How do we build a fighting union that can win?

UCU’s interim Congress took place in the context of a public health crisis where our employers and government are playing fast and loose with our health and using the pandemic to cut costs through sacking staff, including UCU members. But these attacks have been greeted by our members with stiff resistance. At this moment of time there are 16 universities and colleges that have declared a dispute and/or are balloting their members to take action to stop the employers in their tracks.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a stubborn refusal by Jo Grady, General Secretary, and her team to unite these fights around a UK-wide strike campaign.

In her opening remarks to the interim Congress the General Secretary (GS) appears to have drawn the conclusion that the HE disputes were not successful because UCU has less than 50% union density (i.e. less than 50% of eligible employees who work in a university are UCU members). Therefore, the conclusion is that to be able to launch successful UK-wide action we need first to be a majority union.

The danger inherent in a ‘density first’ approach is that we hold back UK-wide action until we have reached the tipping point of being a majority throughout the university/college sector. This approach fails to recognise how unions grow through taking action.

Union density and national action

Of course, it is important to get a majority into the union in as many colleges and universities as we can. The first step every trade union branch must take when attempting to organise their workplace is to map out their own union density. Locate which departments have a majority and which don’t and target these areas. UCU has lots of good toolkits and advice on how to go about doing this.

These are the ABCs of organising. Density is important but the question is how does a union achieve it? Do we have to wait until the vast majority have reached this tipping point before we can call UK-wide action?

UCU has shown that it has mastered the ability to break through the government strike ballot thresholds time and time again. The GTVO campaigns have worked well at both a national and local level. In the past 3 years UCU strike campaigns over USS and the Four Fights developed our union’s ability to succeed in breaking through the thresholds. 

In FE the nationally coordinated FE fights back campaign was also an important milestone not only in terms of beating thresholds but demonstrating that building a campaign around offensive demands can make significant gains for our members in the workplace.

In HE, for example, abandoning a UK wide fight on pay to some distant future in reality means also abandoning the equalities issues that were at the heart of the Four Fights campaign. The CoronaContract group have starkly highlighted the fact that the fight against casualisation has to happen now – amidst the pandemic – when the employers are slashing casualised staff, not at a future point when higher levels of member and rep density has been achieved.

Casualised workers have joined UCU in their thousands over recent years because the union was fighting over casualisation in the here and now. Apart from the fact that we deserve a pay rise the huge workload we face in the present crisis are we also to delay the fight against the gender and race pay gaps? Disabled members won’t receive the treatment they deserve through a ‘branch-by-branch’ strategy – their demands need to be part of a UK wide fight and UK wide agreements. Co-ordinated and national action isn’t a luxury to be aspired to – it’s a necessity in the here and now. 

Strikes build the union more quickly and decisively than decades of casework.  During the 2011/12 TPS Pensions dispute 15,000 members joined UCU. From then until the 2018 USS pensions strike UCU had a falling membership. This was because the union had taken on a servicing, casework, led approach to organising. This passivity emboldened the employers to think that they could move to an onslaught on members (deferred) pay in pre-92 universities by ending the defined benefit pension scheme. New members flooded into the union as they, for the first time, saw UCU genuinely defending members’ interests. Since then the recruitment has continued and 9,000 have joined in the past year.

Take a look at these graphs showing the rise and fall of union membership. They demonstrate the point clearly; when workers strike, union membership and density increase dramatically and with this a more powerful union organisation. The first shows that union density declined from 1983 as the level of strikes decreased.

The second shows the rise and fall of union membership from 1892 to 2007. It is often argued that the key cause of the decline of union membership is the closure of key parts of manufacturing. This argument fails to understand the active role of workers play in attempting to stop closures and to organise in new industries. It is these struggles that lead to union growth.

