HE disputes in jeopardy – How do we regain the initiative?

Report from Friday’s Higher Education Committee

UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) met on Friday.

  • After a lengthy debate, HEC voted to confirm the 15 March as a strike day, so that members can join NEU, PCS and other trade unions on strike on Budget Day. This will start six days of action including the 5 days previously called by UCU.
  • HEC emphasised that we need to win the reballot which launched this week and runs until the end of March.

After one week of ‘pause’ and branch consultation, and the ballot relaunch, it is time for a sober assessment of how UCU is progressing its disputes. 

The clock is ticking on industrial action this term/semester, with teaching terms in many universities ending on Friday 24 March and the current mandate expiring around 20 April.

At ACAS talks last Friday 17 February, UCEA announced that it was not moving from its latest ‘final offer’ on pay (8% over two years, which amounts to a 15% cut against RPI unless inflation falls by August), but made a number of unspecific promises to negotiate over non-pay issues. These promises appear to be re-heated versions of the 2020 UCEA offer that was rejected by members in an all-member ballot. In any case, UCEA has always stated that they can only make statements and recommendations, and these require local implementation. Alongside this, UUK made a statement on USS that was not discussed with UCU’s team of elected negotiators.

This was accompanied by the threat that the employers would walk out of negotiations if the unions would not suspend strikes for two weeks. The resolve of the union officials collapsed in the face of this intimidation, and they all agreed. 

That afternoon, the UCU General Secretary, who had attended the talks unaccompanied by the members’ elected national negotiators, called off the imminent strike action without reference in advance either to the HE officers (who are legally responsible for the dispute), the full HEC, or to members, and thus acted in breach of the union’s rules and policy on the conduct of disputes. 

The General Secretary then sought to justify her action retrospectively through the use of a simple plebiscite, using a tendentiously worded and misleading question, claiming significant developments over pay and the other elements of the claim, and that a two-week period of ‘calm’ from ‘pausing’ the strike action could ensure further progress.

Having trapped the unions into demobilising their members, UCEA acted on Thursday 23 February, writing to all of the unions to say it was now imposing its final offer, and terminating all negotiations on it.

The only way to reopen the question of pay is to force the issue by industrial action.

As noted above, this ‘offer’ represents a 15% cut in real pay from August 2021 to 2023, on top of the previous 25% pay cut from 2009 to 2021. UCEA’s imposition plan even comes with a provision for individual institutions to defer part or all of that offer for up to a year, as long as they provide a rationale. The offer also includes a removal of the bottom point on the spine, and a ‘review’ that may mean the removal of other spine points not occupied by UCU members. This will be small comfort to members facing rocketing gas bills in April.

The undertakings on non-pay issues are ‘talks about talks.’ And UUK and the Russell Group have made weak commitments on USS, despite another Financial Monitoring Plan (FMP) report that says the scheme is £5bn in surplus.

Worse, some employers have now been telling staff that the two-week ‘pause’ is in fact not merely a temporary suspension of action, but a two-week break in UCU calling any action. In other words, that it would prevent UCU taking strike days before Easter other than the five days previously notified.

The wording of the UCEA agreement is ambiguous. But on 17 February, the General Secretary wrote to members to say “To allow our ongoing negotiations to continue in a constructive environment we have agreed to pause action across our pay and pension disputes for the next two weeks and create a period of calm.” However, UCEA now appear to say that UCU agreed to no more strike days in Term 2 than those already notified. If this is the case, then the General Secretary has misled members.

In summary:

A) There has been no improvement on pay as a result of these negotiations, but it has given the employers the opportunity to announce the imposition of their pay offer, entailing a huge cut in real income for members.

B) Meanwhile, part of the strike action has been cancelled, and the union in HE has been partially demobilised, confused and divided between those favouring and those opposed to the tactic of ‘pausing’ strike action.

C) And to arrive at this situation, the General Secretary has defied well-established union policy on the handling of industrial disputes, excluded national negotiators, and – in abrogating the duties of the HE officers and sidelining the HEC – broken the union’s rules.

A successful GTVO operation for the reballot will be much more difficult in these circumstances. Whether the employers walk away from negotiations at this point or not, UCU has completely conceded the initiative.

Our union is, therefore, facing a serious unnecessary defeat with adverse financial consequences for our members, which will have devastating consequences for every branch, rep and activist. Not since 2018 has our union been in such a crisis.

It’s not that the UCEA negotiators played a good hand. They didn’t need to. They simply waited to see if the unions would call their bluff and escalate in the face of threats. Unfortunately, from past experience, the employers’ representatives had every reason to expect the unions to blink first, and they did.

