UCL accused of breaching human rights over trade union dispute

UCL has been accused of “breaching a fundamental human right” in the latest breakdown in the relationship between universities and trade union members.

A closed employment tribunal found that disciplinary actions against Tony Brown, a trade union organiser, were against UK and European workers’ rights laws.

UCL’s University and College Union (UCU) branch has made the claim as part of a dispute which began in 2016. The Union believes that this is the first time that UCL has been accused of breaching a human right, and have launched a petition in search of a resolution to the dispute.

UCL intend to appeal the tribunal, while the Union are calling for the appeal to be dropped and demand that UCL “fully respect” employment laws.

Well over 600 academics have signed the petition since it opened two weeks ago.

Brown brought his case before a Central London employment tribunal in 2017, which unanimously agreed the following year that Brown was subject to “detriment” by his employer. UCL sanctioned Brown in 2016 for using an all-staff email thread to circulate trade union news.

The thread had been used to circulate union bulletins between 2002 and 2016, at which point managers closed the thread. Staff argued that the closure of the thread amounted to censorship.

In November 2018, the Tribunal reached the conclusion that all-staff communication to union and non-union members about pay, pensions, working conditions and disputes was allowed under UK employment law. HM Courts and Tribunals also noted that recruitment to unions was also permitted on all-staff mailing lists “in the spirit of [the European Convention on Human Rights].”

On the rule changes which Brown protested in the run up to disciplinary action, the Tribunal said: “it is fanciful and naïve [of UCL] to suggests that flyers on desks … would achieve equivalent reach to all staff, in an age where electronic communication has become overwhelmingly the norm.”

London Student has spoken to UCL’s UCU branch, who argue that Brown’s tribunal represents a wider breakdown in the relationship between universities and their staff.

With a reference to widespread UCU Strike Action in Spring 2018 and the ongoing Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) Senate House Boycott, the branch told us: “We have seen the birth of a strange case of manager-bureaucrats who see themselves as the executives of large Higher Education businesses.

“They want to squeeze surplus out of the current employees. Their interests do not align with the educational values of the institutions they manage, even less with the interests of those who work in them.”

They added: “To convert the university into an executive-run top-down body, from one in which there was cooperation and community, [UCL’s management] needs to quash any dissent. Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed an erosion of due process in the internal processes at UCL where Human Resources managers either do not know the law or ignore it.

“We’ve seen similar heavy-handed behaviour at Royal Holloway and now at Ruskin College
, Oxford.”

Commenting on the petition, the branch does not believe that UCL can successfully appeal the Tribunal: “it’s a simply cut-and-dry matter of breaching the relevant legislation.”

As UCL intend to appeal the Tribunal’s decision, they have refused our request for comment.

UCL’s Students’ Union also did not respond for comment.

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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