A lively and well-attended UCU Left Conference took place on 9th November 2013 shortly after the 31st October strike united action across HE.
The success of the strike, which involved UCU, UNITE & UNISON, set the tone for the conference. Colleagues in FE have also been balloting for strike action and action short of a strike, their ballot result was announced on Mon 18th November and was a resounding 71% for strike action, reflecting the anger felt across the sector at the government’s austerity measures. It is clear that we are beginning to recover from being held back by sections of the union’s leadership holding us back at the end of the pensions dispute in 2011.
Pay is a central issue, although it is by no means the only issue for UCU members. Nevertheless, five years of below inflation pay rises represents a significant loss of pay for our members. This, coupled with increases in pension contributions, the increased cost of living, intensification of workload, bullying, casualisation, and zero hours contracts, which are all consequences of the introduction of fees and the market into education, has led to intense competition between institutions, and fuelled the anger of our members.
In addition, our employers are failing to negotiate properly within the national bargaining machinery, despite sitting on a collective surplus of £1bn across the HE sector, threatening the break-up of national pay bargaining and the danger of local pay deals emerging. Many of our colleagues believe as we do, that education is beneficial to society as a whole, fostering social mobility and social cohesion, and are very angry that this system is seriously damaging our efforts to deliver quality education.
A strategy to win
Despite the problems, our disputes are not taking place in a vacuum. Over the last two years the Tories have intensified the cuts and privatisations in public services, and their vicious austerity measures are increasingly impacting on the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
The effects of these are becoming clear to a much wider layer of people, including our members, and they understand that there is a link between these and our struggle over pay and conditions. The 1 percent freeze on pay is also being applied to welfare benefits. Tenants in social housing with a spare bedroom are being forced to pay more in rent (the bedroom tax) or face eviction, welfare benefits are being capped, the disabled are forced to attend work capability assessments and are often found fit for work. Care for the elderly has been outsourced by many district councils.
In addition, we are not the only group of workers in dispute. There are many parallels between our dispute and that of the teachers. In both cases our struggle is for decent pay and defence of national pay bargaining (Gove wants to introduce performance related pay for schoolteachers), and attacks on terms and conditions. But it is also against the dumbing down of education and privatisation whether in the form of free schools and academies, or online degrees supplied by private providers. We are all struggling to retain quality in the education we deliver.
Similarly, postal workers are fighting attacks on their terms and conditions, and privatisation, firefighters are fighting to retain the right to retire at 55 with unreduced pensions, colleagues in the NHS are struggling to provide health care while £20bn of cuts are being made, A&Es closed across the country and many services are being handed over to private sector.
In order to win our fight over pay we must build links with other unions in dispute but also with anti-cuts groups and community campaigns against the vicious austerity measures which are damaging social cohesion. Many UCU members at the conference explained how setting the context of the dispute in section or departmental meetings, and making the links with the other struggles had been critical to the success of our strikes on 31st October. Our strategy meant we were instrumental in recruiting new members to UCU (and the other unions), and in building confident picket lines and lively marches and rallies.
Escalation and ASOS
We agreed that we need to build the work to contract. It was suggested that linking it with local campaigns against work intensification could be very effective. Discussion at departmental or section level is the best way to do this as anything collectively agreed is easier to maintain.
We also agreed that in order to win we cannot rely on sporadic one day strikes over a protracted period interspersed by action short of a strike. We need to argue throughout the union for escalation to multiple days of action preferably maintaining unity with the other HE unions, and also with teachers/firefighters/postal workers if at all possible, but being prepared to strike as UCU alone if necessary.
We cannot afford to be held back if others are not yet confident to join us in united action, instead we believe that taking a stance will give others confidence and increase our chances of victory. It was pointed out that the TUC Congress 2013 committed them to exploring the possibility of calling a general strike.
We are prepared to carry out an assessment boycott if necessary, although this is not our preferred method of struggle, and we will work with our students to explain why although painful for them in the short term it is necessary to protect quality education into the future. If this is to be a successful strategy, we must begin to engage with students immediately.
Section meetings, activists meetings and planning with reps/activists in our region
It was suggested that to make our next strike day even more effective we should organise both departmental section meetings, and faculty/campus wide activist meetings. Section meetings are an excellent way to recruit new members, and to firm up departmental picket lines. They should be completely open to everyone, union members or not, and should always start with a short explanation of the context of the dispute. Campus wide activists meetings provide the opportunity to draw those around us into activity.
Also it was agreed that in every region/city we should work to build joint union UCU/UNITE/UNISON planning committees, where possible also including teachers (who will take action in the New Year), firefighters, postal workers and NHS staff, and use these to plan for co-ordinated activities, e.g., protests against increases in VCs’ salaries, against outsourcing to the private sector, and also for joint strike action in the future.
NEC hustings and elections
Conference also agreed to endorse a list of candidates for the next round of NEC elections, and in particular endorsed Loraine Monk as the rank and file left candidate for the Vice-President (FE).
UCU Left supporters during the conference had pointed out how significant it has been to have Liz Lawrence playing a leading national role as VP (HE) in the union and especially in the current HE dispute, and therefore how important it will be to make sure we all do our best to ensure a victory for Loraine.
The conference, which was also the UCU Left AGM, also elected new Officers and an extended steering committee.