Research Output
Organising an industrial action ballot to protect jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic: The case of a UK university and the University and Colleges Union
  The paper responds to key themes of the stream: the importance/relevance of collective bargaining in protecting high-quality jobs in the UK higher education sector during the Covid-19 pandemic. The paper represents a case of good branch-level union organising designed to resist compulsory redundancies. The paper focuses on a “getting the vote out” (GTVO) campaign, designed to deliver the strongest possible mandate for industrial action, critical to maximising the union’s hand in redundancy negotiations. The study involves the case of a local union branch overcoming three key/contemporary challenges: the pandemic and associated employee uncertainty and nervousness in relation to labour markets, the problematic 50% postal voting threshold of the UK’s Trade Union Act 2016, and, how to mount a successful GTVO campaign when branch organisers and members are “working from home”.
The over-arching aim is to explore best practice for unions resisting employer initiatives under Covid-19 pandemic conditions. More specifically, the paper sets out to answer the following:

1. From a local branch organiser perspective, what makes for an effective/remote GTVO campaign?
2. From a member perspective, what key factors motivated members to vote during a pandemic?
3. To what extent do perspectives of organisers and members compare in explaining a successful industrial action ballot in such circumstances?
4. What key lessons can be taken from a GTVO campaign that delivered a no compulsory union-employer agreement, a campaign conducted under a range of restrictions?

To address the research questions, a mixed methods approach was adopted. For instance, semi-structured interviews with team members responsible for the GTVO campaign were used to help answer research question one. Such interviews focused on building an in-depth/comprehensive account of how organisers planned/executed their GTVO campaign, including details of technologies applied. Findings from the interviews were also used to inform the quantitative side of the study. In this instance, an on-line survey was used to determine what motivated members to vote (or not vote) in the pivotal industrial action ballot, an approach key to answering research question two.
The study is expected to make an important/unique contribution to the currently very small, but likely to grow exponentially, industrial relations and Covid-19 pandemic literature (e.g., Shyam Sundar, 2020; Watterson, 2020). Contributions are expected to be made in relation to mobilisation theory (e.g., Kelly, 1998; Wood, 2015), but specifically related to union responses to increasingly hostile organising contexts, such as the Trade Union Act 2016 (e.g., Duke and Kountouris, 2016; Porter et al., 2017). A further contribution is likely to arise in terms of extending debates surrounding union organising and new technologies (e.g., Pliskin et al., 1997; Richards, 2012).
The findings expected include the following. First, they are likely to represent a specific/key extension to union organising models. Second, the findings are expected to include a range of practical recommendations to assist union organisers facing similar collective bargaining-related challenges. Overall, the findings are expected to create new pathways to developing organising/mobilising/communication activities for different contexts/a wider diversity of bargaining units.

  • Type:

    Conference Paper (unpublished)

  • Date:

    06 July 2021

  • Publication Status:


  • Funders:

    Heriot Watt University


Richards, J., & Ellis, V. (2021, July). Organising an industrial action ballot to protect jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic: The case of a UK university and the University and Colleges Union. Paper presented at 7th Conference of the Regulating for Decent Work Network, International Labor Organisation (ILO) Geneva


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