Reballots needed now!

The strikes in the 60 universities which got over the 50 percent ballot threshold will undoubtedly win enthusiastic support. Those of us who didn’t quite get over that high bar are keen to join our colleagues, to help strengthen our forces and pile the pressure on our employers. But there is a real danger that the momentum we worked so hard to build will be lost if the union delays reballoting universities like mine.

At Imperial College London, 72.64 percent voted in favour of strike action, on a turnout of 47.99 percent — a shortfall of just 14 votes. To come so close was hugely frustrating. But the results elsewhere meant there was no hesitation or disagreement among members or reps about the need for an immediate reballot. After a frank discussion among reps and at a members meeting, we agreed to ask HQ for an immediate re-ballot and a short, sharp campaign — preferably beginning on the first day of the strikes and finishing after just three weeks, before the end of term. It would allow us to get help from a big branch like UCL, using the impetus of their striking activists to support the reballot. This would also allow us to join the second wave of strikes in the New Year.

We knew this would demand a much more extensive Get The Vote Out campaign, so we asked members to help. We immediately set up a bigger and better organised network of reps and volunteers across departments and campuses to ensure we can deliver the votes. We’ve been hugely enthused by the ballot results elsewhere, and will be similarly inspired by our striking colleagues. However, this enthusiasm won’t last indefinitely. If reballots at Imperial or elsewhere are delayed until after the first round of strikes, we will miss the opportunity to escalate, and lose momentum at a time our colleagues need to know reinforcements are on the way. This will prolong the dispute and risks undermining it.

UCU’s Higher Education Committee on 1st November voted that branches with a turnout of 40% or more should expect to be reballoted, and that branches below this would be encouraged to opt in. This would allow as many more branches as possible to join the second wave of action. But since then, it’s become clear that elements in the union want to put the brakes on.

So what is going on?

Doubtless, there are real political pressures. Many trade union and Labour Party officials don’t want strikes during an election campaign — or a Labour government coming into office to face a major industrial dispute. But if Labour’s plans — for a National Education Service, of dismantling tuition fees and the market in education — have any chance of being implemented, then we have to be prepared to fight for them.

Perhaps the obstruction has more to do with conservative elements in the union who never wanted us to fight over both pay and equality at the same time.

It’s clearly too late now for the reballot to begin on Day 1 of the strikes – but it’s urgent that it starts as soon as possible.

Roddy Slorach
(Imperial UCU branch organiser, personal capacity)

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.

Bradford College UCU Wins: The Lessons

Bradford College Picket


UCU members at Bradford College have achieved three hugely significant wins:

  • After a major restructure no compulsory redundancies
  • 5 extra days holiday
  • a new agreement for hourly paid staff

We have also won an improved observation policy and we are creating a climate in which the executive of Bradford College now know that they need to address the appallingly low morale of staff. The college executive has tried to suggest that the wins UCU members have achieved are a result of their good will; this is very far from the case.

Q: How have UCU members achieved this in the context of a financially ‘mismanaged’ college?

A:  Through demonstrating unity and a willingness to take strike action.

We took a total of 10 days strike action during 2018/19 academic year and we announced 16 further days of escalating strike action to hit the 2019 autumn term.

Despite the Tory anti trade union laws, the branch organised successful campaigns to get the vote out twice over this past year. The first occasion was last autumn when as part of #FEFightsback campaign we became one of the super 6 FE branches (and the largest branch) to beat the ballot threshold.

We took 7 days of strike action over pay between November and March.

Then the college announced mass redundancies and we had to make a decision whether to just ballot over redundancies or to ballot over both issues.

At mass branch meetings, UCU members unanimously voted to ballot on both: fighting redundancies and to continue pursuing the fight for fair pay despite opposition from the regional official.

The ballots in June 2019 secured 60% turnout with 93% in favour of industrial action to fight compulsory redundancies and 61% turnout with 86% in favour of continuing the fight for fair pay and the 6 month time limit on ballots would cover the autumn term.

During the strike days we had picket lines with 50 plus picketers. On one occasion, the executive had to close the college!  We received messages, donations and visits supporting us from other UCU branches both locally, nationally and from individuals with national positions including the VP Nita Sanghera to name just one.  We received support from Leeds TUC and from the local community. We had support from local MPs and councillors, two of whom spoke on the picket lines and signed our petition calling on the executive to cut their salaries to the average college salary. All of this helped achieve these wins.

