UCU Left report: HEC pay & equality ballot debate, 1 November

HEC members were presented with a report from a national official that accepted that we had received the best ballot result in a pay dispute – in turnout or strike/ASOS vote but then argued that national pay bargaining had not delivered pay increases for members and therefore ‘alternatives should be explored’.

This report floats the idea that UCU should explore the scope for local bargaining over pay. UCU’s national policy, confirmed at a Sector Conference as recently as 2017, is that we defend National Pay Bargaining in principle.

It is true that the machinery for national pay bargaining at New JNCHES has reached an impasse.

But this is not an argument for local bargaining.

Striking results

The evidence points to one conclusion: credible threats of strike action are necessary to force employers to negotiate seriously with the union.

This is true at local or national level.

  • New JNCHES negotiations delivered a pay increase in 2006 when we struck and threatened ASOS.
  • USS negotiations were a disaster in 2011 and 2014. In 2017 it took a major strike to turn a broken negotiating machinery into one that protected pensions.
  • Locally, branches like Leicester and Brighton were told redundancies were inevitable until they won their strike ballots.

Our ability to compel the employers to budget and pay for pay rises in line with inflation depends on our ability to take industrial action. If branches wish to fight over local demands they will face the exact same ballot thresholds as they would over national pay.

There is therefore no shortcut for a branch to get 50%+ of their membership to participate in ballots.

Market madness and local pay

Local pay bargaining would divide the entire union. The history of local pay disputes is one of a pattern of divide and rule. A past London Weighting strike wave started united but split when branches stopped strikes when local offers were made, in most cases for small increases.

We know every employer will cite affordability, just as the wealthiest Russell Group institutions have refused to pay “a penny more” into USS. They have aspirations to compete. They have loan commitments. They all have excuses!

Inviting local bargaining would trigger a race to the bottom on pay.

The Tory Government has created a Higher Education marketplace where universities are set against each other in a Klondike speculative competition for fee-paying students. The Government would dearly like to see differential pay for staff alongside differential fees for students.

This week there are reports in the Guardian and i of rumours that universities may go bankrupt.

Re-ballot & the alternative

Members of UCU Left put forward proposals to re-ballot branches that had a turnout of 35% or more this pay round.

The IBL Right voted to oppose this re-ballot. Their argument was that balloting a subset of institutions would divide members.

Of course, if branches did re-ballot and lodge local claims this would be true. But that was not proposed. What was and is proposed by the Left is that branches above a threshold in the first round are re-balloted in pursuit of the national pay claim, with the right to opt out and opt in around that threshold. Motions on this are being brought to HESC.

HEC agreed that if HESC on 7 November took a different view, HEC decisions would be overruled.

The chair then pushed for a vote for and against different propositions.

  • A proposal to rule out action on pay this year was lost by 12 votes to 11, with the IBL voting to end all discussion of action.
  • But a proposal to survey branches ‘to find their views on New JNCHES and UK level bargaining’ was carried by one vote. This proposal is naive and dangerous.  There is no problem in asking for views, but this action will be very public. It invites employers to see UCU as actively canvassing branches about whether to explore local pay bargaining.

The votes were extremely close: 12 to 11, with UCU Left members voting to defend national pay bargaining and the IBL and independent voting to put out a consultative survey.

What now?

UCU has demonstrated that it can win national ballots in Higher Education in the USS dispute.

But USS is not, and must not be, a one-off.

UCU has also just obtained our best ever result in a ballot in pursuit of pay. But we face the 50% turnout threshold in the Trade Union Act 2016 that has robbed members – who voted 65% overall for strike – of their democratic right to strike.

A logical response to a lower turnout than we need is to fight to increase the turnout in a re-ballot. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again!

That decision will now be decided by HESC.

But we now have to deal with another argument that could distract the whole union.

Instead of focusing on building a national pay fight, UCU is at risk of undermining national negotiation and opening the door to wholesale fragmentation of the Higher Education sector.

An emergency motion to HESC is now needed to correct HEC’s strategic ‘local negotiation survey’ blunder and to hold the union’s leadership to account.

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