UCU: A Union without a leadership

The Marking and Assessment boycott has been on since 20th April, and has proved the power of members to halt the universities’ ability to award degrees. Members have shown a magnificent willingness to take and sustain the action in the face of bullying threats and punitive pay deductions.

But UCEA’s talks have, to date, achieved nothing, and are evidence of employers trying to delay rather than negotiate. They can only do this because the pressure we have built up is being undermined by the leadership of our union.

We are now two months post-Congress when we voted for a summer ballot to ensure our mandate continues into October and to continue to put pressure on the employers as the MAB’s impact reduced in the weeks after students’ graduations. Yet our General Secretary, Jo Grady, has refused to call a special HEC to launch the ballot. Despite 20 members of HEC writing to Jo Grady to call a special HEC, it has not been called. A special HEC is only necessary because the majority of the HEC Officers refuse to use their powers to call the ballot immediately. Only Vice President Maria Chondrogianni is prepared to stand by Sector Conference decisions and respect our democracy.

The GS wishes to bury the MAB and our dispute, and instead claims to employers that it will begin again in 2024. We must and can win now, not in some dim and distant future.

The lack of leadership not only impacts on our #FourFights dispute. It is also undermining the steps we have taken to force employers into returning our USS pensions in the pre-92 universities. We need a re-ballot over USS so we have a mandate and are in a position to put pressure on the employers if things go wrong.  We know the employers want to reduce contributions, whereas our priority is to get our benefits restored.  

The offer made by the General Secretary in her letter to UUK of reduced contributions to employers was made without any discussion with the elected negotiators. This offer is not only dangerous but shows new levels of incompetence. Motions passed at UCU Congress on censure of the General Secretary were explicitly aimed at ensuring negotiators are included in all negotiations. Asking for contributions to be cut early gives away leverage, encouraging employers to cut contributions to a level below which benefit restoration is not possible or sustainable.  

In the longer term, a mixture of benefit increases and contribution cuts is in the best interests of members. But asking for contribution cuts immediately makes it more difficult to negotiate this. Were we to allow employers to cut their contributions to 14%, below that needed to return our benefits to the levels of pre-April 2022 and compensating us for our losses since April 2022, we would risk undermining the scheme in the longer run. 

Giving employers a pension contribution holiday is a further attempt at pension theft, and could turn into a mechanism to trigger the closure of the guaranteed pension scheme at the next valuation. The surplus now identified in the scheme’s valuation is our pensions – not money employers are entitled to steal from the scheme.

The MAB must be supported by UCU

The dispute is in a critical moment. Though its impact has been uneven, the MAB has created a crisis for the employers. But the burden of the action on our side is massively uneven, within and between branches. Some members face summer without pay at all, others face half pay, whilst others who have also taken the MAB have faced only token deductions.

On the fighting fund, two motions were passed on removing the cap on hardship payments during the MAB (motion 25) and payments from day 1 for casualised staff (motion 26). Fully-briefed by the treasurer about the state of our finances, Congress decided that there should be no limit on the days that could be claimed from the hardship fund. Congress took an informed decision that this extraordinary situation (we have not had a national MAB since 2006) merited dipping into the normal reserves. As it stands that decision is being ignored, and many members are shocked when they find that they can only claim nine days, £270.

The hawks among the employers adopted a strategy of trying to starve members back to work. This has created considerable bad press for those institutions. But there is no national strategy to support those branches that are facing prolonged or indefinite 50 or 100% deductions until 30 September. Many branches have taken local or regional initiatives to donate to each other or organise fundraising, but we need the weight of the national union to support those branches. The GS has a responsibility to act and to implement Congress decisions.

In many respects, fighting fund decisions are as important as the summer re-ballot. The risk is that the most hawkish employers will get their way and force people to choose between their homes and the MAB. There needs to be urgent action to support those members and branches in this situation.

Student solidarity with UCU MAB campaign at Edinburgh University


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