HE disputes – No Time To Delay: Escalating and indefinite action needed now.

The re-ballot results over USS and the Four Fights are now public and the Branch Delegates Meetings have been held. They tell a consistent and determined story.

UCU rightly chose to immediately reballot branches who narrowly missed the 50% anti-union threshold in the initial ballots before Xmas. In both sets of re-ballot results we see a similar story of a membership overwhelmingly opposed to the marketisation of Higher Education and demanding far reaching change. In the USS ballot there was an average vote of 81% for strike action while in the Four Fights it was 75%. Votes for action short of strike were higher still. 

But there was also a consistent pattern of branches hampered by the anti-union law 50% threshold. The overall turnout in the USS re-ballot was 48% while for the Four Fights the turnout was 45%. It is a credit to our union and its members that despite these antidemocratic laws, in both the USS and Four Fights just under a third of branches got over the threshold (7 out of 22 in USS and 9 out of 31 in Four Fights). It will be very disappointing for activists in branches that missed the threshold despite their hard work, but this is the reality of the anti-union legislation, and we need to find concrete ways in which non-striking branches can play a role until such time as they ballot again.

USS now has 44 out of 68 branches with mandates for strike action over USS and in the Four Fights 64 out of 145 branches. The mandate these branches have must not be squandered and instead must be used to demand real and far reaching change in Higher Education.

The stakes are high. In the USS dispute, university managements and their partners in the USS Trustee are determined to destroy the pension scheme and with it members’ right to a decent retirement. In the Four Fights the year-on-year cutting of our pay, relentlessly rising workloads, institutionalised pay discrimination and scandalous levels of casualisation are all in managements’ gift to change but throughout the sector not a single employer will break from the standard business model. The reason is that generating surpluses by minimising staffing costs while maximising student fees is the sole aim. 

The sector is broken and those who pay the price are our students graduating with unpayable debt and staff trying to hold together a resemblance of what higher education should be. At the same time we should not forget this sector has never had so much income or recruited so many students, no matter how unevenly they are distributed between institutions.

What next?

UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meets today to determine what happens next. The Branch Delegates Meeting gave a clear steer. No one wants to end the disputes, voices for continuing the USS and Four Fights disputes together were widely supported and a recognition that only stepping up our action can force our employers and the USS Trustees/Executive to change direction. 

Stepping up our action can galvanise our members in branches with a mandate for hard hitting action and build the confidence of members in branches who fell below the threshold to win a mandate in the next set of ballots. A number of branches passed a version of the model motion circulated last week by UCU Left calling for escalating and indefinite action.

Many branch delegates expressed opposition to the two HEC motions proposing to localise the disputes by targeting individual institutions. Calls for ‘reframing’ the disputes around ‘targeted action’ are intended to sound creative, but such a strategy would in reality mean frittering away the collective strength that we have built up, giving the green light to employers to intensify the marketisation that is wrecking higher education.

Some delegates explicitly declared support instead for the HEC motion from UCU Left supporters which calls for escalating and indefinite strike action, making ASOS effective including moving to a marking and assessment boycott and preparing now for the further ballots needed to renew our mandate for an exam and graduation boycott into May and June. This is the only strategy that can take our disputes forward and put the pressure on our employers, particularly if it is combined with winning solidarity from other trade unionists and building unity with students. The NUS Strike for Education on 2nd March needs to be a key focus for our next bout of action.

UCU is at a crossroads. It either stands up and fights or it backs down and invites a rout by the employers. A union that is incapable of defending its members is a union that has no future. The stakes are high but we cannot afford to lose these disputes.

UCU Left VP & NEC election campaign launch

For a union that defends education, working conditions and the planet

Speakers include John McDonnell MP

6pm Thursday 27 January

Register here: bit.ly/UCULNECElectionLaunch2022

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