The fight is on. We can win.
Within our union across the sector, members, activists and reps fought to ensure the MAB was called. We now have to ensure we fight on to a meaningful victory.
Members know that we need to force the employers to put more money on the table. The current offer will mean a two-year 15% pay cut by August 2023 against RPI unless inflation falls. That’s 55 calendar days’ worth of pay. We’ve already taken 15 days of strike action this year. But unless we can increase the pay offer next year we will lose the equivalent of 55 days of pay deductions for strike action in 2021 money – without going on strike!
No wonder members are still committed to this fight.
It is entirely due to the determination and fighting spirit of UCU members that the Four Fights dispute is still on and the Marking and Assessment Boycott is now under way. Three times in the last few weeks, members have refused to allow our dispute to be killed off.
First, members ensured that we broke through the turnout threshold in the industrial action reballot – no small feat in itself. In doing so, they delivered votes for action higher than in the original ballot. With 90% voting in favour of ASOS, there can be no doubt that there is solid support for a marking and assessment boycott (MAB).
Then members defeated attempts by the General Secretary to settle the dispute on the basis of UCEA’s appalling offer. In the consultative ballot, they saw through the leadership’s trick of offering ‘note’ instead of ‘accept’ and the myth that the dispute could be kept alive without rejecting the offer.
Finally, delegates from branches at the Special HE Sector Conference saw off motions from the General Secretary’s supporters calling for an end to action, and reaffirmed the desire of members for a MAB backed up with strike action.
It is to their immense credit that UCU members have followed the RCN nurses in rejecting their leaders’ attempts to get them to settle for a similarly appalling deal on pay.
The power to win this dispute now lies in our own hands. Last summer, twenty branches demonstrated the effectiveness of the MAB by winning concessions at a local level. And members with a longer memory may recall that when we used this weapon on a national basis in 2006 that we last won a real-terms pay rise.
It is already clear that the employers are rattled. Attempts by UCEA to coordinate a hardline response in every institution are faltering. Although almost all managements are threatening 50-100% pay deductions, the variation in approaches reveals significant splits and hesitations.
At the hawkish end of the spectrum, several universities have announced 100% pay deductions. Staff in this situation are ‘locked out without pay’. The employer has to declare to staff they are not obliged to work (they should send them home). But in reality they need staff to do all the other duties they perform at this time of the year, from supporting students to student recruitment and course preparation for next year.
Another common tactic involves the employer saying they will make 100% deductions but offer a large ‘ex-gratia’ payment, say 50%. But if staff are subject to 100% deductions it is still a lockout, and staff cannot then be expected to work. Such a payment is supposed to be a gift without conditions – if it is in exchange for work it is a wage!
The employers have been advised that if they make less than 100% deductions then they are open to legal challenge on the grounds of proportionality – why this figure and not another one? When so many of these deductions are far in excess of what staff are actually paid for carrying out marking work, the employers are not confident that such deductions will stand up in court.
Then there are universities such as UCL and Greenwich, which are threatening to impose 50% deductions from day one on all staff who say (at any time) they are participating in the boycott. In UCL’s case that will amount to a pay deduction for a ‘central assessment period’ of 73 days – a pay cut of 36.5 days pay or 10% of an annual salary, irrespective of when they receive any work to mark or how much marking the staff member has! So a researcher who was a second supervisor and decided not to attend just one PhD viva might lose 10% of their annual pay. Similarly, Greenwich is threatening a cut of 50% of 6 weeks’ pay.
It is clear, however, that most employers have doubts about this tactic, either because it is unlikely to be lawful, or because of the risk of the anger it provokes, or both.
Across the sector, union members who have not seen how their employer values them are waking up to the threat of brutal and blatantly disproportionate deductions from their pay – in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
The desperation and confusion of employers is plain to see. And staff in universities like Brighton or UCL can see that Ulster University and London Met have said they will make no pay deductions at all!
Perhaps the most significant sign of the employers’ lack of confidence is that last year’s threat of ongoing, permanent deductions has been dropped in many universities. In many cases, employers have made it clear that deductions will cease once the boycotted work no longer exists, either because the employer no longer decides they do not need the marks or because they have succeeded in employing scab labour to do it.
All of this means that the employers’ are not as confident as they pretend. We have the potential to get them on the ropes within the next few weeks. But we will need strong, supportive organisation at branch level to do so.
All branches need to learn the lessons of last year’s 20-branch MAB as well as those from Liverpool University the year before.
Lesson 1 is that a MAB can only be organised at branch level. Although this is national action, it cannot be coordinated or led from UCU HQ. It requires detailed knowledge of the concrete circumstances facing groups of staff at course and department level with the ability to develop tactical flexibility to deal with the specifics of each situation.
Lesson 2 is that participation in a MAB can be very isolating and it can feel divisive. Unlike a strike, there is no public demonstration of collective solidarity like the picket line. To overcome this, branches must meet regularly – ideally daily, but at least three times a week – to discuss problems and cultivate a sense of solidarity.
Regular meetings are also the place to develop mechanisms of concrete support between those members at the sharp end of the action, who are most exposed to management pressure and victimisation, and those who, by virtue of their job role, are not part of the action. Some members will be under threat of deductions before others, and are likely to need financial support from wage-sharing schemes and other measures.
Lesson 3 concerns twinning and mutual support. In a national MAB, branch reps need to share information, advice and tactics horizontally with reps in other branches. Where employers retreat from hawkish positions – as very many will – members in other branches need to know. If there are specific questions that arise, it is likely that branch reps in other branches learned them last year. The 20 “MAB 2021” branches are an important resource to draw on.
Some branches are not in the Four Fights dispute, and can be encouraged to support and fundraise for those who are. Probably the most useful thing those branches can do is twin with branches at the sharp end (as Queen Mary was last year).
It will also be up to branches to decide when to invoke the union’s policy, confirmed by last week’s SHESC, of notifying strike action in response to disproportionate (not just 100%) pay deductions.
The motions passed calls for UCU to issue notification for prolonged strike action, and allow branches to decide what action to take. Since it is far quicker to notify and cancel particular strike periods (as we learned through the General Secretary’s ‘pause’) – than to put it on – strike action can be used to target exam boards and other critical points in the marking calendar.
Employers have found themselves in the position of having to say that any work undertaken by staff suffering 100% deductions would be regarded as voluntary. Salary sharing will help members temporarily, but strike action is the best answer to employers who impose a lock-out.
Finally, we have to be vigilant for further attempts by the General Secretary to promote an end to the dispute in return for minor improvements in the offer from employers.
Remember that Jo Grady’s original proposal was not to take any action this year but just to recruit to the union. She undermined the decisions of HEC to call for indefinite strike action from February, attacking the democratically elected leadership of the union in public just as negotiators went into talks before Christmas. Then she called off strike days in February for a ‘period of calm’ in return for entering ultimately fruitless ACAS talks. She launched two e-consultations to undermine the strikes and most recently she tried to sell an appalling offer to members in advance of potentially positive reballot results.
Magnificent mobilisations of members at branch level have thwarted these attempts at capitulating to the employers, but we are likely to need to do so again.
Motions at HESC called for fortnightly Branch Delegate Meetings where branch reps can hear from negotiators and officials as well as discuss progress, solidarity and organising with each other. This is a national fight, and we need to keep national negotiations under membership control. Democracy is essential at branch level but also at the level of a national coordination of branches.
We have the power to win a brilliant victory, but only if the fight is in the hands of members organised at branch level.
Let’s get organised.