HE Industrial Action Survey: Strategy cannot be ‘fixed’ by surveys

Get ready. 

UCU members in Higher Education are being surveyed again.

But there is a real danger that the ‘Industrial Action Survey’ will be used, not as originally intended to build the current JNCHES trade dispute, but to reposition UCU’s overall industrial action strategy. 

The HE Sector Conference motion calling for the Survey was intended to engage members in a process of identifying practical action short of a strike that members could take in this current pay round in order to put pressure on the national employers over JNCHES pay and conditions dispute (“Four Fights II”). 

The entire Survey exercise was framed on preparing to take action. 

But Jo Grady’s email to branches on Friday 23 January sets out a different perspective: that this survey should direct decisions on future industrial strategy.

She wrote:

The survey asks members about their participation in previous industrial action, and what will make them likely to participate in industrial action in the future. It covers options for action short of a strike (ASOS) as well as strike action, and it covers demands which the union can include in future negotiations with employers.

It is no secret that Grady and her supporters (now rebranded as ‘UCU Commons’ for the NEC election beginning Friday 29 January) want to ditch UCU’s current industrial action strategy of hard-hitting escalating national strike action that stopped the USS pension scheme from being trashed in 2018. 

That is why, for instance, that they attempted to separate the Four Fights and USS action last year. They attempted to use the membership levy to discredit the action. According to them, the problem with the dispute was “too much” industrial action.

The Commission for Effective Industrial Action

In 2017, UCU set up a Commission for Effective Industrial Action (as the result of a Congress ballot. This Commission was elected from Congress, met multiple times and published a report. The final report and its recommendations was published in March 2018. 

But it also both influenced and learned from the experience of the HE USS pensions dispute, which took place over the same period. 

  • Recommendations 1 and 3 emphasise the need to campaign and prepare for industrial action directing its resources accordingly. But since lockdown began, the HEC has barely met and no campaigning materials in furtherance of the current dispute have gone out. The UCU leadership has focused on local branch disputes rather than the national dispute. 
  • Recommendation 2 says that escalating action moving beyond one day strikes and towards taking sustained strike action. This is the expensive, high-stakes recommendation that officialdom would love to forget.
  • And Recommendation 4 says that ASOS should be used as part of, rather than a substitute for, strike action. 

There are other recommendations in the same spirit. The entire perspective was designed to build members’ collective confidence that the union, from top to bottom, was focused on winning the dispute. 

During the USS strikes, members felt that by taking action in their own employer they could have an impact. They believed that the union would support them with consistent calls for action and would push hard to win the dispute. That is why in HE USS institutions, union membership grew by 50%. An astonishing number of new members flooded into the union in order to take part in the strikes. 

When they found the union leadership dithering in March 2018, rank and file members mobilised to stop the sell-out, causing ructions within the union that did not end with Sally Hunt’s resignation and the election of a new General Secretary. But that was not a failure of the industrial action strategy – it was a failure of leadership following through.

ASOS

Experienced union reps know that Action Short of Strike is complicated. It can appear easy but may be ineffective and leave members open to victimisation. The problem is that any action, ASOS included, is only effective if everyone does it (consider: boycotting REF or admissions). A Survey risks becoming a popularity contest of perceived ‘clever’ targets proposed as a substitute for strike action. 

In addition, effective ASOS can lead to 100% pay docking, a worse sanction against members than losing a day’s pay for each strike day. That is why Recommendation 4 emphasised that ASOS should not be seen as a standalone ‘clever’ trick for avoiding strikes.

What should reps do?

Branch reps should organise member meetings to discuss industrial action strategy and debate the questions. Encouraging members to come to meetings first is important to encourage a discussion. 

This should be taken up as an opportunity to invite representatives from striking branches to their meetings. We need to learn from past successes and current struggles, and build the union – and our members’ confidence – from the ground, up.

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