6. Boost our legal department, and back UCU staff and branches, with facility time buyouts, to defend all workers’ rights

The problems

UCU has among the most talented and professional permanent staff in the field, with expert negotiators, campaigners, organisers, but a lack of resources and strategy holds us back. UCU used to have a proactive approach to fighting and winning cases, including up to the Supreme Court to protect members’ rights, but since 2019 there has been nothing. Many of our members’ branches have no written collective agreement, and no facility time (that is, the legal right to a work buyout to do trade union representation work). Worse, despite calling an aggregated ballot over late 2023, UCU failed to reach the statutory 50%-threshold, because there was a total absence of a voter-turnout strategy coordinated with branches.

The solutions

If you support our platform, we will say loud and clear: we don’t negotiate over legal rights, we enforce them. Our UCU legal department will get the funds to fight for all members’ rights, and we will have a strategy for litigation across the sector. We will make an example of rogue employers who evade labour rights, tax or social security. Sham self-employment will end. Wage theft will end. Violations of the Equality Act 2010 will end. At King’s we helped our members file legal action, even where UCU provided no help centrally, and we reversed three dismissals, transforming HR in the process. We got the legal right to facility time enshrined in our collective agreement, which was made available for our union representatives and caseworkers. As a labour lawyer for nearly 20 years, I guarantee that UCU will empower all branches with the resources and training they need to fully back their members, including bringing cases to Tribunal. Finally, we will never, ever, call a ballot again that we do not win. At King’s, we went from being a branch that missed ballot thresholds to getting among the highest turnouts in the UK, and we will do it for the whole of UCU. The vote is the most powerful right we have, and a duty that we owe to one another to use.

How we do it

The core of restoring a functioning union is to actually defend members rights, to the law’s fullest, by:

  • hiring more staff in our UCU legal department, paying better, for a real sector-wide litigation strategy,
  • devoting more resources – including from the over £30 million “cash on hand at bank” reported in UCU accounts – to actually fight claims, and making a public example of law-breaking employers,
  • securing facility time (that’s time off for union work, e.g. 0.2 FTE or 0.5 FTE), which is a statutory right, in written collective agreements at every workplace for our brilliant branch representatives,
  • overhauling our voter data systems so that central staff and our branch reps will win every ballot.

More reading on strategic litigation and good union governance:

  • A Fischer-Lescano, ‘From Strategic Litigation to Juridical Action’ in Transnational Legal Activism in Global Value Chains (2021)
  • D NeJaime, ‘Winning Through Losing’ (2011) 96 Iowa Law Review 941
  • E McGaughey, A Casebook on Labour Law (Hart 2019) ch 8 (trade unions)