How do we build the Marking Boycott?

UCU members urgently need to discuss how to implement the marking and assessment boycott called by the union. The General Secretary wrote to reps in Four Fights branches with a mandate saying that the action would be called, and press releases have gone out from UCU. In this article we summarise the lessons of previous marking boycotts and set out a strategy for this phase of the action.

This is the first time that members have been called to boycott marking in a UK-wide dispute since 2006. There is huge political support for the action, with branches recording over 80% votes in favour, and only slightly lower figures for strike action. This is despite employers threatening 100% pay deductions for participants.

But we need to urgently work out, and coalesce behind, a clear action plan.

The first step must be for UCU to formally notify employers of the boycott. Under the anti-union laws, calls for strike action and ASOS must be pre-notified 14 days’ ahead of the start of the action. With marking already begun in many institutions there is no justification for any delay.

The second step is to call meetings in every branch with a live mandate to talk through what this means in practice.

The lessons of previous boycotts

One of the lessons of the 2006 dispute is that a small minority of members can completely disrupt marking, provided that they are supported. But since 2006 the employers have sought to construct ways to ‘mitigate the impact’. These range from draconian threats of disproportionate pay deductions to attempting to force marking processes quickly, dropping second marking requirements, and paying postgraduates to mark work set by other staff. However, these measures come up against the reality of the market system in Higher Education that they themselves have encouraged. Prompt organising can pay dividends.

Successful marking boycotts have now been held at a number of universities since 2006, including SOAS, Liverpool, the Royal College of Art (RCA) and Goldsmiths. Liverpool is probably the most directly comparable to the situation most branches are in. But the other disputes show that casually-employed staff can fight back effectively with the marking boycott.

Last year, Liverpool University tried to play hard-ball with 100% pay deductions. A high level of branch organising held the line. And then Liverpool students rebelled after the employer issued made-up marks, prevented students graduating, etc.

Liverpool members keep repeating one point however: their marking boycott did not succeed by the use of ASOS alone. It worked because the branch backed it up with, and eventually switched to, strike action. A similar strategy was used at the RCA.

Addressing pay deduction threats

This is probably the issue on most members’ minds right now, and quite rightly.

Firstly, we need to organise to ensure that members taking the action are supported financially by the entire union, and know they are being supported. UCU needs to launch twinning arrangements between university branches with a mandate and those without, invite speakers to general meetings and launch local fundraising drives. We all have a stake in winning this fight.

Secondly, UCU has called strike action. The principal purpose of these strikes (see below) should be to back up the marking boycott, by offering to stand down the action if the employer does not threaten high pay deductions. (NB. Legally, notice must be issued in advance due to the 14-day rule, but strikes can be stood down without notice.) In recent disputes, employers have made pay threats ranging from 40% in Leicester to 100% in Liverpool. What is considered ‘disproportionate’ is in the hands of the branch.

Thirdly, employers must be put on notice that if they escalate high pay docking threats it will have a big political effect in terms of the reputation of the university, and to when students can expect to receive their marks.

We should call staff-student assemblies in every university to talk through the action, why we are taking it and why we call on the university to mitigate the impact. The employers want to scrap pensions, undermine pay levels and increase workload and inequality. They want to create teaching factories, while at the same time reaping the benefits of high fees and lifetime student loans. This is an attack on current and future students.

Finally, the branch needs to organise! Nothing in the above can be done without regular members’ meetings. Liverpool UCU called daily online strike meetings at 9am where members could meet online to discuss the action.

Importantly, it is essential that meetings involve members taking part in the action and members who are not. Boycotting members must not be left to fend for themselves! This is a fight for everyone.

What about other mitigations employers might make?

The employers will be looking to other types of mitigation, from demanding marks are submitted early, reducing oversight and removing second marking requirements, and offering marking work to postgrads and other staff.

