Our Union, our Disputes, our Sector in Danger
Solidarity is the way to rebuild
Build the reballot
We need to debate the action we need to win
Our Higher Education strikes this week are essential for the future of our union. Every single striker, every day of strike, every protest and every demonstration matters. We need to do our best to ensure that our actions are coordinated and open to everyone.
Activists want to fight. In non-striking branches many members voted to keep up the action. We need to link together (or ‘twin’) non-striking and striking branches. We can build solidarity by fundraising, by delegations visiting picket lines, and by inviting speakers into branch and section meetings.
Solidarity is essential. You would not know this from UCU’s website, but members in some branches, notably Brighton, Queen Mary, Manchester and Liverpool Universities, are suffering from huge deductions from pay. The whole union must rally around those branches. We need to flood the hardest-hit branches with donations (see links above).
Turn our anger into action
The employers are rejoicing at the self-inflicted and unnecessary retreat in the JNCHES dispute led by the General Secretary and her acolytes in the union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC).
What kind of union calls action and then asks branches whether they would like to opt out on the eve of the strike, indeed, when many Scottish universities were already out the door? Whether you were in favour of the strike last week or not, the retreat has done more damage to the union than had we attempted to hold the line and seen members fail to observe it. Unions are nothing without collective action.
UCEA could not believe their luck when the officials incorrectly withdrew strike action notices from Newcastle and London South Bank Universities despite their branches deciding not to opt out. This error flows from the thwarting of member democracy by the leadership of our union, of which #OptOutGate is just the latest example.
But the stakes are too high to allow justified anger at our union leadership to undermine our action. We have to build the action, to show that ordinary members will continue the fight however much our union leaders falter and fail. We need to use the strike wave to build solidarity for members in branches hardest hit by deductions. And we need to carry that fighting spirit into the reballot campaign.
Right now, visibility matters. We need to organise the largest pickets on campus we can, and call on branches that are not on strike to offer both political and practical solidarity. Regional demonstrations and protests, such as Thursday’s protest outside UCEA’s HQ in Central London, are crucial in bolstering members’ confidence.
Inflation has not miraculously evaporated. We have had 11.7% of the value of our pay wiped out in the last two years (August 2021 to 2023, against RPI). Over this period we have lost pay at a rate nearly three times faster than the previous twelve years (August 2009 to 2021), when pay fell by 25%.
Casualisation continues to divide our members by hierarchies of precarity. Had we won this summer, new lecturers and teaching assistants could be starting the term with proper contracts right now. We could be looking at a negotiated settlement with workload and pay gaps treated as a serious sector-wide issue.
We can’t afford to wait. Our members are struggling to pay the bills right now, and we need to fight back.
Meanwhile employers in pre-92 universities are looking greedily at the USS pension scheme to see how they might profit from a union on the back foot.
We have to win the reballot, because the alternative is to invite defeat. In the process we must debate the kind of strategy needed to win.
The employers’ annus horribilis
We need to wipe the fake smiles from VCs’ faces.
The employers have had a terrible year. Our UK-wide strikes took out weeks of teaching. Our UK-wide marking boycott prevented thousands of students graduating and progressing. Meanwhile, tuition fees are frozen while inflation rages. And there was nothing the employers could do.
That is why VC Senior Management Teams have been so brutal in their approach to pay deductions. Some have climbed down, either entirely, to a lower cap or to various methods of self-declaring hours. But others, including Queen Mary and Manchester, are clearly out to make an example of staff.
Nonetheless in all of the chaos right now, we must take stock of what we have actually achieved. We have driven a coach and horses through the Government and VC’s HE market system. To work around the MAB, Vice Chancellors were forced to bypass long-established academic standards and quality control.
Not only was this decision contrary to the statutory Office for Students’ requirements for universities’ Degree Awarding Powers, it is incredibly damaging for UK HE Plc. Vice Chancellors have publicly trashed “the brand” of UK Higher Education in a way not seen since Gerald Ratner memorably described his stores’ products as “crap”.
They are dependent on MABbing staff for our expertise to reinstate this quality control as we mark. And VCs cannot afford for us to do this again.
We know our sacrifices last year did not break the employers. The unfortunate truth is that the militancy and heroism shown by ordinary members was not reflected by a similar resolve in our union leadership. The employers successfully gambled on the hesitations and mistakes of our General Secretary and her supporters on the HEC.
What went wrong?
Every member now cites the failure of the union’s HEC to implement a summer reballot. But that failure was not inevitable: it was the consequence of a sequence of decisions of the HEC, advised by officials reporting to the General Secretary. Since Congress, a small majority of the HEC is held by members of the ‘IBL’ and ‘Commons’ factions.
