Focus on GTVO – Drive up the Votes!
At yesterday’s branch reps briefing, UCU confirmed there was ‘no offer’ to vote on. But, in a moment of sheer surrealism, the General Secretary declared that she wants to make members vote on it again!
Reps were told:
- UCU officials say they will launch another e-consultation with unknown questions (branch reps heavily criticized the draft questions shared at the meeting)
- Branch delegates will be invited to a BDM on 29 March with an HEC on 30 March.
- The employers are demanding that no further industrial action is taken while negotiations on ‘non-pay’ elements are ongoing – until February 2024 at the earliest.
- Our industrial ballot closes next Friday 31 March. Results are expected the following week.
What is UCU playing at? Calling off action before we even know the outcome of our industrial ballot is nonsensical – why would we shelve an industrial ballot before it’s even announced?
If the GS is successful in calling off action, there will be no possibility of taking action under the new mandate – there will be no MAB, and no ‘leverage’ over these negotiations.
We are just days away from smashing through the ballot thresholds again – that means we can launch a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) – don’t throw away the chance to use a powerful industrial tool!
We have now seen the questions that members are being asked:
- Whether they support UCU members being formally consulted on ‘the proposals that have been reached with UCEA on pay, ending zero hours contracts, workloads, casualisation and closing pay gaps’. The fact that ‘the proposals on pay’ are a crushing 15% pay cut is not mentioned anywhere. Neither are the consequences of agreeing to conclude that dispute.
- For members in pre-92 branches, whether they support UCU members being formally consulted over ‘the proposals that have been reached with UUK to restore benefits and lower pension contributions.’
Both questions sound extremely reasonable. Who would not want their pension benefits restored?! But these ‘proposals’ come with significant downsides. The unstated subtext is to try to get UCU’s Higher Education Committee to call off the MAB.
What is going on?
We are at a critical point in our disputes. But instead of building members’ confidence and standing by their mandate, UCU officials are attempting to persuade the union’s elected Higher Education Committee (HEC), branches and union reps to call off the action.
Branch reps have reported that the ‘pause’ and then the ‘e-ballot’ undermined our strikes, and demotivated members from attending picket lines. Every time that ‘Head Office’ intervenes like this it saps members’ belief that the union has their back.
On the other hand, the Cost of Living crisis is driving members into action. Those who did picket in the last few days found themselves with widespread support, from other staff, from students, and from the wider public. Striking – especially over pay – is extremely popular.
Despite a smaller GTVO effort than six months ago, it seems likely that the reballot will be successful. If the officials thought we wouldn’t cross the anti-union 50% participation threshold, they would not be triggering such a major divisive internal row.
The employers are also rattled. But instead of UCU standing by its members and building the GTVO, strengthening the union’s hands in bargaining, the GS told reps that she will authorize yet another round of ‘consultation about consultation’. The only point of this exercise seems to be to try to persuade members to give up.
It seems clear that both the employers and the officials are worried about the Marking and Assessment Boycott. The employers are worried that we can carry it out. The officials are worried because they won’t be able to control a national marking boycott – it is a type of industrial action that must be conducted by branches getting organised, like the 20 branches who did it last year. And that thought fills them with dread.
No offer to consult on
The officials were honest that the ACAS statement ‘is not an offer’. They admitted that the JNCHES offer was particularly bad – on pay it is a huge 15% pay cut and the working groups (with 10 employer reps and just one UCU lay rep allowed to attend) are likely to be a dead letter. On USS there is no conditionality in the joint statement – there is no need for UCU to ‘accept’ the offer or even to agree to pause action to work together for these ends. But the offer of working groups is dependent on stopping action.
None of the reps in the meeting spoke in favour of pausing or e-balloting at the present time. Members can be consulted in due course as to what they might wish to do over USS, for example. But that consultation should not be rushed, and members deserve to know what the consequences of voting Yes or No will be.
In the meantime it is essential for members to vote in the industrial action ballot. If you believe in democracy, you have to give members both a Plan A and a Plan B!