  • Preventing the speeding up of marking. Employers are not free to change marking timetables to rush marking through. A combination of the student-market ‘customer’ regime, and Covid and strike mitigation measures mean that students themselves are entitled to request extensions to delay submission. Last year saw record requests for ‘extenuating circumstances’ extensions. Any attempt to speed up submission or marking should be denounced publicly. Course leaders and heads of department should object in defence of their students! And of course we must insist that workload agreements are upheld where they exist, and that individuals’ workloads are not altered to undermine the boycott.
  • Defending second marking and other processes. Marking is rarely done once by staff working alone. Second marking, marking consolidation meetings, etc. are all points of pressure covered by the marking and assessment boycott. Specific instruction on ASOS and the processing of marks is likely to come from UCU, but in the past the ASOS has been interpreted to include not just the marking itself but all aspects of the assessment process. Again, this is a clear issue of quality assurance and control.
  • Recruiting postgraduate students and other staff. Anyone who is approached to mark must be encouraged to join UCU – and asked not to mark! Anyone performing work for the university is eligible to join UCU, and the low paid can join for free. Both existing marking and any ‘additional marking’ are covered by the marking boycott, whether this is paid by the hour or as part of contract. Casually-employed staff in SOAS and Goldsmiths have both won disputes by boycotting marking, and branches can be approached for speakers.

The basic legal position for external examiners is that they are not covered by the ballot (because they were not balloted in this employer), but are free to choose to resign out of solidarity.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Liverpool dispute showed the power that members have over marking.

The quality of a degree is dependent on ensuring that staff expert in the subject teach and mark. The more specialised the question, the more difficult it is to find an alternative marker. Questions and answers are neither routine nor generic. Mark too low, and the university gets student complaints. Too high, and you discredit the degree and the university.

How can strikes back the boycott?

The UCU GS email announcing the action also said that a Branch Delegate Meeting would be called on May 10, with action called from May 12. It then asked branches to meet to decide what strike action they would like to call.  However, this risks sowing confusion, and does not reflect the motions passed at the Four Fights Sector Conference.

There are, in broad terms, three possible types of strike action that might be called alongside a marking boycott. These are:

  1. Strike action called to provide an alternative course of action from ASOS should the ASOS attract disproportionate pay deductions. This is what Motion 6, which was passed, explicitly called for. In Liverpool the employer threatened 100% pay deductions (a ‘lock out’) so the branch called strikes for the whole branch, replacing ASOS with strikes. That way the members taking the action were not left on their own, and the marking boycott continued to be effective. The employer was punished politically and industrially by its hardline approach bringing the whole union out on strike in solidarity.
  2. Strike action to be called on targeted days to be determined locally. Targeted strikes can be useful, but require some discussion. Targeting exam boards for example, might be possible, although of course the employer may circumvent this by delay. Where branches have had most of their marking already done, this type of action may be necessary. The earliest date offered of 6 June may well be far too late for some branches: they need to push hard for earlier dates.
  3. Strike action on UK-wide- or nationally/regionally-coordinated days. Motion 7 calls for occasional coordinated dates to boost the campaign over casualisation and workload, and the same principle would apply for the pay equality fight.

Note there are significant practical and policy limitations over the types of local settlement that UCU is in a position to reach (see below), and the motions that have been passed allowing for action to be stood down based on employer conduct should be understood as backing up ASOS, rather than opening the door to a local settlement of the dispute.

How can the whole union support branches with a mandate?

Employers settle disputes when the cost of continuing is greater than the cost of settlement. The fact that up until now the employers have set their public faces against reaching agreement over the Four Fights – or indeed over the USS pension – is because it suits them to do so. This does not mean that they will hold this position forever.

The action that is being taken forward now will be hard-hitting if we can implement and hold it. The employers fear ‘forty Liverpools’: branches that have learned their power.

But it also means that the whole union must urgently rally round, by fundraising and solidarity.

Not everyone in a branch with a mandate will be able to take part in the marking boycott. Some will have late deadlines or marks will have been submitted. Academic-related and professional services staff may be only tangentially involved and research staff do not (should not) have marking duties in their contract.

