The results of the e-ballot over the continuation of the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) will be a surprise to many. Although overall 60% of members voted to end the MAB early (on a 27% turnout), HEC members were told that 62.7% of members who said they were participating in the MAB voted to keep it on!
These results raise big questions of leadership, democracy and the kind of union we need.
Members are frustrated, but they are not waving the white flag. We all know the stakes are high. Whether it is over pay or pensions, the employers are highly motivated to hold out against industrial action. Vice Chancellors plead poverty for staff while boasting about how they deserve more. The proportion of income allocated to ‘staff costs’ (pay and pensions) is falling to its lowest ever level. And pre-92 VCs are already salivating over what they might do with the unexpected windfall from the USS surplus, and pushing for the lowest contribution rates.
This result shows the resilience and determination of ordinary members who are still standing up to threats of massive pay deductions.
As a result of the survey, the MAB will be called off. But it didn’t have to turn out this way.
The MAB has demonstrated the power of members. UCU members have courageously implemented the MAB and have made it hurt the employers at many institutions. Students have been heroically supportive. They know that our fight is their fight. The government was rattled enough to publicly intervene in the dispute.
But sadly Jo Grady, the General Secretary, and the HEC majority who follow her, have failed to match the commitment of our members.
Branches have been left to fight alone to deal with punitive deductions of up to 100% over long periods. The complete separation of strike action and the MAB has meant the power of the MAB was reduced, with strike action against deductions localised and turned into an ‘opt-in’ process. Eventually the cap on claims on the national Fighting Fund was relaxed, but only gradually.
But probably the biggest problem has been the deliberate refusal to re-ballot members over the summer. Both employers and union members knew that the ability to continue the MAB into the autumn, and threaten employers making punitive deductions with prolonged strikes into the new term, was lost. This encouraged the employers to wait out the MAB.
The Special HE Sector Conference voted for fortnightly BDMs to run the dispute, or, perhaps better still, a national strike committee composed of delegates from branches taking the action. This was simply not implemented. It has been left to unofficial branch and regional events and the UCU Solidarity Movement to try to fill the gap.
When an official BDM was eventually called on 11 August (more than two months into the action) it was a serious and substantive meeting that was widely supported by branches.
Relaunch the fightback
The twin crises we face – the Cost of Living Crisis and the accumulating crisis in Higher Education – are not going away. Our pay has been cut by more than 11% against RPI over the last two years, on top of the 25% pay cut from August 2009 to 2021. Attacks on our members through casualisation and job cuts are continuing. There is no respite in the financial crisis for staff.
The e-ballot shows that members are more angry and more resolved than union activists sometimes think. The strikes in September can be the platform to relaunch the Four Fights campaign and the re-ballot.
But there are some key questions to be discussed.
Some members will quite reasonably feel demoralised that the MAB did not break through. We need to discuss this properly with members – what were the strengths and weaknesses of the MAB, and what could UCU have done differently? Should UCU have been better prepared to stop the employers ripping up academic standards? Would a more aggressive strike action policy have dissuaded the employers from punitive deductions? How do we combine a variety of forms of industrial action to make them effective?
Other members may ask what is the point of a five-day strike, whether in induction week or at another time. True, it is not an indefinite strike. But we cannot launch an indefinite strike from a standing start! There are several reasons why this is important. First of all, we need to send a clear signal to the employers that we are not defeated, that we intend to win the re-ballot and take further action. We tell students that faced with such university management we are compelled to disrupt their education and the dispute is not ‘over’. And we show our members that their participation can make the difference.
We also have to organise to win the vote in the re-ballot, despite the fact that the ballot is taking place too late to allow us to take action at the start of term.
It is important that branches hold regular meetings, including site and departmental meetings, to build up support for winning the re-ballot. We must have a strong union presence on campuses. We must resist collectively any management pressures to work extra hours to make up work lost during industrial action. We must start building up strike funds again.
Finally, we must ensure that in a new dispute we don’t have more of the same sabotage from our union leaders. The only way to drag these employers (with the Conservative Government behind them) out of their luxury bunkers is indefinite action – the kind of action we should have taken before the MAB ever started.
Our dispute is not an ordinary industrial confrontation. It is about the future of Higher Education. It is about the future of HE jobs, the kind of education students will be taught and the colleges we want. Our colleagues in Further Education are starting their ballot on 5 September. They shouldn’t go through the same kind of frustrations we’ve experienced. We need indefinite action to beat the employers and we need to build democracy and control at the grassroots.
Democracy in Disputes
Time and time again democratic votes, whether it is over the implementation of the MAB, calling and pausing strikes or the timetable for re-ballots, have been ignored. When delegates were asked at the BDM, an unprecedented 98% of the membership wanted an immediate summer re-ballot. What we got instead was the Grady plan of a November ballot.
We could have won our dispute months ago if the HEC decision to move towards indefinite strike action earlier this year had been implemented rather than sabotaged. Jo Grady claims that such action is not possible until we have a greater density of membership. But you only build a union in struggle, not off the back of a stop-start strategy that leaves us open to attacks by employers and can wear down our activists and the wider membership.
The use of ‘e-polls’ and surveys in this dispute has shown that they are less democratic and less accountable than consulting with branches. The MAB vote shows that members taking the action were more willing to keep it up than members who were not taking the action.
These debates are not confined to the UCU. In many unions there is growing frustration amongst activists that new, more militant tactics must be implemented to break through intransigent employers. Where that mood to escalate and oppose bad deals has coalesced into organisations like ‘NHS says No’, ‘Educators say No’ and others, some unions have seen members vote to reject their leadership’s strategy. Often they had to be balloted twice or three times for rotten deals to be pushed through.
Activists are faced with some very big questions. Time and time again we have voted to fight, have joined picket lines and protests and put our pay packets on the line on strike days and throughout the MAB. But no matter how many times we vote to fight, the General Secretary imposes her strategy over our heads.
Firstly, we are going to have to challenge the General Secretary, if and when she stands in the upcoming election. But it is becoming increasingly clear that just changing one General Secretary for another doesn’t fix all our problems. We need a different approach to disputes, where the trade union officials and the right on the HEC cannot turn off the tap.
We need to build a serious rank-and-file approach to industrial action, where decisions are made in the branches taking the action, and branches coordinate horizontally. Congress voted for National Strike Committees to run disputes. This wasn’t implemented, but there is a growing groundswell of support for the basic idea. Our union has strong branches and other ‘lay’ structures such as Regions and Nations, but they are not allowed to lead. We need to build links between branches through informal networks of solidarity like the Solidarity Movement.
We are not the first to make this argument and we will not be the last. In 2021 the Columbia Student Workers in the USA won an indefinite strike after overturning their conservative leaders and building a grassroots leadership to carry it out. We have to think about how we apply the lessons of their victory to our union.
Together we can break the democratic deficit that exists and break out of the vicious circle of stop-start action and the undermining of our activists. The dispute is winnable with the correct strategy and the implementation of democratic decisions.