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Northumbria becomes first university to face Covid-19 strike

Image: dun_deagh [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

UCU warns of potential for ‘wave’ of industrial action over coronavirus safety concerns

Staff at Northumbria University have voted to go on strike over Covid-19 health and safety fears, becoming the first University and College Union branch to back industrial action because of the pandemic.

A total of 66.5 per cent of UCU members at the university who voted backed strike action, with 89.9 per cent supporting action short of a strike. UCU says turnout was 67.3 per cent for the 26 November ballot, with 548 of its 814 branch members voting.

The union noted that Northumbria University had already agreed to limit the in-person teaching before the ballot took place. But it warned the vote “could be the start of a wave of local industrial ballot successes on health and safety if employers continue to fail to prioritise the concerns of staff”.

Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said the outcome of the ballot represented “a massive step forward in our struggle to keep campuses safe for staff and students”.

“We regret that it took a ballot for industrial action for Northumbria to take this matter seriously. If the employer had listened to our concerns from the start then we could have avoided this escalation,” she said.

A spokesperson for Northumbria University said discussions between the university and the union had been ongoing leading up to the ballot, and it was “not clear whether any action will be taken” by the union.

“The university has worked hard to ensure the campus is safe for all colleagues, just as employers across other sectors have done to secure the safety and wellbeing of their employees where working from home is not always possible,” they said.

A limited amount of on-campus teaching is taking place at the institution until 4 December, when students will switch to online study ahead of Christmas.

Government guidance for universities advises that students should go home for Christmas during a travel window between 3 and 9 December, with classes taking place online after that period until the end of term.

The Northumbria spokesperson said it was doing “all we can to protect colleagues who feel unable to teach on campus at this present time”.

“This will usually be where colleagues have an underlying physical health condition or mental health concerns or share living space with someone who is vulnerable,” they said. “In these circumstances we have made it clear that colleagues will not be compelled to deliver face-to-face teaching on campus.”