Branch reps voted at the May Sector Conference for a summer reballot, commencing as soon as possible. This could have been done promptly had the will been there. There was no such delay or controversy for the spring reballot. Why the dithering about the summer one, when members would inevitably be carrying the MAB and the employers would be weighing up the risks of waiting us out?
In fact, procedurally, the process was straightforward. The formal decision lies in the hands of HE officers, and HEC is obliged to implement Sector Conference policy. The one decision that might have been passed to HEC (the precise framing of the ballot) was not a matter of principle requiring a debate at a meeting a month later. In short, had the General Secretary and her supporters not blocked it, the summer reballot could have been set in train soon after Congress at the end of May. Even with as much as six weeks’ preparation and process delay, ballot papers could have been arriving in members’ homes and pigeon holes by mid July.
Even if a decision were delayed until the HEC meeting on 30 June, there was no ground for not treating the implementation of the Sector Conference motion as a formality. Instead the General Secretary insisted that HEC also consider her proposal for a November ballot as if it could be treated as an alternative to implementing the Sector Conference decision. (Deliberately not implementing a Sector Conference decision is against Rule 18.1 of the union’s rulebook.) And then her supporters carried a motion about national negotiations over deductions, filibustered, and the meeting ran out of time.
What last week revealed about what might have been
Last week’s HEC meeting showed two things.
First, HEC meetings can be called very quickly – in 24 hours if required.
Second, there seems to be no legal barrier to stop strike action being called and then stood down branch by branch.
Yet it was unspecific ‘legal advice’ that was used to block the implementation of motion HE5 at April’s Special Sector Conference which called for strike action against pay deductions being called and potentially stood down according to each employer’s response. Friday’s mistakes aside, ‘legal objections’ were not the real impediment to implementing a more militant united and protective approach to the MAB. We could have boxed in the employers from the start, and forced them to concede much more quickly or escalate our action.
We could have brought the dispute to a head and forced negotiations on the national claim.
The point of this review is not to recriminate about the errors of the General Secretary and her supporters. It is to remind ourselves that there was an alternative strategy, one that was agreed by the Sector Conference of our union. This was a strategy which would have united members and could have won the dispute.
Democracy, indefinite action and the alternative strategy
So-called ‘indefinite’ action sounds frightening. But we have just had two years in which very many members took a particular form of UK-wide indefinite action – a marking boycott with no end date.
If we compare what happened in the summers of 2022 and 2023, one fact jumps out.
- In 2022-23, branches ran their own MAB campaigns. They were compelled to negotiate locally, but that gave them control over their own dispute. The outcome was overwhelmingly positive, with a series of local wins, branches strengthened, and only Queen Mary management imposing deductions for MAB participation.
- But in 2023-24, branches were left to soldier on with no real say in the dispute. The Special Sector Conference had voted for fortnightly BDMs or (ideally, a national strike committee) to run the MAB. But this was not implemented. The General Secretary and her supporters on the HEC did not want to give up control.
Branches could not negotiate their way out of the MAB individually, but at the same time they had no say over the national dispute. When national negotiators were directed to go and negotiate return of deductions rather than press forward on the national claim there was uproar.
Democratic rank and file control is not an optional extra! That is why regular Branch Delegate Meetings empowered to direct the dispute were a crucial component of the strategy (see motion HE5 above).
Whether we are discussing indefinite strikes like in Brighton, or an indefinite marking boycott, ‘indefinite’ simply means that the members stay out until they win. For this type of action to work, members have to be in control.
Members have to decide what a ‘win’ looks like – not the HEC or the General Secretary.
It is unsurprising that right now very many members feel angry about the way the dispute has been conducted. The main part of that anger is the growing realisation that the so-called leadership, the GS and the majority of the HEC, simply failed to lead.
The MAB applied huge leverage and pressure to the employers, but the failure to trigger the reballot meant the employers could decide to wait us out.
But there was an alternative strategy, based first and foremost on member-led, branch democracy being put in control of the key decisions of the dispute.
Strong branches know they can take action and often beat their employer. But that is because the branch is in control of the dispute. Our union structures don’t allow us to apply that logic of branch control to national disputes. As the scale of our action has increased, and as we take indefinite forms of action, the question of democracy becomes inescapable.
The dispute last year was dominated by top-down interference in both the action and the negotiation process. Instead of these interventions demonstrating the General Secretary’s superior competence, they exposed her failings, and presented the union as unnecessarily divided in front of the employers.
We need to win the reballot. But at the same time we cannot continue like this.
We need democratic renewal, starting in branches.
It is our union. It is time to take it back.