Coventry University has yet again responded to a legitimate and legal request from its staff for union recognition with shameful union-busting tactics, this time in its wholly owned teaching ‘super-subsidiary’, the CU Group.
After a three year campaign to get the University and College Union (UCU) recognised for collective bargaining in the CU Group – which includes ‘no frills’ higher education campuses in Coventry, Scarborough and London – union representatives found out that the employer had instead recognised its own staff consultative forum as a trade union, preventing UCU from applying for statutory recognition.
In response, UCU has launched a national campaign which has so far included local media coverage, letters from local politicians and trade union branches across the UK to the vice chancellor, an impressive protest on graduation earlier this month, and an early day motion to Parliament from Coventry MP Jim Cunningham.
UCU say that they will not stop until the university’s ‘sham union’ is de-recognised and UCU recognised in its place. On the 16 May (3pm), the union will be holding another national protest, this time to coincide with a Coventry University Board of Governors meeting.
Sweating the assets
Exploiting a loophole in UK charity law, Coventry University has pioneered the use of subsidiary companies to engage in profit-making activities and subvert existing collective bargaining and national framework agreements.
Although perfectly legal, such profit making subsidiary companies are not supposed to be used to engage in the charity’s primary objective, in this case education, but are rather designed to help the charity make some extra money to better achieve the primary objective.
As the university proudly boasts, its for-profit teaching subsidiaries, now brought together within the ‘super-subsidiary’ the CU Group, offer ‘no frill’ HE at £6000 per year.
According to UCU, it does this by pressing down on the terms and conditions of its staff, paying de-professionalised tutors less than their Coventry University equivalents, and offering only the minimum of holiday, sickness and pension contributions.
In a letter to The Guardian newspaper earlier this year, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt wrote: “Let’s be clear about what “no frills” actually means in this context. Coventry University College, or CU Coventry, as it’s now called, charges lower prices for its three-year degrees and claims to offer students a more flexible experience.
“But if you teach at CU Coventry – a subsidiary of Coventry University – “no frills” means you get paid much less than your colleagues at the university, your teaching year is much longer, your workload heavier, and you have no access to a decent occupational pension.
“About 40 per cent of the teachers are paid by the hour and this “sweating of the assets” means there is a heavy turnover of staff.
“All of which helps to explain why these teachers are fighting hard for a union. Their colleagues at Coventry University can be in a number of unions that are recognised by the university.
“Appallingly though, the board of governors at CU Coventry decided recently to resist any approaches from unions at the college.
“CU Coventry’s “no frills” model is highly profitable. In 2016 it registered post-tax profits of £3.8million which it then gift-aided to its sole shareholder, Coventry University.
“The CEO of CU College is the pro-vice-chancellor of Coventry University and the board includes two deputy vice-chancellors and the university secretary.
“The university sector is currently beset by scandals over senior pay and perks, and it is right that a light is finally being shone on the murky world of remuneration committees. It is also time to take a proper look at the role of subsidiary companies and how they treat their staff.”
The Coventry University UCU branch has for three years now been campaigning for UCU recognition in Coventry University’s subsidiary companies.
In 2016, UCU successfully balloted staff in professional training subsidiary CU Services – where English pre-sessional teachers, who had once been employed as Lecturers in the main University, had been ‘outsourced’ the year before – achieving an impressive result: 100% of respondents wanted UCU to be recognised for collective bargaining with 76% of staff turning out to vote.
However, just a few weeks after UCU secured recognition, CU Services Ltd announced that it was “reviewing its business model” and sacked many of its staff. These staff were told that if they wanted to continue doing the same work, they would have to register as agency workers with a company called thefutureworks – a trading name of Coventry University Enterprises Ltd, also wholly owned by Coventry University.
Coventry University insisted that its subsidiary companies were autonomous and made their own decisions. However, the companies have only one shareholder, which is Coventry University, while their directors include senior university officers and members of Coventry University’s board of governors. Until October 2015, vice-chancellor John Latham sat on the board of CU Services Ltd.
Subsequently, Coventry University appeared in The Guardian, where Aditya Chakrabortty compared the University’s employment practices to that of Sports Direct, which had just been slammed not paying its workers the national minimum wage, penalising staff for taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Chakraborty wrote:
“Running through the debate around Sports Direct is a comforting, dangerous delusion. It is that such horrors are never visited on People Like Us. Victorian workhouses? Staff so terrified of losing their jobs they dare not protest their abuse? Terrible – but (guilty whisper) it only happens to the low-paid and the low-skilled, at dead-end jobs and in left-behind colliery towns. Right?
“Wrong. Mike Ashley, with his wad of fifties and his helicopter commutes, makes an easy newspaper grotesque. But it’s his treatment of employees that is the really grotesque thing. And those practices are creeping into the lives of more and more workers – even those with the whitest of collars and the longest string of letters after their names. Think your job can’t be Ashley-fied? Then come to one of the most admired universities in Britain, and meet a group of lecturers who say they’ve just been given the full Sports Direct treatment.”
After this national coverage, and the threat of a protest on a major Open Day for prospective students and their parents, the University reinstated these English teachers on their original contracts.
