can also ask them for alternative solutions.

If you receive pressure from your HoD/ members of your department to commit to marking as a priority, this might, under circumstances, be seen as reasonable, but please do get in touch with BUCU.

What if I’m asked to report or provide content of missed sessions (whether through an online form or email)?

It is entirely reasonable for you to inform your line manager on the missed sessions (e.g. my students missed the classes in Week 7 or between Date X and Y), but you don’t need to elaborate any further.

What should I do if management insist that I perform a task I believe to be outside my contract?

If management insist on you complying with an instruction, do not lay yourself open to disciplinary action. Comply under duress, and raise a formal grievance by emailing your local branch. If you have any doubts regarding the consequences of a course of action, contact BUCU for advice. We cannot guarantee an immediate answer in all cases, but we will get an answer as quickly as we are able to.

The action UCU members are taking is perfectly legal. If you are put under undue pressure or coercion by line managers to withdraw from the action, you should ask the manager concerned to put their instructions in writing and tell UCU immediately. UCU will not hesitate to launch collective grievances or institute further industrial action in support of members who are bullied while taking part in lawful industrial action.

Suggested ASOS email signature

Please feel free to adapt the following text for inclusion in your email signature during ASOS:

Please note that I am currently taking action short of a strike as part of the University and College Union’s (UCU) industrial action to defend our right to a fair pension, fair pay, secure contracts and equality at work.

Response times may be slower for the duration of the dispute, especially outside of normal working hours.

Please support university staff by writing to university management asking them to listen to staff concerns.