Redundancies, holidays and anti-casualisation

The negotiations over the redundancies were backed-up by the strikes and mass support from all quarters and despite the threat of 132 FTE job losses, we halted compulsory redundancies; a fantastic achievement for the branch and a testament to the work the branch officers and reps put in to support members.

Over the 18/19 pay claim, it was only after taking the first 7 days of strike action and 3 more being threatened that we finally started having talks with HR over pay. With the realities of college finances, in mind we asked for 5 days holiday back on the academic contract. When this was put to members many felt that, given the financially bankrupt situation of the college, this was going to be the best we could get. But 5 days extra holidays on their own would not be enough for all our members in particular for people on term-time only (TTO) contracts or people on hourly paid contracts (HPL) who had also taken strike action.

Fractionalisation had been part of the 16/17 pay claim and the only part of that claim that had not been addressed.

By the end of the year we had finally had some slightly more positive conversations with positive noises but nothing tangible had been offered so we had to take the 3 further strike days over pay and jobs in July.

When members came back from summer leave, a message came from the College Exec with news of the extra holidays but it was be piloted and HPLs and TTO people couldn’t be included. This was unacceptable and members were clear that the deal could not be done unless 1) the holidays were formally put in the contract and 2) there had to be improvements for HPLs and TTOs.

The victory

So the branch announced our planned 16 days of escalating strike action if we didn’t see results. On 11th September UCU negotiators had a 5.5 hour meeting with exec to discuss an outstanding member at risk of compulsory redundancy, the 5 day holiday pilot and to initiate time-bound negotiations on the part time hourly paid contract and usage.

By the end of this meeting we had agreements on all three issues, including an uplift of the holiday pay percentage for TTO & HPLs. With all this in principle agreed, we knocked off the first three September strike days but kept the October dates live.

With the pressure of the looming autumn strikes, we gained 5 days extra holidays for all staff and an anti-casualisation agreement which stipulates those working at the college for two years have the right to be offered a fractional contract based on the hours they have been working. The implementation date is from 1st November with over a 100 members standing to benefit from more secure employment at the college.

Fair Pay

Holidays do not pay the bills.  While the above are significant victories, UCU members at Bradford College are now in their 11th year without a significant pay rise. But the government has finally announced extra funding in FE. Bradford College could be in line to receive £883,019 in 20/21.

Our 18/29 win needs to be celebrated but also built on to ensure funding will finally go towards fair pay rises for our underpaid, undervalued and overworked members.

Geraint Evans – branch secretary
Elaine White – branch chair

We won the vote – Now let’s start the action

Picketing UCL, March 2018

The ballot results are in. UCU members throughout Higher Education are ready to fight to defend their pay and pensions, and to stand up against inequality, unmanageable workloads and casualisation.

On pay, 73% of members voted yes to strike action, on a 49% total turnout. 55 university branches declared with a turnout greater than 50%. On USS, 44 out of 64 USS institutions hit the threshold. Herriot-Watt topped the poll at 71.59% turnout.

Branches in Northern Ireland do not have to beat the 50% threshold, so Queens University Belfast, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College Belfast are also able to strike.

Pay (Four Fights) Ballot USS Ballot

62.33% of balloted UCU members are in branches eligible to take strike action over pay. In the USS pre-92 universities, the equivalent figure is 80.62%.

These are the highest votes ever in a UCU national pay campaign, outstripping those in last year’s pay ballot.

The votes were overwhelmingly for action. But thanks to the Tory Anti-Union Laws, turnout is the key. 55 branches exceeded the 50% threshold required. Given the obstacle that this represents for trade unions, our results are very positive. The union decided to conduct disaggregated ballots precisely so that some branches would be able to fight even if we didn’t reach the threshold overall.

What must happen now

It is time to name the date for action.

The 55+ branches with legal mandates must begin escalating action in mid-November (see list below). The other branches need to continue the campaign to reballot – see below.

The pension action will begin to put pressure on the employers in UCEA and UUK and on the pension bosses at USS. We know they won’t shift their positions without it.