All members not taking part in the boycott should be called on to donate to members taking the action. In particular, members in branches without a mandate must be asked to donate a credible amount. If a substantial number pledge, say, one day’s pay a week for the duration of the boycott, then that would amount to two weeks’ pay over the course of ten weeks. A few members can contribute more; many will afford less. But this is a reasonable benchmark.

Alongside fundraising, members can take part in demonstrative action short of industrial action, including demonstrations and protests.

Finally, precisely because we are engaged in UK-wide disputes, all branches will need to ballot again in order to take action together at the start of the next academic year.

Reballoting over the summer

After giving money, the greatest solidarity members can give those in the front line is to pledge to join them as soon as possible. So alongside fundraising and participating in demonstrations and protests alongside members taking action, branches should start planning to reballot over the summer if the employers have not settled.

Motion 15 from the HE Sector Conference called for strikes in induction week in the 2022-23 academic year. Induction weeks vary from institution to institution (from 12 to 26 September at least, and possibly later). Newly-successful branches have mandates that run until early October. To ensure that as many branches as possible are successful, the best bet is to have a long ballot. Disaggregated ballots (ballots counted on a per-employer basis) can have different end dates, to make the most of when staff are expected to return from leave.

What about an aggregated ballot? Recently some reps and branches have been calling for a return to aggregated ballots, arguing that we need to bring the whole union out on strike. Perhaps the longer period over the summer justifies a return to aggregation?

There has been some debate in the union over aggregated ballots, with the General Secretary pitching in with her opinion. Aggregated ballots are simpler to run, for one thing. And if successful they mean that members in weaker branches can strike.

The method of balloting is not a question of principle for the left, but tactics.

Aggregated ballots have disadvantages. The first concerns legal challenges. Although UCU has been careful not to draw attention to this publicly, in an aggregated ballot one employer can file an injunction and stop the whole union’s action.

The second disadvantage is that the ballots are all-or-nothing. If UCU were winning an average turnout of 55% or higher in disaggregated ballots, we could likely afford to take the risk of calling a UK-aggregated ballot. But this is not where we are.

Finally, there is the question of organising. The irony of the Tory anti-union threshold is that unions like UCU that have switched to disaggregated ballots have shown that you can organise to get the vote out and recruit reps in the process. This then makes switching from ‘get the vote out’ to ‘get the members out’ more straightforward.

The Tory anti-union law has galvanised unions and branches who got this right. Between 2018 and 2019 A lot of branches, including the biggest, boosted turnout from around 40% to above 50%. In 2020, both the Royal College of Art and University of the Arts London UCU branches smashed through the threshold by organising. Cardiff UCU shows you should never give up, successfully getting through the threshold this time by a renewed organising focus.

The issue at the present time also concerns the message that we send to the employers. If we say we are going for an aggregate ballot, in effect we are saying we are prepared to risk not getting over the threshold, and stopping our action. With colleagues preparing for a marking boycott we think this is the wrong message to send!

The current phase of action requires us all to up our game. We need an even higher intensity of organising, not just to get the members out, but to hold the action. We must ensure that the employers blink first.

Local settlements

As the pressure starts to bite, employers may start seeking local settlements. We need to be clear that all branches are in UK-wide disputes, and so a local settlement is not a way out for an employer. If in doubt, talk to union officials and the national negotiators!

But there are goodwill actions that an employer might make. In 2019-20 some branches were effective at using the UK-wide action to put political pressure on their university managements to negotiate over casualisation and workload (UCL and many others) and equality (notably Bristol). Of course, the first act of goodwill we ask employers to make is to not make threats of high pay deductions for ASOS.

UCU is committed to UK-wide pay bargaining, and it is not possible for the union to reach local deals over pay in return for standing down action. Where there is an offer to stand down strikes, it would not be to end the action or dispute, and ASOS would continue.

The same applies to USS negotiations. There are practical useful demands around seeking that employers break ranks within UUK to force a vote on paying in Deficit Recovery Contributions into pensions and partially reversing the 1 April pension cuts that would be helpful. But even the most supportive local statement would not enable branches to reach an agreement – the changes have to go through the USS JNC!

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