The strikes in the 60 universities which got over the 50 percent ballot threshold will undoubtedly win enthusiastic support. Those of us who didn’t quite get over that high bar are keen to join our colleagues, to help strengthen our forces and pile the pressure on our employers. But there is a real danger that the momentum we worked so hard to build will be lost if the union delays reballoting universities like mine.
At Imperial College London, 72.64 percent voted in favour of strike action, on a turnout of 47.99 percent — a shortfall of just 14 votes. To come so close was hugely frustrating. But the results elsewhere meant there was no hesitation or disagreement among members or reps about the need for an immediate reballot. After a frank discussion among reps and at a members meeting, we agreed to ask HQ for an immediate re-ballot and a short, sharp campaign — preferably beginning on the first day of the strikes and finishing after just three weeks, before the end of term. It would allow us to get help from a big branch like UCL, using the impetus of their striking activists to support the reballot. This would also allow us to join the second wave of strikes in the New Year.
We knew this would demand a much more extensive Get The Vote Out campaign, so we asked members to help. We immediately set up a bigger and better organised network of reps and volunteers across departments and campuses to ensure we can deliver the votes. We’ve been hugely enthused by the ballot results elsewhere, and will be similarly inspired by our striking colleagues. However, this enthusiasm won’t last indefinitely. If reballots at Imperial or elsewhere are delayed until after the first round of strikes, we will miss the opportunity to escalate, and lose momentum at a time our colleagues need to know reinforcements are on the way. This will prolong the dispute and risks undermining it.
UCU’s Higher Education Committee on 1st November voted that branches with a turnout of 40% or more should expect to be reballoted, and that branches below this would be encouraged to opt in. This would allow as many more branches as possible to join the second wave of action. But since then, it’s become clear that elements in the union want to put the brakes on.
So what is going on?
Doubtless, there are real political pressures. Many trade union and Labour Party officials don’t want strikes during an election campaign — or a Labour government coming into office to face a major industrial dispute. But if Labour’s plans — for a National Education Service, of dismantling tuition fees and the market in education — have any chance of being implemented, then we have to be prepared to fight for them.
Perhaps the obstruction has more to do with conservative elements in the union who never wanted us to fight over both pay and equality at the same time.
It’s clearly too late now for the reballot to begin on Day 1 of the strikes – but it’s urgent that it starts as soon as possible.
(Imperial UCU branch organiser, personal capacity)