Last Wednesday 1 February we saw our potential power to win – not just the battles over pay that are currently rocking the public sector, but the fight to defend a decent society against years of cuts and privatisation.
Hundreds of thousands of us were on picket lines and protests up and down the country. Our action dominated the news headlines and shaped the debate about the future of the crisis-ridden Sunak government.
For all the attempts to attack unions, and divide us by scapegoating refugees and migrants, we saw a picture of unity and power on the streets of cities and towns across Britain.
But underneath these impressions lies a crucial question: can our action really win?
Swingeing pay cuts
It’s clear that the government is standing behind the employers by preventing settlements and attempting to hold the line on pay. They are determined that despite double digit inflation we are supposed to settle for what amount to swingeing pay cuts.
And so far, despite the bravery and commitment of rail workers, postal workers, civil service workers, nurses, ambulance workers and now teachers – as well as university workers in UCU – we are yet to break through.
There are two key ways we can shift the employers: escalation of our action and coordination between the unions.
There is clearly overwhelming support for linking up our fights, not just rhetorically but in action. The 1st Feb action was the largest organisational expression of this feeling, on a bigger scale than previous joint strikes by RMT and CWU. We need to repeat this by linking up with NEU regional strikes on 28th February, 1st and 2nd March.
Budget day on 15 March provides another huge opportunity for united action. NEU has already called a national demonstration and aims to put 100,000 on the streets. UCU’s leadership must act on the decision of its Higher Education Committee and add that date to our list of strike dates.
This would be a massive chance to mobilise students and parents and turn the heat on the government. If other unions joined in we could genuinely see outline of the general strike that so many workers are calling for.
But there is also the question of escalation. We’ve often been told that national action and sustained strikes are impossible until we achieve a certain density of membership. The fact that 43,000 teachers have joined the NEU in recent weeks shows the reality that people join unions when they mount a fight. The same goes for members volunteering to become reps and build organisation in the workplaces.
Having experienced their employers waiting out short bursts of action, UCU members have increasingly voted for escalation of strikes. This picture is being repeated across the public sector. But it increasingly puts union members at odds with their own union leaders.
Our General Secretary worked hard to scupper the possibility of indefinite action and proposed much less action in February and March than was eventually decided. Rather than concentrate on how to use our existing strike mandate to the maximum effect, she is concentrating on a reballot and peddling the illusion that winning a ballot might be enough to shift the employers.
We have to use the 18 days to make a real impression on the employers into the run up to a planned marking and assessment boycott in April and any further strikes.
That means a plan to make the strikes work. We need regional and national demonstrations, lobbies of parliament, regional schools and real attempts by our union to lead the charge for co-ordination.
Of course we need to be organised to get a maximum vote in the reballot. But our best chance of beating the threshold in the ballot is to build real momentum during our 18 days of strikes.
The General Secretary of NEU, Kevin Courtney, is right to call for local strike committees to involve more members and spread organisation beyond the usual activists. Many UCU branches already have these committees. We need to revive and extend them, linking them up regionally and nationally.
As necessary as picket lines are, it’s crucial that we don’t simply rely on a routine of picketing over the next few weeks. Our goal must be to reach out to others. We need to establish student-staff assemblies on every campus to make the links with their cost-of-living and other struggles and ensure they understand that we are fighting to defend education and against inequality.
We need to reach out to other unions, not just via contact between branch officers, but through visits to each others’ picket lines and joint strike committees. Every university has corresponding local NEU and Unison branches that will represent thousands of local schools and council offices. Can we get into schools and workplaces to build support and solidarity, including financial support, and explain why we think escalating co-ordinated action can win.
UCU members have to stay in charge of this dispute. Many branches have already passed motions demanding a Higher Education Sector Conference to discuss and decide on how to take this dispute forward and end the foot-dragging we have often seen from head office. It’s important that the planned Branch Delegates Meetings before each wave of action go ahead so that members continue to have a say in how the dispute is progressing.
But alongside this formal process in the union we need to develop the initiatives made by branches, regions and networks like the UCU Solidarity Movement to give members real forums for discussion and debate, taking the initiative if head office fails to.
It’s also crucial that candidates who really want to win our disputes are elected in the current Vice President and NEC elections. Candidates from the other two factions in the union – UCU Agenda (or IBL) and UCU Commons (the GS’s supporters) – are united in their opposition to the scale of action we need. We argue to support UCU Left candidates and those independents who have stood for a real fightback. These are the people that have pushed for a real fight, argued for solidarity and raised the need for financial support.
It may be a cliché but it’s true that we are in the fight of our lives. We are experiencing unprecedented levels of industrial action because the cost-of-living crisis is pushing millions of people – including university workers – over the financial edge. The years of chipping away at our public services also seem to be reaching a tipping point.
If we don’t win this fight, not only will we pay the price in our wage packets, but so will our students and future generations. That means we have to grasp the nettle and start building the kind of militant action that hasn’t been seen in Britain since the 1970s.
UCU members can win this fight. But only if the creativity and determination of ordinary members are allowed to drive the action. It is they who have the strength, imagination and power to take this dispute forward, to defend our members’ living standards, to save our pensions from a needless attack, and to challenge inequality, casualisation and overwork.
Let’s hit the picket lines on Thursday and Friday, develop imaginative and inclusive teach outs, and build links with other unions who are fighting back. Let’s recruit to the union and argue with colleagues to join the fight. With new forces joining the strike wave every week, there couldn’t be a better time to fight.
You can read more about the USS pensions dispute on a page written by UCU Left NEC elections candidates Deepa Govindarajan Driver and Marion Hersh – https://reverseuss.wordpress.com/
Vote Maria Chondrogianni, Deepa Govindarajan Driver and UCU Left candidates in the elections
For members in Scotland there is a hustings on February 13th.
If you have unused preferences after voting for UCU Left candidates, we recommended using them for the following other candidates:
HE South – Aris Katzourakis
President UCU Scotland – Sarah Joss
Representative of Casually Employed Members – Sam Morecroft