The General Secretary has followed up the video she released last week, in which she questioned the HEC’s decisions on industrial action, with a proposal of her own. In a glossy document, she sets out a timetable for limited strike action, a reballot and possible marking assessment boycott.
The General Secretary’s proposal
Having declared last week that a marking and assessment boycott would be organised for January, it is not included in this latest plan.
Worse, as an alternative to the indefinite action favoured by HEC, for the rest of our ballot mandate she proposes a ‘strategy’ of sporadic two- and three-day strikes in February and March.
The document claims this is a ‘professional’ strategy which is based on the ‘successful management of the RMT and CWU disputes.’ But those disputes have not broken through.
If this were agreed, it would squander the mandate for industrial action in 150 universities that we celebrated with much fanfare in October. Counting the three days we have already taken, Jo Grady is proposing a total of just 13 days across the entire six month period covered by the ballot, but in an on-off manner that loses momentum and the employers can easily manage as they have demonstrated since 2019.
This is nothing like the ‘shutting down of campuses’ that the General Secretary promised. It is not even an escalation.
It is a green light for the employers to sit tight and ride out the action, just as they did last year and just as employers and government are doing in the post, rail and NHS disputes.
Why did HEC vote for indefinite action?
The reason HEC voted for an early marking boycott and indefinite strike action was because we need to try and win the dispute early, ideally without having to reballot.
Going all-out in a sustained way with indefinite action run by the grassroots of the union means a hard-hitting shutdown of campus early in term that can win the dispute and limit the impact on students.
Not only have the post and rail disputes demonstrated that ‘playing the long game’ does not deliver results, but the rhythm of the academic year demands that we take action at every point where all institutions are teaching.
The negotiations are coming to a head now, and the time to escalate is now.
The reason why the employers were planning to table an early settlement on pay is that the period December to April is when universities know their tuition fee income and finally allocate their budgets for the year. If staff want a share of that budget, they need to apply industrial pressure over this period.
On USS, we have a real opportunity to recover members’ benefits. Two of our negotiators have outlined a credible proposal for reversing the theft of USS members’ benefits on 1st April 2023. But there is a short window for putting any such proposal into action.
We cannot afford to risk the momentum we built up by wasting two months of a six month window without taking action. That’s why a January marking boycott is important. But it must be followed up with meaningful strike action in order to defend members. The GS’s document spells out that there are seven weeks during February and March during which all universities are teaching. Calling an indefinite strike in February threatens the employers with up to 42 days of strike action which would shut down the campuses and take out Semester 2.
Democracy is not an added extra
There is a marked difference between the resources being put behind the communication of the General Secretary’s proposal compared to the HEC plan. HEC’s decisions were kept secret for more than a month by UCU, despite having been taken by elected lay members following democratic debate based on input from branches.
January’s Branch Delegate Meeting is being set up on the basis of a straight choice between the two proposals. In her determination to get the BDM to endorse it, the GS is incorrectly describing her proposed strategy as ‘escalating action from February through to April.’ But it does not escalate, and the last strike date she proposes is actually 22nd March. If she is successful in persuading the BDM, the pressure will be on HEC to reverse the decisions it took in November.
Branches should not rely on these questions. They should organise meetings for the BDM and express their views through motions. This is the tried and tested democratic process used in the trade union movement. Then we must demand that those views are discussed and debated at the BDM. In October HEC voted for BDMs to hear motions from branches, but this motion was ignored.
Democracy is not an added extra. Strike action of this scale needs an elected national strike committee that can coordinate between branches and can decide whether to pause or resume action.
Of course we all want coordination with other unions, and of course we have to take issues of hardship seriously. But coordination shouldn’t be used as a reason for individual unions to hold back action. While we need to raise solidarity across the movement, the best way to deal with the threat of hardship is to use the mandate we worked so hard for to win this dispute.
The General Secretary says that indefinite action has not been used by the ‘big battalions’ of the movement. That is true – but both CWU and RMT are now being forced to escalate their strikes because the employers are digging in and counter attacking. By contrast, an indefinite strike won barristers a hefty 15% pay rise.
Members have to take democratic control of this dispute, both at the BDM and in branches but also by the establishment of local and national strike committees to assess and develop action and involve the mass of members.
We need a proper debate in our union about the next steps in our dispute, not surveys with leading questions without a proper explanation of the merits and disadvantages of proposals.
We face the biggest attack on our living standards for generations.
We can’t just revert to the same old tired plan. We have to fight to win – and that means escalating as soon as possible.
UCU Left Open Meeting
Fighting the HE disputes
What strategy do we need and how should we decide it?
Wednesday 4th January, 7pm
The General Secretary has proposed an alternative to the strategy passed by the Higher Education Committee on November 3rd. Instead of a January marking and assessment boycott followed by an indefinite strike, she advocates ten days of strike action spread through February and March.
Ahead of the Branch Delegate Meeting, join this Q&A to find out why UCU Left members of HEC voted for a MAB and indefinite action, and why we need union democracy to win these disputes.