Report on UCU HE pay sector conference, 7 November

HE votes to re-ballot and campaign on pay, equality, casulisation and workload – prepare to organise and fight

Following a serious debate about strategy, delegates at Wednesday’s HE Sector Conference voted to relaunch a hard-hitting national pay campaign, focusing on pay, equality, casualisation and workload.

Delegates came to the pay conference in the wake of industrial action ballot results which delivered an overall vote of 69% for strikes and 80% for action short of strike on a 42% turnout, the highest figures ever for an HE national pay ballot. However, as we know, only eight out of 147 branches of the union exceeded the 50% turnout threshold required under the Tory anti-trade union legislation.

The debate

Given the solid support for action there was no desire to wind up the pay campaign.

But there were tactical and strategic differences about how to go forward.

  • A number of motions (composite motion 1, and motions 2 and 3) argued for a selective re-ballot of members in branches which had come close to reaching the threshold. Motion 1 used the 35% turnout as a benchmark, allowing others to opt in. This would be a ‘disaggregated’ ballot, counted branch-by-branch, just like the most recent ballot and the USS ballot.
  • Against this position was a motion (Motion 5) which argued for an aggregated national ballot in the Spring Term and for fighting over next year’s pay claim. This means that all members get to vote, and all votes are counted centrally. The delay would offer branches some additional time to prepare.

The conference heard how branches such as Herriot Watt had sailed over the threshold (achieving a 65% turnout) by implementing a meticulous GTVO campaign. If this experience were generalised across the union, combined with speaking tours by HEC members and other measures, many more branches could reach the threshold in time to take action alongside those which already have a valid ballot.

The merits of aggregated and disaggregated ballots was debated. An aggregated ballot would mean that if the 50% threshold was crossed, all members could strike and take ASOS together. It would be a national strike as well as a national claim. But the disadvantage is that if the 50% threshold was not crossed, the dispute would be over. It is one roll of the dice.

The recent turnout at 42% is a lot higher than the ~35% turnout in 2016, but there is still some way to go to reach 50%. We would all be in it together, but there is an increased risk of not getting over the threshold. The fact that branch results would be hidden in the total also tends to soften the responsibility of individual branch activists to fight to reach 50% in their own institution. This is why UCU Left believe that in light of the Tory union thresholds, we have nothing to lose by disaggregating a national ballot.  A national pay campaign, if necessary, could be led by a significant number who reached the thresholds. 

For this tactical reason, UCU Left members argued to mount a disaggregated ballot and to build on the current ballot result. As one speaker put it, “our task is to march every branch over the 50% threshold” in pursuit of the national claim, an act that would strengthen their ability to fight independently in front of their own employer.

The main argument against a selective reballot was the reasonable concern that it could appear to the employers to be UCU stepping back from a national fight.

The result of the debate was that the clause referring to re-balloting a subset of branches was removed from Motion 1, which was then passed. Conference also put back the timing of any future balloting to Spring Term 2019, and agreed to conduct an aggregated ballot.

What happens to this year’s claim is not completely clear. The UCEA offer of 2% has been rejected by members (in two national ballots), but it has been imposed on members. Given that members have voted overwhelmingly to reject it, it should roll over to next year’s pay claim.

Where we are now

Now that Conference has put its weight behind an aggregated ballot, UCU Left commits to do everything we can to build it.

An aggregated ballot can be won, but it is going to take an organised effort among the grassroots of the union to get the national turnout over 50%.

Motions calling for members of the union’s highest bodies (HEC, pay negotiators and others) to visit branches and up the ante in the pay campaign were also passed. The pay claim needed to be broadened to include equality, casualisation and workload among its headings. It was also agreed that consultation with other unions regarding a potential multi-year claim be begun.

Conference overwhelmingly voted for a late motion calling for the cancellation of a proposed survey of branches on the potential benefits of local pay bargaining, announced a few days earlier by the HEC. Conference agreed that even to consider abandoning national pay bargaining in the current climate of possible university bankruptcies would be totally counterproductive.

Reboot and Reballot

We will have to fight to get the maximum turnout in next term’s pay ballot. It is time to reboot the pay campaign!

Every branch needs to debate how to maximise involvement and turnout of members. We will need a systematic Get the Vote Out in every branch.

We need to use the national campaign to highlight local issues of casualisation and workload, making it clear we intend to fight and win for the maximum turnout next term. Focuses like the Gender Equality Pay Day (10 November), the Disability Day of Action (21 November) and the Anti-Casualisation Days are all opportunities to get out and campaign.


UCU Left
Building a fighting UCU
Saturday 24 November

Central London

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