Stop the Retreat on Pay

UCU’s decision to consult members over pay, without any recommendation to reject UCEA’s offer, has thrown away an opportunity to reverse years of decline in members’ standards of living. With inflation at a four year high, our pay offer was a 1.2% pay cut in real terms: equivalent to nearly half an increment being taken from our pay packets this year.

No campaign, but half vote – and half of them vote for industrial action

This vote took place without a visible pay campaign among members. No leaflets were sent to members. No posters were sent to branches. The dispute had no national publicity or profile.

Yet, amazingly for the pessimists, over a third of those voting backed rejecting the offer, and 49% voted for industrial action. If UCU’s leadership had campaigned for members to reject the offer it is obvious we could have convinced enough members to win a majority to fight over pay.

There was a high turnout in the consultation of just under 50%, despite the ballot being conducted over the summer holiday period. The fears over ballot turnouts under new anti-union legislation are being exaggerated. Given time, UCU members can be mobilised to get past even the Tories’ thresholds.

The left on the HEC argued hard for UCU leadership to lead the fight over pay. We rejected the defeatism in the union and argued that members were prepared to fight if they were given a lead. On the right, the ‘IBL’ group argued to ballot members ‘cold’ in the absence of a campaign. They are now attempting to interpret the result as a vindication of their disastrous passivity.

However, this clearly does not make sense. Some members voted to accept and yet take industrial action! This seems anomalous, but the most likely interpretation is that many members wanted to signal their preparedness to take industrial action over pay, but still did not feel able to reject the 1.7% offer – most likely because they did not see a serious pay campaign happening.

A missed opportunity

UCU members in FE are now preparing to ballot over pay and other public sector unions, including the FBU and PCS, are also gearing up to fight the pay cap. It is a massive shame that the majority of UCU’s leadership have failed to provide a lead in HE. At the very moment that we throw in the towel on pay, the Tory government is in a complete mess over the issue, with government ministers falling over each other to say the pay cap has to end. The issue of gender pay has come to the top of the agenda with the scandal at the BBC. Anti-casualisation is a key mobiliser. But now, thanks to the absence of leadership from the top, the national fight is over for another year.

A pay campaign centred on the defence of higher education and the ending of student fees could have helped to break the government on pay and developed the fight against the privatisation set in train by the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act.

What now?

Branches are now left with local campaigns to win concessions on pay inequality and casualization. Without a commitment to campaign for national bargaining over pay branches are in much weaker positions to fight at a local level. Nevertheless, we have to ensure these local claims have defined and measureable targets with timescales which can demonstrate immediate gains for members. If not forthcoming we need to seek to win local ballots for industrial action.

UCU’s industrial action commission, elected by Congress 2017 delegates now has to meet and demand a halt to the retreat the pessimists that dominate the HEC are committed to. This process will begin in the autumn, when UCU is holding a Special HE Conference of delegates to determine an industrial action strategy. Branches need to meet to start discussing how to organise a national campaign over pay before next year’s pay negotiations

The Pensions threat

Members in pre-92 universities also face a major threat to our pensions. USS, our employers and the government’s Pension Regulator are lining up to end our defined benefit pensions. We need to convince members that we should fight to defend our pay, pensions and students right to a free higher education system. That so many voted for action over pay, despite the failure of our leadership suggests we have a strong base of support for this argument. If members saw a clear strategy from UCU we could turn a minority, into a majority to fight to win.

For more on USS, see here.

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