The pay action (including equality, workload and casualisation) unifies members young and old, and unites us with our colleagues in other unions in each university or college. Pay also unifies the sector, pre- and post-92.

Successful pay ballots allow other workers who are not in UCU to participate in strikes. (It is unlawful for employers to discriminate by union membership and branches can extract statements from HR to that effect.) It also means that post-92 institutions will be able to take strike action alongside pre-92, offering mutual solidarity and presenting a united front in defence of HE and the staff who work in HE.

It is time to lift the lid on local issues of casualisation and gender and race pay inequality – and show they are endemic to our sector.

We can take action alongside postal workers defending their jobs and school students fighting climate change.

General Election

The general election gives us the perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on the future of Higher Education.

If we want to insist that government has a responsibility to ensure that universities pay their staff properly, address the scandals of rising casualisation and unequal pay, and protect the USS pension scheme for future generations with a government guarantee, we could not ask for a better moment to take action!

Reballots and organising solidarity

Meanwhile, branches who reached 40% or more should be reballoted with the aim of joining a second wave of action in January. Many branches are only a few dozen votes short of the threshold and have a very good chance of breaking through on a reballot. Bringing out more branches would be an excellent way for our action to escalate in the new year. See the graphs above. Branches which fell below 40% should have the right to opt in to the reballot.

All those not in a position to strike yet can support striking members by contributing to a strike fund levy.

UCU in Transformation – One Year On
London, Sat 2 Nov 11-5
Called by London Region UCU

In the meantime we face a major organising task. Regions have a crucial role to link up branches striking with those balloting, organising regional demonstrations and encouraging demonstrative action.

The first step to linking up activists and reps will be the #UCUTransformed2019 one-day conference called by London Region UCU on Saturday 2 November.

This will be the first chance to debate the next steps in the struggle with other reps and activists. Reps in branches that missed the threshold will want to discuss the Herriot Watt GTVO strategy. Other regions should call activist meetings as soon as possible to do the same.

Branches with live ballot mandates

The institutions in which members can now take action are:

  • Aston University
  • Bangor University
  • Bishop Grosseteste University
  • Bournemouth University
  • Cardiff University
  • Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Durham University
  • Edge Hill University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Glasgow School of Art
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Liverpool Hope University
  • Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA)
  • Loughborough University
  • Newcastle University
  • Open University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Queen’s University, Belfast
  • Roehampton University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • St Mary’s University College Belfast
  • Stranmillis University College
  • The Institute of Development Studies
  • The University of Aberdeen
  • The University of Bath
  • The University of Dundee
  • The University of Kent
  • The University of Leeds
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The University of Sheffield
  • The University of Stirling
  • Ulster University
  • University College London
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bradford
  • University of Brighton
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Essex
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Leicester
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of London, City
  • University of London, Goldsmiths
  • University of London, Queen Mary
  • University of London, Royal Holloway
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Reading
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Strathclyde
  • University of Sussex
  • University of Wales
  • University of Warwick
  • University of York

Nottingham UCU vote for 15 days of strike action to stop new contracts

Nottingham College 2

UCU members at Nottingham College are in dispute with their management over an attempt to impose new contracts. The new contract involves a pay decrease for some; a removal of key policies and procedures from the contract for all; and an increase of teaching hours. This is to be achieved by simply not having any limit on weekly teaching hours. To make matters even worse, the management have told all staff that they will be dismissed and re-engaged on the new contract if they fail to sign voluntarily.

These bullying tactics are being instigated by a principal who has no experience of Further Education but still feels justified in pocketing a salary in excess of £200,000 per year.

UCU are fighting back. After an unprecedentedly high ballot turnout and ‘Yes’ vote, members took a day of strike action to boycott their annual CPD event, setting up their own alternative Festival outside the college. This was a day that involved the whole city of Nottingham. Members of the trades council, local Labour Party councillors and leading members of sister trade unions all gave their support and there were at least 150 UCU members from the college on the picket lines.

The branch have since met and have unanimously decided to take a rolling programme of 15 days strike action starting in the Autumn term.

It is crucial for all members of UCU, whether they are currently employed in Further or Higher Education, that our friends at Nottingham College win this dispute. The scale of the attacks are so enormous that many of us believe that they represent an existential threat to the college: many staff will simply leave the organisation, as the proposed workload is impossible to manage.

