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Newcastle strike cancelled after union error

Image: Orlen Crawford for Research Professional News

University disputes UCU claim that Newcastle threatened legal action following accidental sending of cancellation notice

Planned strike action at Newcastle University has been abandoned after the University and College Union mistakenly informed the institution’s management that they were pulling out of industrial action.

But the university has disputed a claim by the UCU that it threatened legal action after being asked to ignore the ‘withdrawal of action’ notice.

Staff at 140 institutions were due to strike this month in a long-running dispute with employers over pay and conditions. But last week the unified front began to crumble. Research Professional News reported on 22 September that staff at King’s College London had pulled out, and by the afternoon 87 other branches had withdrawn and others had cut the number of days they were walking out.

‘An honest mistake’

Staff at Newcastle University were not initially among that number, but a UCU statement issued on 22 September said that “due to an administrative error beyond our control, our notification was withdrawn and strike action would not now be legally protected”.

A follow-up message to staff at the institution the next day said that a ‘withdrawal of action’ notice was sent in error to the university on 21 September.

“We immediately contacted the university…to ask them to ignore the honest error. They refused and threatened legal action if the union continued to pursue the action. We kept the branch updated during this process but sadly had to finally inform them on Friday afternoon that the university wouldn’t back down,” said UCU in a message released on social media.

“Whilst this was an honest mistake, we know that this is not good enough…We will work to ensure this never happens again.”

Newcastle University’s response

A university spokesperson told Research Professional News’ 8am Playbook that, “Following our email on Thursday 21 September, informing our community that strike action would be going ahead at Newcastle, we received a withdrawal notice from the national branch of the UCU. 

“We had already begun the process of informing colleagues of the change in position so they could make arrangements to contact their students, when the UCU national office got back in touch to say the withdrawal notice had been issued in error.

“The UCU national office informed us they would be referring the matter to their legal advisers and they subsequently confirmed late on Friday that the withdrawal would stand. 

“The university did have concerns about the legal merits of withdrawing a withdrawal and shared those with the UCU, including reserving our legal rights, but at no point did the university threaten to take legal action if the strikes went ahead.”

In response a UCU spokesperson disputed the university’s characterisation of events.

They said, “It is one thing for Newcastle University’s management to seek to deny UCU members the right to strike by threatening a legal challenge, it is quite another to then pretend it didn’t do this. In the face of this threat, the union did the only thing that it could to protect members and called off action.”

This article is an extract from the Research Professional News 8am Playbook email, published this morning. To enquire about subscribing to Playbook, please fill in this form and include ‘8am Playbook’ as the subject.

UPDATED 25/9—This story was updated after publication with additional comment from the UCU.