What went wrong with the UCU Rising Campaign?

How the UCU reballot over pay and conditions missed the threshold

The turnout in the reballot, at 42.59%, will be a huge disappointment for every union member who wanted to see a fight over pay and conditions. But a 68.32% vote for strike action, and a 75.57% vote for action short of a strike, shows that tens of thousands of members still wanted to fight.

This is not the end of the campaign. But our union has some hard questions to ask itself.

Did the UCU campaign run out of steam, or did the UCU leadership undermine it? Was there a fundamental problem with UCU’s industrial strategy, or was the strategy that was agreed undermined by inaction and compromising in HQ?

Every success has a thousand parents. But every failure is an orphan.

Let us get one thing straight. Members are not to blame, nor are branch reps. Some may be ‘tired’, but very many are angry and extremely fed up – mainly at the lack of adequate support and the inconsistent leadership from the top of the union.

Many of the members who fought the employers over the USS pension scheme and won are the same members who saw their fight over pay, casualisation, workload and pay gaps frittered away by our union leadership.

We know that the employers can pay staff more – but they don’t want to. On average, universities underspend by about 4% of the pay bill each year. Since 2009, the employers have taken a strategic decision to spend less on staff pay in order to build up surpluses and invest in buildings in their competition to recruit ever more students in the Government’s Tuition Fee Market.

On top of this, from December every pre-92 employer is going to receive a windfall amounting to around 5% of the total pay bill thanks to the fall in USS contributions (won by our members taking weeks of strike action). It’s Christmas all year round for pre-92 Vice Chancellors.

We must not let the post-92 institutions and their leaders off the hook either. Despite additional pressures on recruitment that some post-92s have seen, and the ideological attack on Arts and Humanities from the Conservative Government, many of our post-1992 universities are in good financial shape. There is no justification for the squeeze on pay across the sector. Where the tiny minority of universities plead poverty, why don’t they cut pay and spending on Senior Managers, not on ordinary staff? Why aren’t they vigorously challenging ideological attacks on our subject areas and questioning the broken HE funding model?

Had we won the ballot we could have demanded our share as a national union. Now it looks like we are going to have to put demands on our employers locally. But that risks undermining national pay bargaining. We also have to rebuild the campaign for a new ballot. We have to understand what went wrong to come back stronger for the next round.

The problem is that the resolve that got the fight over the line over USS has not been applied by our union leadership over pay and the other three fights.

The USS campaign won in spite of a wobbling UCU leadership for three connected reasons. First, the 2018 strike which broke the employers’ plan to drive through DC won because it overturned General Secretary Sally Hunt’s plan to fudge a deal. Second, members kept up the fight, with the joint strike action earlier this year keeping the pressure on. This was particularly crucial after the disaster of April 2022, when the leadership organised token strikes (including Reading Week strikes) before the crunch point, and then abruptly called no further action. Third, the political campaign over the valuation (#NoDetriment) coupled with the changes in the financial position of the USS valuation projections due to rising interest rates made it possible to box in the employers and gain an historic victory.

So the problem is not ‘the strategy’, whatever armchair generals might say. The strategy debated at (Special) HE Sector Conferences and the Higher Education Committee has been undermined multiple times. We are facing a bunch of employers highly incentivised to wait out short bursts of action, so if an agreed strategy is not implemented by the leadership, they gain confidence and decline to negotiate. We need to make good on the promises made by the GS in 2022 – to shut down university campuses until we are satisfied we have won, instead of tinkering around the edges with time-bounded action.

Throughout the entire Four Fights campaign this year, members’ determination and organisation was unfortunately not matched by the same resolve at the top. Instead, the General Secretary repeatedly waved the white flag, from ‘the pause’ to foot-dragging over putting strikes back on, repeated e-polls and ballots. The result for ordinary members was confusing. It felt like we were being turned on and off like a tap, with last-minute announcements and late-notice “briefings” – including briefings labelled as Branch Delegate Meetings after reps arrived at them.

The pause was bad enough. The ACAS negotiations went nowhere slowly (yielding a no-strike Terms of Reference for prolonged negotiations, and an offer on the three fights worse than 2019-20), but allowed the employers to harden their position around their ‘final offer’ on pay, while undermining membership control of the strikes. It took members and branches to challenge the repeated consultations and e-polls just to keep the action on. A clearer signal to the employers that the union was divided could not really be imagined.

The silence of the leadership during the summer Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) was deafening. Remember that it was the General Secretary’s strategy to delay the MAB until the summer – or at least this is what we were told when indefinite strikes from February were opposed! But there was no planning from the centre, no adequate support and no strategy from the top on how to use the MAB to win a deal.

Questions from branches were batted back to local officers and reps with minimal answers from HQ, and branches had to fight to persuade the union they should and could take strike action to defend members against punitive MAB deductions. Branches had to lobby for an increase in strike pay, instead of there being an open appeal to build up a war chest across the union for MABbing members in advance.