But the officials want to appeal over the heads of union branches, branch delegates, elected HEC members, officers, and lay negotiators to members, and try to persuade members to call on HEC to pull the plug on the disputes.
Last week they used a single double-barrelled question. This week they propose to ask multiple questions. But the intention is clearly the same – to try to get the HEC to call off the industrial action.
What we learned last week
UCU is a participatory member-led union. We have democratic structures, at the heart of which are union branches, passing motions and instructing delegates and representatives.
Last week, in a vote weighted by the size of branches, branch delegates voted 70% in favour of keeping the action on, and only 16% voted against. That vote was the culmination of a series of emergency strike meetings and branch meetings of members which debated what had, and had not been achieved.
But at the same time, the General Secretary ran what she called an ‘informal survey’ over the heads of branches and reps, without authorisation from HEC, which is directly contrary to the explicit policy of our union. This policy was agreed by Congress in 2018 after the USS dispute.
Despite this ‘informal survey’ having no standing or validity, the General Secretary told HEC that representatives should accept this 2:1 survey result over the more than 4:1 vote the other way!
Every time that the General Secretary does this, it sends a clear signal to members who are active in branches, as well as hardworking branch officers and reps, that their voices and experience does not matter. And it shows how much of a fight we have in order to restore democracy in our union.
Why UCU has strict policy on e-ballots
Polls, ‘plebiscites’, ‘consultations’, and e-ballots require great care else they become a weapon against democracy. The most obvious problem is that whoever chooses the questions to ask can influence the outcome of the vote. (Government Referendums are clear examples of this – before a question can be asked, it must be authorized properly, and parties on either side are entitled to make representations on the question. Thus in 2014 the Scottish Referendum was on the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ and this was authorized by the Electoral Commission.)
But there are other considerations, including timing and the information that is sent out with every question. This is why UCU’s policy on both formal and informal ballots is so strict.
Democracy begins in our branches
Our union democracy begins in our union branches.
Branch executive committees can call on members to vote in any ‘informal survey’ against selling the disputes short.
Even if a committee is divided on what precisely to advise, it is an uncontroversial statement of democratic policy that we should draw attention to our pension and pay claim, and compare it with what we have been offered! We have debated these matters for months, and persuaded members to vote in the ballot on the basis of these demands.
Branches should also call union meetings to discuss the latest information about the offers, and hear reports from reps who attended the briefing.
These meetings – which can be formal Emergency General Meetings if called quickly – can take motions for the Special Higher Education Sector Conference (deadline March 30).
They can also take votes on questions put to members, and consider other steps to uphold democracy. Several branches have already passed motions of no confidence in the General Secretary for the way she has conducted these disputes.
We need to prepare for a Marking and Assessment Boycott
Branches need to start talking concretely about the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). This is the elephant in the room at the heart of the current row. We need to be clear that a MAB can be a very powerful weapon, but it requires planning and organising to carry out.
Crucially, we need to debate how branches can protect members against threats of serious pay deductions. Members have faced between 20% and 100% pay deductions for participating in these boycotts.
There are two emerging strategies which are not mutually exclusive.
- Focusing on key ‘block points’, solidarity and salary sharing. In this model branches identify key people who by taking part in a MAB can actually block marks from being agreed and students graduating.
- Threaten escalating industrial action if members face significant pay deductions for participation.
Related to this are also questions regarding obstructing employers from gathering data on participation which they will need in order to lawfully make pay deductions.
Join UCU Left’s pre-BDM open meeting on Monday 27th March at 7:30pm to discuss the situation.
Register at tinyurl.com/preBDMmarch23
The UCU Solidarity Movement has organised a ‘Big MAB Workshop’ next Wednesday at 6pm to discuss how branches can carry out a boycott, with reps from branches that successfully carried out a MAB leading the discussion.
UCU Solidarity Movement special meeting:
The Big MAB Workshop
6pm Wednesday 29th March
Please register here: http://bit.ly/UCUSM_org