5 November 2019

The fight is on

Build the HE strikes: organise to win

UCU has called eight days of strike action over Higher Education pay and USS pensions before Christmas, one full week: 25-29 November, culminating with the next school student climate strike day #29November, and three days: 2-4 December, ending on UCU’s Disability Day of Action.

Once again, UCU Left members on the HEC were instrumental in ensuring that the union stayed on track. Our strategy of balloting on pay and pensions together has paid off, with the biggest ever vote in HE for action over pay, casualisation, workload and equality. Now the strategy is to bring members out, united, on the same days over both disputes. A work to contract begins at the same time.

Across UCU, in branch after branch, members voted overwhelmingly YES for action. The reason that some branches will not be on strike is only that their turnout was below 50% of their membership (the anti-union threshold). For example, De Montfort University got a 74% yes vote but a 49% turnout. King’s College London got 81% yes on a 48.7% turnout, and so on. Before the Tory Anti Union Law, these votes would be considered outstanding!

Despite this, this strike call means that 80% of members in USS institutions are being asked to come out on strike. On the Four Fights dispute (pay, equality, casusalisation and workload), more than 60% of members across the sector pre- and post-92 are being called out.

At the same time, UCU agreed to reballot members in branches whose turnout was 40% or over, with other branches choosing to opt in. Ballots can begin after re-notification to employers, so can coincide with the start of this round of strike action. A second wave of strike action can begin next year.

The fifth of the nominated strike days coincides with the date of the next mass Friday climate strike called by school students. Striking UCU members will now be able to respond en masse to the call by young people for trade unionists to support the movement for urgent action on the climate emergency.

We may also be joined by postal workers in the CWU, who have already voted for strikes before Christmas in defence of jobs and against plans to dismember the postal service.

Our strikes will also take place in the run-up to the most important general election for decades. The outcome of the December 12 poll will determine the future of post-16 education for years to come. The issues we are fighting over – pay, pensions, equality, casualisation and workloads – have all been brought to crisis point by the marketisation of the HE sector driven by the Tories’ neoliberal agenda. Our strikes can bring the issues of the student debt burden and the corrosiveness of competition between institutions to the forefront of the election campaign.

Branches and Regions need to begin preparation for the strike now.

We need the big lively picket lines which characterised last year’s USS dispute. We need imaginative teach-out events which can involve students and UCU members in joint discussion and activity.

And we need striking branches to help with the reballoting effort in neighbouring institutions that didn’t make the threshold the first time around.

The last USS strike saw the union grow by 50% in the branches that took strike action. Members joined to take part in the strike in large numbers, some joining on the picket line. This strike will be a fantastic opportunity to recruit more members to the union and further strengthen branches.

Strike committees & democracy

UCU’s last protracted strike, over USS, was sustained by strike committees in many branches. Strike committees were the backbone of the strike: they organised pickets from day to day, gave members a place to express their concerns and debate the way forward with fellow-pickets, and took initiatives like lobbying UUK and talks – and even protesting outside the union HQ during the #NoCapitulation moment.

Some branches have organised strike committees before, but for others the idea is new. Strike committees are simply open democratic fora, open to all strikers, to conduct the business of the strike. Ideally they should be run daily during the strike – that way strikers know when and where they need to go to debate the lessons and decide on next steps.

NB. Ahead of the strike, branch reps will need to book warm, sizeable rooms for strikers to come to!

There will be a Higher Education Sector Conference on USS in Manchester on Friday 6 December – two days after the strike, to which branches can send delegates. Note that to book delegate space, branches must submit delegate names (may be provisional and swapped later) to UCU by Friday, 22 November.

UCU’s Democracy Congress will take place the next day. (NOTE. The deadline for booking delegates is this Thursday, 7 November.) Many of the issues of how such strikes should be run will be raised at that conference as well.

Teach-outs & themed strike days

The last USS strike showed tremendous enthusiasm for protests and initiatives. Teach-outs with students and staff were extremely popular. These can also generate material for distributing on themed strike days.

In this strike we can also bring back themed strike days – something that UCU did very effectively in the HE pay dispute in 2016.

To be clear, a themed strike day is not a day when we only strike over one issue. (We will strike over pay and pensions each day in USS branches.)

A themed strike day is simply a day when branches or regions adopt an issue and promote it actively on that day – in banners, leaflets, press material etc.

In addition to strike days over pensions, for example, we must have a strike day themed on the Environment on 29 November, linking up with the climate movement!

We can also take actions highlighting pension poverty, poverty pay and long hours, casualisation in its many forms, the gender pay and pension gap, race inequality and migrant rights, and disability inequality and access – the last day of strike action is UCU’s Disability Day.

Running through the core of the disputes, we will spell out our alternative: What the University is For. We all know the market madness lies behind most of the evils we are striking against.

We can invite MPs and prospective MPs to participate in teach-outs. The election is a chance to put a spotlight on the crisis in post-16 education.

Strike funds

Members will be concerned about their personal finances. So we will need an effective communications strategy from Head Office outlining the financial support available and how to apply for it.

UCU has already announced national fund criteria:

  • £75/day for every union member earning under £30,000 a year from Day 2.
  • £50/day for union members earning £30,000 or more from Day 3.

Branches should also set up local strike funds (guidance from Head Office will be available shortly), and should reach out to sister unions and supportive organisations to add to these local funds. Many pre-92 HE branches already have local funds, but the same is not true for many post-92 branches. Either way, local funds should prioritise the casualised and lowest paid.

In the run up to the General Election there are likely to be lots of political meetings. Organise strikers to do delegation work. Try to attend and speak at some of these and ask for donations. Ask for a speaker slot at your local Trades Council meeting and at local constituency Labour Party meetings. Contact active pensioner and anti-austerity groups.

Most meetings will be happy to hold a bucket collection for our cause, and every penny will help towards ensuring our members don’t struggle financially while fighting these disputes.

Solidarity & reballots

Both disputes are national disputes with the employers, over pay, casualisation, workload and equality with UCEA; and over USS, with Universities UK. Both employer organisations are supposed to represent the interest of the employers collectively in negotiating with the union. All branches are in dispute, even if they are not on strike.

Branches taking strike action will need solidarity from the wider UCU. They will be striking as a first wave, with the expectation that their colleagues in other institutions will be joining them in a second wave. But for this to work we will need a renewed effort to win the turnouts needed in universities and colleges.

Strikers can visit and enthuse branch meetings, department meetings and even floor-walk with reps to Get the Vote Out – and collect for strike funds.

NB. Venues for strike committee meetings and teach-outs can in principle also be booked in these colleges.

We are one union – and we are united to win these two disputes.

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