Next week is set to determine the future of our disputes in Higher Education. It will also define the nature and direction of our union for the coming years.
On Monday, we will learn the results of our re-ballots in the Four Fights and USS disputes. Many branches have reported that getting the vote out has been remarkably straightforward. Branches have had record turnouts reported on their local GTVO tallies. Nonetheless, as every trade union activist knows, exceeding the anti-union 50% turnout threshold a second time on a nationally aggregated basis is not a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, the indications are optimistic.
However on Tuesday, UCU will begin a formal consultation with members on the ‘offers’ from employers in both disputes about the next steps. As we explain below, our disputes are at a critical point.
This statement explains why you should vote ‘No’ (Reject) in both consultations.
Among activists and reps, there is broad agreement that we must campaign for members to Vote No on Four Fights and fight for a better deal. But there is more discussion to be had on the USS statement. Whereas many may argue ‘to note’ on USS, there is an important point to bear in mind, as we explain.
What happened at the HEC meeting
At Thursday’s meeting of the Higher Education Committee (HEC), HEC voted to
- Put the UCEA ‘offer’ over Four Fights (15% imposed pay cut, ACAS talks on casualisation, workload and pay gaps) out to members with a recommendation to reject it
- Put the UUK-UCU statement over USS pensions out to members with a recommendation to ‘note’ progress (neither reject or accept)
UCU Left members argued against consultation for two reasons: neither elements constituted an offer (final or otherwise); and were members to be persuaded to accept the Four Fights ‘offer’ (ACAS Terms of Reference, the additional UCEA statement, and pay imposition) it would represent a major defeat for our union.
We were successful in uniting the left around ensuring that members were given the maximum information to make up their minds (with reports from national negotiators) and that HEC would give a clear leadership in recommending a vote.
The plan is that a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) will be notified to begin in April as previously agreed in January’s HEC meeting – and members would be asked to begin it if the vote in the respective dispute was No.
But our disputes – and future industrial leverage – are at serious risk unless we campaign.
We now need to urgently start the campaign to Vote No and Start the MAB.
The call to put the ‘offers’ out to consultation came after two rounds of e-surveys and Branch Delegate Meetings where the questions sent out were decided, not by elected representatives or negotiators, but by UCU full time officials. These parallel processes have exposed two different visions of democracy – referenda with leading questions soliciting answers (hands up who does not want to be consulted!?), versus membership debate, discussion and motion-passing.
The starkly different results of these exercises exposes the fact that the union has to make complex collective decisions. These decisions are both collective – members need to have confidence in themselves and each other – and complex – including knowing the consequences of a vote either way.
Indeed, the rhetoric coming from those in positions at the top of the union seems deliberately divisive, often counterposing the will of ‘members’ with those of ‘branches’ or ‘activists’. This leads us to wonder who do they think make up our union branches, if not members? In reality, members often come to branch meetings saying that they had voted one way in the e-consultation and then changed their minds during the meeting debate.
It is therefore not surprising that many members expect that this consultation will be a similar ‘stitch up’, pitching active members who have been leading in branches against the wider membership, with leading questions promoted by a General Secretary and officialdom who don’t know how to carry out a Marking and Assessment Boycott.
The first announcement from the General Secretary omitted the important information that UCU is calling on members to Vote No on Four Fights and ‘To Note’ on USS! Previously Jo Grady has publicly distanced herself from HEC, as if she, and not the Higher Education Committee, were responsible for and leading the dispute.
So we need to think about the campaign carefully.
Arguments for voting No
The key arguments on Four Fights are these:
- Do you accept a 15% real-terms cut in your pay, in the whole pay scale and in the starting salary for every new member of staff? Vote No.
- Should we tie our own hands and agree to not take strike action over pay next year until March? Vote No.
- Are the offers of ‘talks about talks’ sufficient to justify a huge pay cut? Even if they were successful, any agreements would need to be implemented locally. Casualised members have spoken out against this ‘offer’. Vote No.
- Will these ‘talks about talks’ do anything to urgently address the toll of casualised work, excessive workload or pay gaps on our members? They won’t – they kick these vital issues down the road again! Vote No.
The arguments on USS are straightforward:
- We have not got our pensions back. We have made some tentative progress in negotiations thanks to improved USS financial statements, but nothing is in the ‘bank’.
- Even were benefits returned to pre-April 2022 levels, there is no commitment to repay benefits lost between April 2022 and 2024.
- The weakest link is individual employers who claim that they cannot afford to carry as much ‘risk’ as before. UUK will carry out a ‘technical provisions’ consultation with employers over the summer.
- Members should Vote No to keep up the pressure on them.
What is the difference between voting No and ‘to note’?
- Voting No would allow branches to take part in the MAB over pensions.