We hope that all UCU members will do whatever they can to support these colleagues.

Railene Barker and Alan Barker

Please send messages of support to Railene Barker

Solidarity with FE strikes

Rally at Lambeth College


Dear Colleagues

We are asking all members to show solidarity with all branches that are taking strike action on the 20th, 21st and 22nd of March over pay and conditions (see table below).

We are now in our second academic year of our campaign for decent pay and conditions and we are wining. After the 5% pay deal at CCCG Bootle College have settled for a 4-6% deal over three years. Most colleges who have taken action have managed to win significant gains for their members. Those who have not yet succeeded to extract something from their employer’s management have been forced to negotiate.

At a national level our campaign continues to put pressure on the AoC and the government. The recent debate in parliament over funding for FE saw MPs form all sides of the house extol the virtues of FE. Our aim is to pressurise the government to give more funding to FE in the up-coming spending review.

The coverage we have received from the days of action we have taken so far has put the case for more FE funding firmly at the forefront of ministers’ minds.

We call on your branch to send messages of solidarity, to organise collections and visit picket lines. Every act of solidarity makes a huge difference to those who are taking action.

In solidarity

Nita Sanghera, FEC Chair




Abingdon and Witney College


20, 21 & 22 March

Bath College


20, 21 & 22 March

Bradford College


20, 21 & 22 March

Bridgewater and Taunton College


20, 21 & 22 March

City of Wolverhampton College


20, 21 & 22 March

Coventry College

MD066, MD029

(suspended), 20, 21 & 22 March

Croydon College


20, 21 & 22 March

East Sussex College

SO120, SO209

20, 21 & 22 March

Harlow College


20, 21 & 22 March

South Bank College


20,21 & 22 March

New College Swindon


(suspended) 20, 21 & 22 March

West Thames College


18,19,20 March (note change from 20, 21 & 22)



20,21 & 22 March

NCCG (Tower Hamlets College)

Ballot 11 Feb – 1 March likely dates 20,21 & 22 March

Oaklands College

Ballot closes 11 March

Tower Hamlets

20, 21 & 22 March

Warwickshire College Group

Ballot open

York College

Considering balloting

National Industrial Action: Developing a Strategy to Win

National Industrial Action: Developing a Strategy to Win

The result of UCU’s equalities and pay ballot is a contradictory and complex outcome. It is both disappointing when framed within the anti-trade union legislation and, if we didn’t have to jump this 50% Tory turnout hurdle, we would otherwise be celebrating this result and would be preparing to take industrial action.

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 15.40.09

Both Friday’s result (40.96%) and the earlier ballot result in October 2018 (41.65%) are the highest turnout results this union has ever seen in postal pay ballots and shows a significant increase on past pay ballot turnouts with a consistent 70% voting for strike action. This tells us a solid section of our membership are voting repeatedly to fight for fair pay and against the increase in casualisation, the gender and BAME pay gap and unreasonable workloads. They clearly understand, and want action over, these issues. Outside of anti-TU legislation, this result demonstrates a very strong mandate for action.

Yet we are currently operating in the context of the anti-union laws. HESC in November voted for an aggregated ballot. This was a major mistake. Whereas in October we had six branches over the threshold it is likely a similar number were successful this time around. This would have given us an opportunity to ensure a sizeable minority of branches could have taken action on a national claim in which others subsequently followed. This is exactly what has happened successfully in FE. We need to emulate FE and disaggregate the next pay ballot. We then need a strategy to take effective, sustained action in the branches where the Tory threshold is met while re-balloting with increased support and resource from UCU in the branches who just miss the 50%. This can work in waves until all branches can take action.

At November’s HESC members also called on UCU to re-position the ballot to raise the profile of the equalities issues detailed in the claim as a means to more directly address the consequences of marketisation in the sector. Voting members know how bad it is for our casualised members. There is no evidence of a split in effort between casualised and non-casualised workers as some have claimed on Twitter.  Instead we have to look at more complex reasons why members don’t vote in postal ballots. The anti-union laws imposition of postal ballots is designed to reduce turnout. Workload is definitely a factor. Our members are completely overworked at all levels. There is an irony in the fact that members regularly tell us they can’t find ballot papers under their never decreasing mounds of work. Again simply emailing adds still further to the deluge of emails members struggle to cope with.

