We can’t afford more of this muddled leadership
At yesterday’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meeting (15 September 2023), UCU General Secretary Jo Grady, and her supporters on the HEC, the Commons and IBL groupings, sought to put the knife into our HE #FourFights dispute.
They called a Special HEC meeting with less than 24 hours notice to discuss the calling off of the five days of strike action taking place from the following week. This was after it took the GS six weeks to hold a Special HEC and Branch Delegate Meeting to put them on!
HEC stopped short at calling off the strikes altogether. But they agreed a motion to allow branches to individually withdraw from the strike action. [Note]
This is a massive error, even if in some cases good activists can pivot their action around deductions. Overall it will be highly divisive, leading to a fragmentation of the union’s united fight against the employers. In our market-driven and crisis-ridden HE sector, it risks undermining national pay bargaining altogether.
Unions are built on the understanding that unity is strength. A key motive for the strikes was to pull the union together out in the open after a highly effective but fragmented MAB behind closed doors. We have unfinished business with UCEA and UUK.
Worse still, this decision sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Are we now to have emergency HEC meetings when branches wobble? Should we routinely allow branches to opt out of strike action if they choose?
Indeed, why did we aggregate our ballots in the first place? An aggregated ballot means we all act together, not then have local opt-outs.
Democracy has been ridden over roughshod. Not only was no Branch Delegate Meeting held prior to the HEC, but an attempt to prevent debate on motions from HEC members had to be defeated in the meeting itself. This would have left HEC voting only on a preset set of recommendations in a report from a senior UCU official standing in for Jo Grady.
How we got to this stage has been spelled out here.
The strike dates remain on. But the current mandate is in danger of ending in further fragmentation and chaos, weakening the ability to unite the union in the forthcoming ballot.
Keep the Strikes On!
Members are rightly asking how we got here. But the most immediate question is what should we do now?
Local branch officers have been urged to canvass support for the strikes and decide whether they should call them off, branch by branch. So two branches in the same city will independently consult their members, each guessing what the other thinks.
The truth is that there are good reasons for keeping up the action. But there is also confusion and anger arising from the abrupt end of the MAB and the lack of financial support and leadership from the top of the union. So no-one can be sure which way votes will go.
Branches should call Emergency General Meetings to meet and decide, before Wednesday’s 2pm deadline. But despite the time pressure, e-polls or decisions by Committee Meetings are far less democratic than a General Meeting. A basic principle of trade union democracy is that we debate first, vote second. Members must have the opportunity to hear the debate before voting.
Strikes are collective. A show of hands is collective. A debate and a vote is collective. E-polls are not.
Jo Grady has now written to every member, so messages explaining how the branch will decide need to go out promptly!
Should we ‘go local’?
One option that some activists are focusing on is the prospect of using the option of calling off the action as leverage in local negotiations, especially where members face large pay deductions. Last year, many branches negotiated the exit from the MAB and saw a variety of local wins as well as zero deductions in most cases. Why not do it again now?
Many of the activists making this case rightly see a key problem in the national industrial strategy being the failure in leadership by the GS. But there is a danger here. However well-intentioned, a strategy oriented on local wins has a local logic: it points to local bargaining, local affordability – and local employer belligerence.
It is not a surprise that some see a move to local bargaining, with the ability to call off strikes for local wins such as the return of deducted pay for MABers, as a way out of this chaos. Indeed, the fact that such moves are possible in stronger branches is evidence that this action offers leverage – contrary to the General Secretary, who wanted the strikes to be simply called off.
Unfortunately, the risk is that only the strongest branches will feel able to take the action, members will be divided and many will end up feeling let down by colleagues who voted against strikes in their support, however reluctantly.
Arguing for a UK-wide focus
The best outcome of this crisis, despite the disastrous strategy pursued by Jo Grady and her acolytes, would be to fight to maintain the UK-wide action. We don’t agree with giving members a Hobson’s Choice, i.e. no choice. We do think that unity is strength.
Objectively there is every reason to do so.
The Scottish branches of Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian and Strathclyde are starting their strikes from next week, while Brighton, Stirling, LJMU, Manchester, Sheffield Hallam, QMUL and Sheffield continue their strikes or disputes. They are not being asked to reconsider their strikes. It is not local action alone, but action in the context of united UK-wide action, that has pushed many employers into offering local agreements in the MAB.
Second, the strikes are part of a UK-wide campaign. The ballot and its GTVO campaign will again be run on a UK-wide (‘aggregated’) basis.
Third, our strikes are politically effective because when we strike we highlight that the poor learning conditions of our students are our working conditions. Employers have been thoroughly lambasted for abandoning academic standards.
Now they face disruption at the start of the 2023-24 academic year, followed by a ballot for action later in the academic year.
Our strikes strengthen our message that the sector is broken and that change must come soon. And we are prepared to stand up and fight for it.
In an earlier version of this statement, we incorrectly reported that members of the independent left voted for the ‘branch opt-out’ motion (it was a secret poll). They have assured us that they did not, so we apologise and have corrected this report.