UCU Left statement – Our union in crisis: defend democracy and the strikes

Our union is in a crisis made by the General Secretary and her supporters.

The crisis is due to a combination of two factors: the sudden calling off of the MAB without support for branches, and the failure of the union to call a summer re-ballot. It has, understandably, undermined the confidence of many members in the five days of strike. But this crisis is due to the GS’s actions. And it is happening at a very dangerous moment for our union.

Now she has called a special meeting of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) with one day’s notice, citing a requisition request from HEC members, in order to overturn decisions made by branch delegates at the Branch Delegate Meeting (BDM) on 11 August. At that BDM, delegates voted 2:1 in favour of calling five days of strike action at the end of the mandate.

The principle of holding a Branch Delegate Meeting before HEC meetings to discuss the dispute is UCU policy, thanks to resolutions of both HE Sector Conference and HEC. Yet no BDM was called prior to this HEC meeting. The contrast between the six week delay in calling a recall HEC meeting to get the re-ballot called, and a one day turnaround now could not be more obvious.

We need to make two basic points:

1. This strike action could be highly effective. Five days at the start of term affects employer’s revenue streams when it matters to them. It sends a clear message to employers, students and staff that UCU means to rebuild, reballot and come back with more action in the academic year. This is why the BDM voted so strongly for it.

2. Democracy is central to everything we do. Members have shown they are prepared to make tremendous sacrifices if their voices are respected. UCU Left has consistently argued that decisions about the action must be made by branch delegates (and branches) rather than the HEC. That is why it is wrong to call a snap HEC to reverse a decision made by a BDM.

Why strike now?

The objective rationale for the strikes has not changed with the end of the MAB. It would be a mistake to cancel the strikes. The start of term is a powerful moment in most university calendars. For one thing, many students have not yet paid their fees.

This could be five days when we make the case nationally and to students about the future of UK Higher Education. Alongside junior doctors and consultants, we could be putting health and education to the top of the political agenda. In some cases UNITE and UNISON branches are taking strike action with us.

The HE fee-based funding model is broken. Unless it is addressed, the future is rounds of redundancies and course closures, with students continuing to pay tuition fees saddling them with debt for their working lives. No other university system in Europe operates like this.

Members have shown enormous courage and sacrifice during the marking and assessment boycott, which has had a very considerable impact at many universities across the UK. But it was not backed up by national strikes, as April’s Special HE Sector Conference decided.

National strike action leaves those taking local strike action like Brighton, Stirling, Liverpool John Moores, Durham and Queen Mary less isolated, and makes employers think twice before embarking on job cuts or reneging on pension promises. These branches are showing the way.

The strike days can also break with the relative isolation of the marking and assessment boycott, and restore a collective sense to help get the vote out in our re-ballot. 

What is going on?

We are seeing a concerted effort by the General Secretary and her supporters to stop the action and then blame the left on the HEC for the crisis. There is a (small) majority for the right on HEC, in which supporters of the General Secretary vote as a block with the old right. She needs an alibi for the upcoming General Secretary election. A late reballot gives her a platform to tour branches before the election process starts..

The HEC met twice over the summer. On June 30, it voted narrowly to seek an ‘interim deal’ to restore deductions and end the MAB. UCU Left members voted against this because it was not what members were taking action for, it abandoned our leverage and allowed the employers to play for time to avoid a summer ballot – which is precisely what happened. (This is the same mistake that the union made in March with The Pause and the ACAS talks.) 

At that meeting, the General Secretary proposed a paper, entitled “Building for Success” with a timeline of re-ballot and industrial action meaning that we could only take action in January – in contradiction to the overwhelming majority of Sector Conference, only weeks before. This is why supporters of UCU Left and the wider left voted against an extension of the HEC meeting to overturn HE Sector Conference policy and stop a re-ballot. (The minutes of this meeting should be available online.) Indeed, the General Secretary has responsibility for the work of staff at headquarters and should have allocated staff resources for preparation of the summer re-ballot. Preparation could have begun straight after Congress had closed, and the re-ballot triggered by a decision of HE officers.

HEC members then wrote to call for a second meeting to enact the ballot, but – unlike now – nothing was called for six weeks. At the second meeting of the HEC, on the 14th of August, two key decisions were taken, informed by the Branch Delegate Meeting a few days before. The first was to finally enact the summer re-ballot as quickly as possible to reduce a gap between mandates that would expose members on the MAB (this was supported by a 98% BDM vote). The second was for five days of strike action before the end of the mandate.

At that meeting, supporters of the General Secretary proposed the motion for an e-survey on continuing the MAB. The results of the survey was a majority in favour of an immediate end to the MAB, but the majority of those actually on the boycott voted to continue until the end of the mandate. They did so, because they understood that an early end to the MAB would both undermine their heroic efforts to-date, and expose them to pressure to get marking done at one of the busiest times of the year. 

Now members are faced with considerable marking burdens and little protection from industrial action. What protection does exist is further weakened if these days of strike action did not take place.

We saw last year how strike action is open and collective, and builds confidence of activists. Everyone can take part on the same basis. Strike days can be a space in which we restore confidence in the union, build the re-ballot to meet the threshold and debate the lessons of the past year. Despite differences about precisely what steps to take next, there is a consensus across the union that we must not repeat the mistakes of the last year, and stand by democratic decisions of members. There is a growing realisation that we need to enact a serious strategy of indefinite strike action that can win.

The General Secretary likes to counterpose an agreed strategy won in debates and meetings of members with her putative Grand Strategy, which she envisages as something promoted top-down and bought into by members. But unions are not corporations, the GS is not a CEO, and a Grand Strategy without a thriving democracy is mere stage direction. Every plan changes in struggle because the employers change their strategy too. 

Democracy is the lifeblood of our union. If the union wishes to change tack with strikes, it should do so at a properly called Branch Delegate Meeting. 

UCU Left members will be putting the following motion at the HEC.

HEC Motion

The Branch Delegate Meeting on 11th August voted by a majority of 2:1 for five days of strike action at the beginning of autumn term before the expiry of the mandate.

HEC agrees that in the absence of a subsequent BDM or Special HE Sector Conference expressing a different view, it would be undemocratic for HEC to overturn the decision to call strike action on 14th August.

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