The fact that the outcome of the USS dispute is still unresolved meant some thought we couldn’t take action over pay at the same time. Then there is also past history. UCU have had some woefully bad industrial action strategies in past pay disputes and many members disengage because they don’t think UCU can win over pay. Despite the calls for a higher profile for inequalities in the ballot this didn’t happen effectively. Repeated demands for NEC members to be organised and co-ordinated to speak to branches, in order to motivate members, wasn’t acted upon. At a local level many of us drove the narrative towards the hardships experienced by so many of our casualised members and that is where I believe the increase on past turnouts came from.

Given the current political context, with many of our members extremely worried about Brexit and its impact on their lives in the UK, this result actually shows a level of resilience in our membership. The same members turned out twice with almost identical results.

Future Strategy

What should we do now? We are seeing some employers open local discussions on pay, this is a very dangerous move. We need to push to ensure we maintain national bargaining on pay in HE and we need to ensure casualisation, Gender and BAME pay gaps and workload have equal priority in the pay claim and in the narrative around future disputes. These important issues should not be peripheral.

We need victories to re-engage members over pay and it will take a lot of hard work to do that but the alternative is unacceptable. Every trade union must be able to fight for fair pay and equality for its members. We have to find ways to beat the anti-TU legislation. We should support calls for a General Election and a Corbyn led government committed to scrapping the anti-TU legislation. In the meantime, we need to strengthen our rank and file organisation. We need to know our members, to understand why they are not voting and we need to organise and mobilise based on this knowledge.

I don’t believe the pay ballot is an indication to employers that UCU is in any way weaker now than we were during the USS dispute. Members are voting in ballots in record numbers. An indicative local ballot over REF at my branch, The University of Liverpool, recently came in with a 58% turnout and we’re seeing far higher turnouts in smaller branches like QMU.

The sector can afford to give our members fair pay, employers can end casualisation, look at the recent Open University victories where 4000 casualised members were moved onto permanent contracts, they can close the gender and BAME pay gaps and they can give us reasonable workloads.  UCU needs a more effective strategy, strong leadership and we need more resources to support activists.


Jo McNeill

Getting the vote out – lessons from Brighton

Brighton University Falmer Picket

University of Brighton UCU was one of only seven institutions to successfully exceed the 50% threshold in last autumn’s industrial action ballot over pay. It was the third time within two years that Brighton had achieved a legally valid ballot result for action.

How did we do it?

First, it’s important to recognise that the 50% threshold is a hurdle put in our way to prevent us from taking strike action. That means that getting over the threshold is primary a pragmatic question, not one of principle. We try to get over it the best way we can.

It also means that Get The Vote Out (GTVO) campaigns are technical operations that rely on an obsessive attention to detail.

In none of the three ballots we have been involved in has an outcome in favour of action been in doubt. A heavy vote for action was always a certainty because by the time the ballot opens, the arguments around the issue in question and the necessity of action have already been won.

Under these circumstances, a GTVO campaign is reduced to no more than that – simply getting people to vote. How they vote becomes almost irrelevant. We are as keen for members who are opposed to the action to vote as those who are in favour, because they all count towards the turnout figure.

In our experience at Brighton there are two essential elements of a successful GTVO campaign: devolving and tallying.


A GTVO campaign involves reaching every member and speaking to them as many times as it takes until they confirm they have posted their ballot. Because of the amount of work involved, the campaign will not be successful if it is waged only by the branch officers or the branch committee. Even a committee of 20 in a branch of 500 cannot do that, still less if the branch is bigger. Not only are the numbers against it, but so is the way many of our members work. We can’t rely on them to be sitting at their desks every day waiting to be spoken to. Some of our members are on proportional contracts and are only in for one day a week. Their vote counts the same as a full-timer’s.

The solution is to devolve GTVO right down to a local level. Brighton UCU is fortunate in this respect. As a multi-branch institution we have a branch committee on each of our campuses. But this is still not enough. At Brighton we created action committees on each campus composed of members prepared to take on a handful of names to chase down. This gave us 60 or 70 activists working on GTVO – about one in ten of the membership.

