Friday’s 1000-strong mass online meeting was an important moment in our union’s USS and Four Fights campaigns. At last, Jo Grady has realised that the technique pioneered by the NEU of using the technology to bring together large numbers of activists can galvanise industrial campaigns.
But it was clear from the meeting that the preference of the General Secretary and the new Head of Bargaining and Organisation, Jon Hegarty, is for the dispute over USS to take precedence while the campaign over pay, casualisation, equality and workload (Four Fights) takes a subordinate position or is deferred.
Jo Grady is right to argue that industrial action is again necessary to defend pensions and that if we can generate the equivalent level of impact to the 14 days of strike in 2018, the fight can be won.
But though concerted industrial action is also necessary to tackle falling pay and to get meaningful agreements on casualisation, equality and workloads, Grady and Hegarty claimed there was a crucial difference between the two disputes.
They said that while the USS dispute is urgent and is being forced on the union by the acute threat to the pension scheme, the fight for better pay is a longer-term struggle, one whose timing and shape is determined by the union, rather than by the employers. There should be no ‘knee-jerk’ move to an early ballot, they argued.
Instead, we were told to build up the strength of our side by aiming to recruit ‘hundreds of thousands’ of new members, build ‘supermajorities’ and ‘structure-test’ our organisation. The clear implication was that only afterthis process should we consider moving towards industrial action in the Four Fights.
But this distinction between the two disputes is bogus. The attacks on USS have been a long time coming and are part of a general desire by the employers to drive down staffing costs – both pay and pensions – as a result of the marketisation of higher education. And as staff on lower grades, casualised contracts, especially our women and black members will testify, the issue of pay is just as urgent as the attack on pensions. Deferring the Four Fights into the future will simply encourage the employers to freeze pay again as they did last year.
The truth is that pay and pensions are two sides of the same coin and it makes no sense to separate them.
Just as important is the tactical question of how we achieve maximum unity on our side. A decision to fight only over USS sends a clear message to members in post-92 institutions that the UCU is primarily a union for the old universities. But even within the pre-92 branches, it is our younger members on insecure contracts and low grades that staff the picket lines and provide the dynamism that a successful industrial battle needs. Why would these members be inspired to make sacrifices for a fight in which they have little stake, while the issues that matter to them are deferred to another day?
This is a recipe losing members rather than recruiting them.
At Friday’s meeting, the Chester university and Novus prison educators branches were cited as examples of rapid recruitment and increased density which we should follow. Of course it is important to build our membership and organisation before we enter a fight. But Chester and Novus have recruited as a result ofwaging a determined struggle which demonstrated the point of being in a trade union. If they had waited until they had certain density or a ‘supermajority’ before they took action, the jobs would have been lost and membership would have stagnated.
Thursday’s Special Sector Conference needs to pass those motions which clearly mandate the union to organise an immediate and coordinated battle over pensions, pay, casualisation, equality, and workloads. Head office must implement those motions whether the General Secretary agrees with them or not. There is now some urgency. If we are going to get the action we need this term, the circulation of campaign materials to every branch along with help from regional offices in drawing up GTVO plans for the ballots must start now.
Come to the UCU Left pre-HESC meeting to discuss the motions and prepare for Thursday.
Register here for the meeting.
Mark Abel, University of Brighton and NEC