Graph showing trade union density and days lost to strike in the UK 1983-2009. The highest trade union density coincides with most days lost to strike (1984).
Graph 1: Trade Union density and days lost to strike in the UK, 1983-2009
A graph showing fluctuation of trade union membership in the UK from 1982 to 2007. The lowest point in just below 2000 and the highest is c. 13000
Graph 2: Trade union membership in the UK 1982-2007

If Eleanor Marx and the Matchgirls at Bryant and May in 1888 had waited for a majority union density before considering taking action there would not have been the period of New Unionism – the first great wave of union growth. It was not ‘density first’ that ignited this wave of mass recruitment to unions but a minority prepared to take action. For those familiar with the 1968 Ford machinists’ Dagenham equal pay strike, depicted in the film Made in Dagenham (2010), it was women workers without a tradition of strike action not the well organised male assembly line workers that brought Ford to its knees and forced government to pass the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

This can be said of the Teamsters strike in their great rebellion of 1934 in the US or the great miners strikes of 1972 in a union that had not struck since the 1926 General Strike as well as the engineering strikes of the 1970s. Time and again disputes started with a minority that were prepared to fight quickly spreading to other parts of the movement. Sometimes this was aided by national leaderships and at other times it was achieved by acting independently from a national union leadership who were hostile to their members taking action making it more difficult to turn that minority into a majority.

Giving and taking a lead

Even in a college/university where the union is in a minority industrial action can be effective. 40% of workers in a union, taking action can win 80% of the workforce in supporting the strike. Many of us who have taken strike action over the last few years will have experienced people joining on picket lines and others, whilst not joining, nevertheless not turning up to work out of fear of being seen to side with their employer against their workmates. Minority strikes can, quickly, turn into a majority.

The General Secretary cites the NEU’s ability to push Johnson to close schools at the beginning of January as an example of long-term building at local level leading to a higher density, which then allowed the union to orchestrate the action around Section 44. The General Secretary  argues that it was the action of rank-and-file members that led the NEU to take they action they did.

Whilst it is true the action of NEU members in their schools, especially around London, forced the pace of the national union, it is a one-sided picture. Mary Bousted joint General Secretary of NEU explained how it was, in her words ‘the least militant ’ section of the NEU, members based in the primary schools, that led the way. This often happens in struggle that a section of workers not known for being militant or even in a union, when given a lead by their national leadership, leap frog over those sections of the union that have been regarded as the most militant and take the lead.

This is precisely what happened in the NEU. The leadership did respond and put out a call to take action through mass participatory online meetings (which UCU still has not had and refuses to hold). This gave confidence to that least organised sections to take action which galvanised the whole union.

Why UK-wide action?

The General Secretary and her team do believe in an organising model – unlike the old leadership backed by the IBL, whose preferred model was a service based one. But her organising model negates taking UK-wide action until we have reached the magical density.

A union that cannot/will not deliver UK-wide action is a union that does not have a future. Individual employers and government are more scared of a union when it takes national action than when unions fight employers on an individual basis. UK-wide strikes take the issue out of the arena of a localised disagreement with the employer to an arena where the collective concerns are seen as a part of a more deep-rooted problem within the sector – marketisation and competition.

Winning members to taking sustained action means that they must be convinced of the cause that they are being asked to fight for. The NEU were successful in mobilising their members not just because of their level of organisation but because they had a far more convincing case about safety than Johnson. UCU were successful in mobilising members in defense of the USS pension scheme because we convinced members that there was no deficit. Similar in the FE fight back campaign; the slogan ‘the money is there we want out share’ hit a chord with members.

Members are more likely to be inspired and feel confident to take action if they are part of UK-wide action. Employers are more likely to be able to convince their employees at a local level that they cannot afford a pay rise or have to make savings because of a lack of funds. Of course, this is never true and where individual employers plead poverty, we have to respond with our own convincing case to put to our members that there is an alternative to cuts. For UCU to be successful in building a union that can win, a political campaign around funding it must run alongside a UK-wide industrial strategy.

Once we understand that it is often a minority who start the ball rolling then we can begin to work out strategies about how to achieve a majority density. It won’t happen by simply saying it is ‘up to branches’. It is great to see we have a GS in Jo Grady who encourages branches to take action. But we can’t leave it at that. Leadership from the top does make a difference to the confidence of those in the workplaces to fight.

The first step to achieving this is to nationally coordinate those branches that are entering disputes over jobs and conditions of service issues. At the moment this has been left to the UCU Solidarity Movement (SM) to do. The GS has joined in a number of these SM rallies and UCU has publicised the rally taking place to support UEL. The SM have achieved a lot but they are not a substitute for GS and her team putting the full weight of the union behind these branches by coordinating them to strike together to make the maximum impact.

It is clear that we cannot casework our way out of the pandemic – we need to collectivise the resistance. It is also clear that fighting collectively branch by branch will not effectively protect our members – we need to generalise the resistance too. That means mobilising the union politically and industrially at a UK-wide level.

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