When there are that many people, they are not just taking names from a list. They are undertaking to speak to members that they already know because they see them regularly, or know where and when to find them. This makes a massive difference and means that GTVO can take place building by building, corridor by corridor, rest room by rest room.

That leaves the branch officers to track down the difficult cases – members in far flung departments or isolated situations.


The goal of the process is to cross people off once they’ve told us they’ve voted, so the other central aspect of the operation is keeping meticulous lists.

The GTVO campaign needs branch officers and reps monitoring the progress of the action committee in each school, department, building or campus. After some trial and error, at Brighton we eventually discovered that the best form of list was an online document which many people could access, like a Google doc. We used a colour-coding system to register each member as they were found and spoken to and then once they had voted. Record-keeping is crucial because we do not have the luxury of wasting energy chasing people who’ve already voted. Nor do we want to antagonise members by continually hassling them after they’ve already confirmed they’ve voted.

With a list system like this, you can track your progress towards 50% with a high degree of certainty. You can also generate a bit of healthy competition between schools or buildings. This is the key – generating a sense of responsibility for GTVO and the ballot result among the activists. A local ballot already produces this kind of responsibility. The branch leadership knows that they can’t rely on others to deliver the result. We need to foster this feeling in every school and department.

That’s why, even in a nationally aggregated ballot, branches should behave as though it is a local ballot, and attempt to reach their own local 50% as early as possible. Anything beyond that can contribute to the collective effort.

One final thing: if you’re not completely knackered by the time the ballot closes, you haven’t done it right! You’ll need the 14 day notice period before action starts just to recover.


Get organised to Get the Vote Out

Build the ballot over pay, equality, workload and casualisation

Get the vote out flyer

UCU has called a five-week ballot for industrial action over pay this term. It opens on Tuesday 15 January and closes on Friday 22 February. It is timed for the maximum duration while still allowing members to take hard-hitting strike action this term and hit exams next term. So if we win the ballot we can take serious action.

We need to get organised.

First and foremost, this ballot is an organising challenge for every branch. Thanks to the Tory anti-union Trade Union Act, more than 50% of members eligible to vote must participate. Even if 100% vote YES, if only 49% vote, the vote does not count.

The main reason members do not vote is simply that they forget. Paper ballot envelopes and forms are put aside and forgotten about. We have to set up the type of grassroots organisation that makes sure that everyone is asked to vote, encouraged and reminded right up to the deadline.

We know that when we get this right, we get a high turnout.

We know how to do this, but we are all shockingly busy. We know workload – one of the key demands of the campaign – is ridiculous in our sector.

We must make a conscious effort to get organised. We have to treat the organisation of getting the vote out with exactly the same seriousness and care as when we organised the strike over pensions last year, and when we fought local campaigns over redundancies in the past.

The evidence shows it can be done, but we have to make a decisive shift to get the turnout.This is the second ballot we have had over the same pay round.

In the Autumn, the overall turnout was 42%. It was a ‘disaggregated’ ballot: each branch was counted separately. 7 institutions got over 50% turnout. One branch, Herriot-Watt, got a 64% turnout, many of the big branches got between 40 and 50%. The votes for strikes and ASOS were overwhelming, but they could not be actioned.

What we need to do

Every branch needs to

  • call organising meetings to kick off the ballot;
  • then organise a series of meetings in departments and buildings to explain the issues, and encourage debate;
  • organise members to systematically remind colleagues in each department, just as we would if organising a picket line rota.

The 50% threshold is a deliberate anti-democratic burden, designed to prevent unions from striking even when votes in favour are overwhelming.

But it is also a challenge to every member. What is the point of voting if your vote is wasted? The message has to be

Step 1: vote yourself, and Step 2: ask your colleagues to vote. Generations fought for the right to vote. Don’t let passivity undermine democracy.

We need to set up action committees to carry this out. We cannot leave it to a few branch reps. Every member has a stake in this fight.

This is a political fight as well as an organisational challenge. In the autumn, the high YES votes indicate members were convinced by the arguments.

