Cambridge UCU Branch Secretary: pay negotiations at an ‘impasse’; pensions and pay gaps ‘in a good position’

The Tab spoke to Tom Hobson about the UCU’s paused strikes and negotiations

Speaking to the Tab Cambridge, Branch Secretary for the Cambridge UCU Tom Hobson discussed the state of the union’s negotiations, in which he says an “impasse” has been reached on the general pay offer, although pension negotiations sit in a “really good position”, and “potentially meaningful” progress has been made on equality pay gaps.

Following heavy strike action in the past few weeks, the UCU announced on the 17th February that strike action would be paused for two weeks, in order to create a “period of calm” in which negotiations, which have made “significant progress,” can proceed in a “constructive environment.” The UCU yesterday launched its reballot, in which it seeks to extend its strike mandate into the summer.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady stressed her wariness of complacence in an address announcing the pause, saying: “Today is a good day but tomorrow we go back on the campaign trail.”

Tom Hobson at a UCU picket last term (Image credits: Felix Armstrong)

Hobson believes that the decision to pause strike action was a generally popular one: “People seem generally happy with the idea that we’re negotiating, and we’ll find out in probably about a week and a half’s time what the content of those negotiations are and whether we’ll have to carry on fighting. I’m quite certain we will have to carry on fighting, but there is that minor sliver of a chance that we won’t.”

Discussing the negotiations, Hobson revealed that negotiations have reached an “impasse” on pay, which he assumes is an indication that “they’ve not upped the offer to most of our trade union members,” who are on pay grade six and above – with the existing pay offer standing at “five per cent, roughly.” However, Hobson did state that the pay offer has been significantly improved for lower-paid staff within the UCU, and that the pay grade structure is being negotiated, in a process which could “have some really significant benefits for people down the line.”

However, Hobson said pension negotiations are proceeding, as he believes the UCU is at a position which would satisfy its members, namely “a restoration of all the benefits that were stolen from us, in 2022, and potentially at a reduced cost, but certainly at no more cost. […] That’s really really exciting.”

Hobson also spoke about other negotiations, that are being mediated through ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service), which “have a potential to be really meaningful,” such as “a complete end to zero-hours contracts, and a push away from the massive, absolutely horrendous, race pay gap, gender pay gap, disability pay gap in the sector.”

Hobson is keen to stress that the UCU’s negotiations are not hindered by the wide range of demands, stretching from its two key disputes (pay and pensions) to include pay gaps, casualisation, and workload. He insists that dealing with these issues simultaneously is the correct strategy: “These things are all of a piece, and I think they need to be fought at the same time. […] I think it remains to be seen, if we got an offer on one, whether we would settle that and keep the other dispute alive – that’s not a decision I can make. […] It’s absolutely the right principle to be fighting for these things together.”

Hobson also stressed the role to be played by UCU members outside of the negotiations, as he feels that maintaining a strong mandate is vital to successful negotiations. Hobson feels that this is “because we’ve got no evidence from the last five years, in fact from the entire history of capitalism but specifically the last five years in universities, to assume that they would just do the right thing because they ought to.”

If this mandate continued into the summer, argues Hobson, UCU’s position would strengthen with the possibility of a boycott of marking and assessment – what Hobson refers to as the “nuclear option.” If this action was taken, he says, “there is a really significant chance that that could bring a swift resolution to this dispute.” Hobson made sure to stress, however, that “nobody wants to do that.”

“If people were solely out just to have the best possible finance package they wouldn’t be university lecturers in the first place, they wouldn’t be university supervision mentors in the first place.”

Hobson believes that the responsibility falls on the university to “honour the world-class education it promises students” by “putting their money where their mouth is, to start pressuring the relevant national bodies” into negotiating a deal. The strength of the UCU movement, argues Hobson, comes down to the solidarity between students and staff, which in many cases comes from transparency. Although he no longer lectures, Hobson recalls: “lots of my students were very surprised that I wasn’t earning £60,000 a year, and living in a nice big house.”

While negotiations continue in a dispute that is likely to continue into the summer, Hobson believes students must be kept onside.

The University of Cambridge has been contacted for comment.

Featured image credit: Felix Armstrong