UCU’s performance in this debacle is even more extraordinary given the huge mandate for industrial action we won last year. It manifests a profound failure of leadership for which the General Secretary is chiefly responsible. She refused to implement HEC decisions, and she even publicly attacked the HEC and sabotaged negotiations to impose her ‘strategy’.

In the face of such an unnecessary self-inflicted setback for the dispute, the honourable thing would be for the General Secretary to acknowledge and reflect on her mistaken strategy, offer an apology to all members for squandering their efforts and sacrifices, and for leaving members wide open to historic cuts in pay. This is unlikely to happen.

This struggle against pay and pension cuts, against spiralling workloads and casual contracts, and for equality in the sector can be won, and it can be won this year. 

It cannot be won, however, by a leadership that focuses on the negotiating table at the expense of members. 

Most disputes are settled by a negotiated outcome, of course, but the nature of the outcome depends on the balance of forces, and the use each side makes of the forces at their disposal. 99% of all trade union negotiations happen outside the room – by mobilisation of members in the workplace, and on the picket line and streets. On their part, the employers use several methods to pressure unions. These include their monopoly over university budgets, and the tactic of running down the clock on action.

That is why UCU policy formally established in 2018, with the formal adoption of the Report of the Commission on Effective Industrial Action, that industrial action should not be suspended (whether to allow talks or to ballot over an offer) unless the HEC recommended that an offer is made that members should accept. (This is a position which the current General Secretary publicly endorsed at the #NoCapitulation moment.)

What we need to do

The two redeeming features of the situation now are the following: 

1. The decision of HEC that UCU will strike on Budget Day, 15th March, along with all the other unions currently in dispute. That will add to the immense pressure on the Government, and increase pressure on our own employers, especially as this strike will launch another week of continuous strike action. It is an opportunity to draw in non-strikers and students to publicly unite against the artificial Cost of Living Crisis.

2) That over 20 UCU HE branches have already voted to requisition a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) at which the future of our dispute, its priorities and its management, can be debated and resolved by members’ delegates. (If your branch has not yet passed it through a quorate General Meeting make sure that yours does!)

What is already clear, however, is that for success with whatever strategy is adopted by the SHESC, ordinary members organised in branches must regain control of the dispute. Sudden suspensions of action must stop. Members are not a stage army. Crucially, if we are to win a reballot for a Marking and Assessment Boycott, if reps are to enthusiastically campaign for one, members need to know that their union has their back. They must not be left high and dry again.

The objectives determined by HE Sector Conferences must be honoured, elected national negotiators’ responsibilities must be respected, and the union’s rules must be followed. For this reason, and to remind her of her duty to members, the General Secretary should face a motion of censure at the SHESC for her mishandling of the dispute so far. 

Ordinary members organised in branches are leading on the ground. They have a right to say that their action and sacrifice must not be in vain. 

How can branches regain control? 

Branches deserve to know progress in negotiations and be given the opportunity to decide either “no, this is insufficient progress to pause” or “yes, we should pause given this progress”.

In the 2018 USS dispute, branches organised regular strike meetings after each picket, sometimes outdoors on the picket line, but often somewhere warm away from the picket. Some branches are continuing that tradition, but the picture is uneven. We should take advantage of a week of continuous strike in the offing to set up daily strike meetings, even if they are initially about running the local strike, developing campaigning materials, etc. 

In 2018, an infamous ACAS agreement was presented to members while out on strike. Fortunately members were meeting daily and heard about it while they were on strike. They could see it fell far short of what they were fighting for. Picket gate meetings and strike meetings allowed branches to mobilise in large numbers to say ‘No Capitulation’ (a protest the current General Secretary supported).

The General Secretary has learned one lesson from 2018. She decided not to put the proposal to suspend the action out to branches, but announce it as a de facto decision on a Friday evening. Although there was massive anger at the pause across the union, the level of grassroots organisation to challenge this proposal was insufficient. This is why union rules and policies matter!

In order to regain control, we should review what we learned in 2018. As well as the Commission on Effective Industrial Action that preceded it, members should consider the proposals that came out of the 2018-19 UCU Democracy Commission (see especially Part 5. Working Group D). As well as organising regular strike meetings throughout the strike, the Democracy Commission advised that a UK-wide strike committee (called a ‘National Disputes Committee’) of elected branch reps should direct disputes, and thereby keep control in the hands of the members who are taking action. Delegates would be elected and accountable to ordinary branch meetings and branch strike meetings, meetings could be called at short notice online, and it could be empowered to direct the dispute.

Although the relevant rules motion failed to attract the necessary two-thirds majority required for it to be incorporated into the rules, a version of this proposal twice won a clear majority at Congress. Members rightly expect a meaningful democratic say in industrial action and disputes while they are progressed.

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