  • Pay. Our pay has been cut by at least 15% since 2008. UCU’s latest figures put the drop by as much as 21%. Every teaching assistant struggling to get by, every teaching fellow on a part -time contract, every researcher on fixed funding stuck near the bottom of the pay spine, each one is 15-20% poorer than they would have been a decade ago. Cuts in the rate for the job mean everyone is devalued. The pay offer of 2% this year is still a pay cut. Members in USS branches can expect their pay cut further.
  • Inequality. One result of low pay is that staff try to increase their pay by other means. We are seeing more individual bargaining and consequentially greater pay inequality. Individual bargaining (threatening to move and demanding a pay rise or moving and negotiating) tends to favour white male staff over women and BAME staff, and increases gender and ethnicity pay gaps. The shocking stories published by the BBC last week are a symptom of this.
  • Workload and casualisation. High workload and low pay are two sides of the same coin. The employers have used the fear factor of redundancies and casualisation to force up workload in our sector. If we do not fight to secure the casualised, the employers will casualise the secure. As the USS dispute showed, strike action allows us to push back against the workload tide we all struggle with. This ballot helps us put the issue on the map and demand action to cut excessive workload or increase paid hours.

New arguments

But the situation has developed in two important respects. What follows is a sketch of the new arguments we are likely to face, and some suggested counter-arguments to make. In USS branches, a strong YES vote also puts us in the best position to ballot over USS cuts.

Objection 1. Brexit

The argument goes something like this.

The future of the UK, and UK universities, is uncertain because of Brexit. Universities don’t know what will happen to student recruitment. We don’t even know whether UK universities will be able to bid for EU research funds, or if they can, on what basis. Now is the wrong time to fight. We should ‘wait and see’.

This is a perfectly understandable argument, but the conclusions are wrong. Instead of waiting, we need a big YES vote to give the union and members a voice. A strong YES vote with a high turnout gives the union the mandate with the employers and government to be taken seriously. It puts the union in a position to negotiate with the employers over pay and jobs precisely at the time when the employers may be looking for job cuts and pay cuts to pay for the mess they have got themselves into.

We can decide what we do with that mandate once we have it. But first we have to get the votes.

The USS dispute taught members two important lessons: we have power when we strike and hit lessons and threaten exams, and – with a credible threat of strike action – ‘impossible’ demands become possible. In the middle of the strike, the Chinese Embassy relayed a threat from the PRC Government to Universities UK: if strikes hit exams, Chinese students will not come to the UK next year.

Crucially, we need to put the universities on the political radar as a sector to be strategically defended in the aftermath of Brexit.

This means members standing up to be counted, voting YES in large numbers and taking action to defend themselves and the sector. A strong strike/ASOS vote over pay is the best protection against threats to jobs. A well-organised Get the Vote Out operation can be repeated for a local ballot over redundancies. Brighton University had a strong GTVO campaign over redundancies. Despite being a post-92, they got over 50% turnout in the autumn.

Objection 2. The HE funding ‘crisis’

If one crisis were not bad enough, the Tories are flirting with the idea of creating another. Whereas the Brexit timetable appears to be outside their control, this ‘crisis’ is entirely of their making.

As we know, in 2011 the ConDem government jacked up undergraduate ‘home’ university fees from £6,500 (£3,000 paid by the student) to up to £9,000 per student. The universities charged the maximum, £9,000. At the same time, the Government set up a complex new loan system covering fees and maintenance grants, and partially abolished the block grant payable to each department.

The Government racked up a mountain of debt to pay for these loans, which the Treasury projected as £90bn by 2021, of which only half will probably be repaid. This is the first – and by far the largest – debt crisis, one they have mainly kept secret.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the Government took the next step in the ‘Willets Plan’ and abolished limits on student numbers (except for a small number of subjects like medicine).

These changes created a situation where universities realised they might make vast amounts of money by expanding in competition with other universities. The new motto of the sector, including of the posh universities, was ‘Pile ’em high and teach ’em cheap’.

Competition creates winners and losers, and the winners gambled in a building and borrowing boom. Universities that reckoned they could grow have borrowed huge sums. According to the Times newspaper, the sector has £10.8bn in debts. UCL tripled their undergraduate recruitment and are building a new campus in East London, where they will be joined by the University of the Arts. Both are borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds.