Meanwhile, UCU had also been campaigning in another subsidiary, then called CU College, now CU Coventry and subsumed within the ‘super-subsidiary the CU Group.
Two years later, UCU finally had the numbers to apply for statutory recognition through the Central Arbitration Committee, and met with the employer to notify them only to find out that the CU Group has recognised its own staff consultative forum instead, which under trade union law meant that UCU could no longer go through the statutory process.
Even worse, UCU later found out – through a freedom of information request for the minutes of CU Group board meetings – that the CU Group had discussed this option explicitly as a way of preventing UCU recognition as early as 2016.
Sally Hunt responded: “These shameful dirty tricks by the Coventry University Group are designed to deny staff their right to proper, independent trade union representation.
“Staff have made it quite clear that they want to be represented by UCU.
“The management needs to respect the wishes of staff by scrapping the sham union, confirming they will recognise UCU now and granting the union proper negotiating rights.
“If Coventry’s approach does not change it risks an academic boycott with UCU members refusing to work or collaborate with the university and its subsidiary companies.”
Local politicians intervene
From the beginning, the campaign against union busting at Coventry University has had the support of local MP, Jim Cunningham, who within days wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor, John Latham.
“The approach taken shows a worrying disregard for the wishes of CUG staff and their right to meaningful collective bargaining on the issues of concern,” Cunningham pointed out.
”I have urged the University to change its course, reconsider this approach and agree to an appropriate recognition agreement with the University and College Union (UCU).”
The next MP to wade in was Jack Dromey, Labour MP for Erdington, who also wrote to the VC outlining his concerns about efforts to “deny staff their expressed will and thwart their legal right to a union.
“This appears to have been a deliberate and planned move on the part of the Coventry University Group to exploit the law and deny staff their expressed will and thwart their legal right to a union.
“I find it deeply concerning that Coventry University, a major employer in the West Midlands, should take such an apparently hostile stance towards trade union recognition.
“I note that UCU have launched a petition calling for full recognition of the union which has received almost 10,000 signatures.
“In light of this, I would urge you to reconsider your approach and to intervene to grant UCU recognition across the Group for collective bargaining at the earliest opportunity.”
Other notable interventions have come from local councillor John Mutton, who up until recently worked with John Latham on the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and UCU branches all across the UK.
Jim Cunningham MP has, after receiving no response from the VC, submitted an early day motion to Parliament, which at the time of writing has over 20 signatures.
The motion reads: “This House notes that Coventry University revealed that it had registered its staff association, the Staff Consultative Group (SCG), as a union and signed a recognition agreement with it; is alarmed about reports that the majority of Coventry University staff were unaware of the staff association and were not consulted; is concerned that this means that staff in the Coventry University Group (CUG) have been denied a union since the company was set up five years ago; further notes that members and staff have made it clear that they want the UCU to represent them; notes that a petition has been started on this issue, gaining 9,453 signatures so far; and calls on Coventry University to derecognise its company union and recognise the UCU for collective bargaining with immediate effect.”
On 18 April, Coventry University UCU held a regional protest on a postgraduate graduation day, with over 150 people turning up to show solidarity with CU Group staff, including the UCU vice-president Douglas Chalmers.
Another demonstration has been called for 16 May – to coincide with a meeting of the Coventry University board of governors – this time a national protest that will hopefully see even more people express their anger at the shameful union-busting practices of one of the UK’s leading modern universities.
Coventry University has been claiming that they have offered to negotiate with UCU, with representatives telling the local media that they “have always made clear that we’re open to continuing talks with UCU”.
“We believe the protest was misguided and unnecessary because we have agreed to meet with UCU to discuss their concerns in a positive and constructive manner on multiple occasions.
“Instead, regrettably, we feel UCU has embarked on a negative and misleading public campaign and reneged on commitments made to us.
“We remain open to positive dialogue with UCU.”
However, UCU has issued a clarification that disputes this claim, pointing out that as yet, the University has put nothing definite on the table and that trust between staff and the CU Group is non-existent.
“Coventry University needs to stop spinning and demonstrate it actually wants to get this sorted,” a spokesperson from UCU said. “They can stop it all immediately by simply agreeing to recognise UCU.
“We’re happy to meet any time to discuss how an agreement will work but we’re not going to suspend the campaign until they confirm that they will recognise us, now, in line with our statutory rights.
“We’ve asked the university to confirm this, in writing, repeatedly since March 8 and they still won’t do it.
“Coventry can’t be allowed to pick and choose what they negotiate with us just because they are prepared to trick their staff out of legal recognition.”
What can you do?
- Attend the demonstration on 16 May (3pm) and bring a friend
- Ask your MP to sign the early day motion: https://www.parliament.uk/edm/2017-19/1178
- Write a message of support to staff at CU Group and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Circulate the petition of protest as widely as you can: http://speakout.web.ucu.org.uk/stop-the-anti-union-dirty-tricks-in-the-coventry-university-group/
- Write to Vice Chancellor John Latham calling on him to stop union-bashing in his Group of companies. John.email@example.com and cc in firstname.lastname@example.org