Ordinary members were absolute heroes. Many bravely took the difficult decision to take part in the Marking and Assessment Boycott, face down threats of massive pay deductions, have difficult discussions with colleagues and managers, and organise locally to keep going. Others felt massively conflicted but did not take part themselves, some giving hundreds of pounds in donations to support colleagues. All of this participation and solidarity was organised in staff rooms and Zoom and Teams meetings, in departments and between colleges. Unofficial ‘rank and file’ organisation, branches, regions and the Solidarity Movement sustained the MAB while there was near silence from the official union structures.

Thus it was that there was no official Branch Delegate Meeting from the start of the MAB in May until the HEC in August when the General Secretary and the HEC majority planned to call it off. The General Secretary’s supporters on the HEC pushed for a fruitless negotiation with UCEA over reducing the pay deductions, but not over the claim (to her credit, the GS attempted to put pay back on the table). And the summer reballot never happened, leaving members out on a limb.

When the August Branch Delegate Meeting voted for winding down the MAB in the absence of a reballot, and called for strikes at the start of the Autumn Term, it was clear that the ability to apply direct industrial leverage was diminishing. Not surprisingly, given the opportunity, some branches voted to call off the strikes when given the opportunity.

UCU members, reps and activists have been busy building the reballot over the last month. We have had numerous conversations and debates with members. Many members tell us that they are fed up. Some said they won’t vote because of their anger at the leadership. Again and again, the message is the same: we trust our local branch reps, but we don’t trust ‘the leadership’.

Not all branches did miss the threshold, with some reaching 60% by their own count. However, it is clear that there is a great deal of frustration even in those branches at being let down by forces external to the branch. There is a feeling of having policy foisted on them and, worse, that those policies were inconsistent.

Some of that righteous anger is directed at the Left – why did we allow the GS and the union’s HEC majority to undermine the action? The fact is that we tried to stop them! But a small shift in the composition of the HEC following Congress towards the GS-supporting ‘Commons’ and ‘IBL’ factions allowed crucial HEC votes to go the way the GS wanted, including over the negotiation approach and the failure to implement the summer reballot.

This is an unnecessary defeat for our union. In the context of a win over USS, it risks dividing us. We should all beware the argument that ‘members don’t care about pay, equality, workloads or casualisation’. That is clearly wrong – members in pre- and post-92 institutions have just taken part in a massive MAB to try to move the employers over precisely these demands!

Indeed, one of the lessons of this action has been that the employers are prepared to wait out hard-hitting industrial action by the union, particularly if the union appears divided at the top, wherever they think an end-date is in sight, be that the end of a bout of strikes, or the end of a mandate for action. But we also know that some VCs were ready to settle, but UCU’s management of the MAB at the top failed to capitalise on the splits.

Their wait-and see approach was not cost-free for the university employers. The action exposed Vice Chancellors’ priorities starkly. Academic standards could go in the bin. Student complaints might be addressed by warm words, fake degree awards and an occasional bribe – but no reimbursement of tuition fees. The administrative chaos in some institutions at the implementation of the disproportionate and unfair MAB deductions exposed the inability of VCs to prepare. A better-prepared UCU could get universities and professional bodies to commit to academic standards from the start. The inconsistency of deductions across the sector show that employers are not as united as UCEA would have us believe.

The 2022-2023 academic year will go down as the most disrupted in history, with students missing weeks of lectures and many not receiving their results until September or October. If you think like a Vice Chancellor, and view Higher Education as a commodity, this has been a terrible year. It should be no surprise that overseas student recruitment has been negatively affected, alongside a drop in home students who now face 40-year loans thanks to the Conservative Government imposing them on the new intake.

UCU members inflicted a major blow on our Vice Chancellors, and given them a year they will not forget in a hurry. They know that they cannot afford for this to happen again.

The question is, what UCU leadership can deliver the victory that members so dearly deserve? How can we learn the right lessons, understand the weaknesses on the employers’ side and ensure we come back stronger and more effective than ever in the near future?

UCU needs a different kind of leadership. We need to ensure every level of our elected officers and representatives believe our members have the power to change the future of Higher Education for the better — and other sectors too.

We need a GS, Presidential team, and NEC that are committed to democracy through our sovereign structures, to implemented policy efficiently, and to deliver the win our members sorely need on pay and conditions. This is what our UCU Left candidates will do.

— Saira Weiner, LJMU

One Reply to “What went wrong with the UCU Rising Campaign?”

  1. I hear people saying that the strikes did not actually produce the reversal of the pension cuts, but that it was the result of changing economic forecasts as the outlook has improved. They point out that the reversal of the cuts came at a time when strikes were not taking place, and are using the phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc. I insist to them that this cannot be so — the UCU would not attempt to gaslight its own members.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.