Meanwhile, other universities, particularly those traditionally recruiting working class or mature students (post-92s, Open and Birkbeck), are seeing student numbers fall. High fees and the opening of spaces in ‘big name’ colleges is hitting them first. The HE funding crisis started at colleges like London Met, and spread across post-92. It is now hitting pre-92 universities through restructuring and redundancies. The employers want to pass the risk and cuts on to staff, as the USS pension fight shows.

No-one is immune.

But the Tories are considering turning a chronic crisis into an acute one. They are leaking proposals from the Augur review of Higher Education funding they commissioned last year. This report seems likely to propose a cut in undergraduate ‘home’ tuition fees to £6,500 at exactly the same time as new EU students are reclassified as ‘overseas’.

Behind the scenes the universities are frantically lobbying the Government to stop the cut unless the Government makes good the difference. At least three prominent Tory ex-ministers have now spoken out publicly. There is no particular need for the Tories to press this button now. But it is a stark reminder that we have battles ahead.

We must not misunderstand the weakness on the Government side. Macho talk from the ‘Office for Students’ that ‘no university is too big to fail’ misses the obvious point that if even one small university closes, several thousands of students will be out on the street with debts and no degree – and the OfS has no Plan B. A spate of college and course closures triggered by Government incompetence would create a massive political crisis. US scandals like Corinthian Colleges and Trump University will be a tea party by comparison.

What does this mean for our ballot? Just like the arguments about Brexit, we have to argue that if we don’t fight, we will lose. A strong YES vote puts us in the best possible position to defend pay and resist job cuts, whether they be triggered by Brexit uncertainty, university restructuring or college closures. It also emphasises the point we made throughout previous strikes on every issue: we ask students to defend staff on strike, because through our strikes, staff are defending Higher Education.

The splits in the Tories show that we have everything to fight for.

In conclusion

The truth is that the collective ability of staff to shape the direction of Higher Education ultimately depends on our ability to win industrial action ballots.

We need to get organised. The stakes could not be higher.

Every member, every activist and every rep must be mobilised.

We have five weeks to defend our sector and win the turnout we need.

Build the pay strikes

Solidarity with FE College strikers

Download the UCU left leaflet for strikes on Wednesday and Thursday.

Cambridge University shows solidarity with City & Islington College

Cambridge University shows solidarity with City & Islington College last year

UCU members at six English colleges will strike for fair pay on Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 November this week.
The action is timed to coincide with the re-opening of a wider ballot of 26 colleges who aim to join the action in the new year. Last year’s FE strikes in a limited number of colleges demonstrated that concerted Get The Vote Out campaigning could push through the anti-union thresholds and win concessions.

Strike action at the three London colleges that make up the Capital City College Group (CCCG) led to a significant victory winning the 5% pay award UCU is claiming for all colleges and fractionalisation rights for casual workers. The new CEO of the Group has also waived his right to a bonus. This deal shows that money can be found. Colleges have not only overpaid their senior managers  while letting staff pay stagnate, but have wasted huge sums of money on new buildings and failed initiatives which should and could have gone to pay staff a decent salary to combat the rising costs of living. The CCCG deal should be rolled out to all colleges.

If even the employers are starting to grasp the idea that it is no longer credible to run a college on low paid teaching and support staff while giving big pay awards to the senior management team (SMT), it is definitely time for us to step up the fight.

Members in FE are sick of watching management ignore the need to recruit and retain staff on decent pay rates and exploit existing workers by ramping up contact hours, pointless data collection tasks and using the threat of redundancy to intimidate.
The value of our pay has fallen by 24% in the last decade, yet SMT have not faced the same level of decline and, in some cases, record pay awards have been made to them in newly merged institutions.
Consistent government underfunding has caused the rot, but a bad situation has been made worse by the ways in which some Colleges have set about chasing the latest fad in funding streams, rewarding the higher paid and closing courses for short term expediency rather than looking to growth.
We want our FE colleges to be effective and progressive. The landmark deal at CCCG shows that the pay fight is at the heart of any action to transform our colleges.   Solidarity for the six on strike this week can help build the fighback and get the vote out in your college or university too. The same managerialism that has laid waste to much of FE is now infecting higher education. The fight for pay is the key to turning this back.
Send messages of support and solidarity to:

Swindon New College (stewart.fraser@, Petroc College (cecily., Bath College (Sarah., Lambeth College (, Bradford College (, Croydon College (