• We need a campaign on pay
• We need to build up momentum to win a ballot on pay
Public and private sector workers, ourselves included, have been paying for the bank crash of 2008 for seven years now. The Tory “austerity” programme, masquerading as a “public sector pay policy”, has transferred billions of pounds from the pockets of ordinary workers to the government and our employers. To add insult to injury, the government’s quantitative easing policy, of printing free money for banks, has undermined our USS pension scheme.
• Even including the 2% pay increase we won last year, our pay has fallen in real terms by 13% since August 2008. As the graph of the real-terms value of our pay against CPI and RPI shows, we have stabilised our losses in the short term but the overall trend is still downwards.
• All percentage wage cuts disproportionately impact on the least well-off, because the poorer you are, the more your wages are already committed to rent, bills, food and other costs. The first thing to go is spending money.
• If you believed the press you might think that inflation was flat. But anyone attempting to rent a flat or pay for a travelcard has not seen prices frozen. Like all averages, RPI and CPI conceal variation – so rents increase but petrol prices and luxury goods become cheaper.
• Even private sector bosses are recognising that they need to raise wages. The Daily Mail reports that private sector wage rises are averaging at 3.5% this year, with 7% rises in some cases.
• Our bosses are not tightening their belts. In 2013-14 the average vice-chancellor salary was £260,290. Eighteen VCs enjoyed a pay increase of more than 10% that year, and one awarded himself a 70% pay increase.
At Congress in Glasgow, UCU committed itself to a renewed fight over pay. Motion L1 from Leeds Beckett was overwhelmingly carried. This said:
• Conference notes the national negotiators’ report, UCUHE/248, and the proposal to put the 1% offer out to a full ballot of members.
• Conference resolves that UCU should call for members to REJECT the offer, and to vote YES for strike action and action short of a strike in furtherance of the dispute. UCU must actively campaign amongst members to explain why the pay campaign is particularly important this year after many years of real-terms pay cuts.
We knew it would not be easy, but the alternative to fighting over pay is to see the further erosion of pay, the decline of national bargaining, and the decreasing relevance of the UCU to ordinary members. If the UCU does not fight nationally over pay and pensions – or does not try to win – members rightly ask, why should I pay my subs?
As we discuss below, the best way to campaign against restrictions on the right to strike and take Action Short of a Strike (ASOS) in the Tory Government’s Trade Union Bill is to demonstrate its relevance to ordinary members. We won’t defeat the Trade Union Bill by giving up our fight on pay!
We need a national campaign
This motion did not say, go straight out and ballot members, without warning, for industrial action. Nor did it say poll members indicatively on the same question. It said that UCU has to “actively campaign amongst members”.
The need for such a campaign should be obvious. Unless members can see that the prospect of a fight over pay is taken seriously by the whole union, especially the leadership, they will think that the union is not serious.
Unless there are meetings organised to discuss the need to fight over pay, with national speakers, posters, leaflets, etc. they will reasonably assume that the union is going through the motions.
The last two disputes in HE over pay and pensions have led many members to be very concerned that their leadership will not follow through with the type of industrial strategy that might genuinely force a better offer than 1% out of our employers.
The June Higher Education Committee meeting received a report on the snap pay consultation the union had run.
53.5% of members voted to reject the 1% pay offer on a 32% turnout. A marginally higher proportion of members (55.7%) voted for ASOS and 47% for strike action.
After a lengthy debate we won agreement to
• Invoke the New JNCHES dispute resolution procedure (i.e. declare a dispute).
• Call four regional meetings of branch reps in September/early October to consult branches, and campaign over pay in the meantime.
• Report the result of this consultation to the next HEC on October 9th, which would then consider calling industrial action.
Yet since June there has been no campaign over pay. Nothing has happened over the summer. Instead, ahead of these regional briefings, branch officers have been asked a series of pessimistic leading questions that were not authorised by the HEC. Here are our answers to those questions:
Q: Should the UCU proceed to ballot members for industrial action based on the consultative ballot?
A: Better to campaign over the pay offer in the branches and win the argument it is right to fight over pay and demonstrate that we are serious to do so. We need to campaign, and then ballot.
Q: What is your assessment of the capacity of your branch to take sustained industrial action?
A: We can only know this when members are mobilised and taking up the campaign themselves.
The Trade Union Bill
The final element of the national bargaining arena is the Tories’ Trade Union Bill. This bill is intended to cripple trade unions and prevent us from taking industrial action.
The Guardian recently referred to it as “the biggest crackdown on trade union rights for 30 years”. It aims to do by legislation what Thatcher never dared: to make lawful industrial action all but impossible in many cases. The bill imposes a double threshold on strike action for so-called “key public services” – 40% of balloted members must vote for a strike in addition to a simple majority of those voting. Many members simply do not realise that “strike” here also includes ASOS.
Whether or not Higher Education is classed as a “key public service” or becomes one later, this double threshold will mean that all ballots will become much more difficult to win and branches will have to spend a lot more time winning a high turnout.
National disputes aggregate stronger and weaker branches together and impress members with the idea that we are a national union that genuinely believes that unity is strength.
But whereas strong branches may be able to win a ballot on the double threshold, national ballots will become very difficult to win indeed.
The best way to demonstrate the relevance of defending the right to strike (and the right to take ASOS) is to campaign over pay, and in the process demonstrate to members what is at stake in the Trade Union Bill.
We know industrial action is the only method by which we can compel the employers to raise wages. A campaign against the Trade Union Bill is strengthened immeasurably by campaigning and fighting over pay at the same time.