- It would put pressure on individual employers. Many positive statements by employers on USS were extracted by the 20 branches who took part in the MAB last year.
- It would also put more political pressure on USS to resolve the dispute.
What are the counter-arguments?
As well as the positive arguments for Voting No (see above) we should be aware of the counter-arguments we will expect. In brief these are:
- Members are not ready for a Marking and Assessment Boycott. There is still time, but we need to begin to organise and plan. Firstly, branches should invite reps from one of the branches that took a MAB in the last two years. Secondly, the details of the campaign will be debated at the forthcoming Special HE Sector Conference on 19 April. (There is still time for late motions and amendments: deadline 14 April.)
- The employers have no money to pay an improved offer. UCU has emphasized in the reballot literature that the employers had plenty of money. The truth is that thanks to a decade of market competition, there are universities in difficult financial positions, and there are others who have salted substantial funds away. Indeed, publicly reported HESA data for the seven years from 2014/15 to 2020/21 reveals that around 2.4% of income (or 4.4% of total salary paid out) has been unspent by university employers each year. We should also echo the NEU’s slogan of a ‘fully funded pay rise,’ calling on the Government to make up the shortfall for institutions in trouble.
On USS, we know that industrial action can exert meaningful pressure on employers, hence a Vote No makes sense. The counter-argument is a ‘wait and see’ approach, but apart from the MAB period, there are only a small number of potential national industrial action ‘pinch points’ over the summer, primarily ‘A’ level Results Day, Clearing and Freshers.
What happened to the General Secretary’s strategy?
Do you remember when the General Secretary put out a paper that we should take 10 days of strike action and concentrate our efforts on a Summer Term Marking and Assessment Boycott? Having paused the strikes, we took only 12 days of strike this term, and we can expect to have a mandate for a Marking and Assessment Boycott.
So you might think that the General Secretary would be urging members to vote to Reject these offers and take part in the MAB. We shall see on Monday what she says when the ballot results come out!
However, behind closed doors, and occasionally in front of members, the General Secretary has distanced herself from her previous statements. In her view, now is the time for members to accept these offers and stand down industrial action. There should be no more #ucuRISING! The fact that she pushed hard for these consultations before the release of our reballot results should indicate her intention to wind up our disputes.
But the stakes are very high. As we explain below, if UCU accepted UCEA’s offer on the Four Fights it would be an historic defeat for UCU.
The General Secretary excluded the elected team and took personal charge of the negotiations. She bowed to blackmail from UCEA to ‘pause’ our action. As a result, UCEA ran rings around UCU and imposed their planned pay cut. The offer on the other three fights is worse than the one UCEA made in 2020.
As we noted above, on pay, not only is there no improvement of the 3% imposed offer for the current academic year, but UCEA have imposed yet another significant real terms pay cut (5% for most UCU members when inflation is over 13.5%) for next year. Unless inflation falls by August, against RPI this will amount to a 15% cut in the value of pay in just two years. But inflation is high, and rising.
On the other three fights, the terms of the talks on offer represent a step back from the 2020 UCEA offer. The ‘talks’ seem designed to fail: they will take place in secret, with UCU represented by one negotiator and an official. This looks more like hostage-taking than negotiation. And the outcome will be more recommendations to employers – and more talks!
But worst of all, accepting this offer means abandoning industrial action until March 2024, and therefore taking no action to improve on the 15% two-year pay cut that UCEA is imposing on us. Indeed it means no action for most of the next academic year, when inflation is likely to continue to be high. It is a ‘no strike’ clause during an economic crisis.
To disguise this failure, UCU officials say that the unions have all ‘refused to accept’ this clause. But UCEA has made it very clear that they would walk away from negotiations if a union took industrial action. So if we take a Marking and Assessment Boycott, the offer of talks end.
The officials also say that ‘acceptance of this offer would not represent the ending of the dispute.’ Legally that might be true, but in practical terms it is nonsense. Once we agree to accept the employers’ terms and end industrial action to enter talks, we miss the time-window for the marking boycott and we are into the summer. The new ballot mandate will expire at the end of September. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it is even possible that for legal reasons restarting industrial action may require a reballot on the basis of a new dispute.
On USS, the ‘offer’ is not really an offer as such. It is a joint statement of intent regarding the restoration of benefits should economic conditions allow. The sensible thing for HEC to have done would have been to ‘note’ the progress in the negotiations, and then consider whether or when further industrial action might be required to keep the pressure on the employers.
But the General Secretary wants members to ‘accept’ this offer in order to present it as a ‘win’ and to justify winding down industrial action in this dispute too. But nothing can be taken for granted.
We all remember the warm words of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) in 2018. How did we get from the JEP to the 2020 valuation deficit, which UUK exaggerated by insisting on a low ‘risk appetite’ from employers? Once that valuation had been made (at a Covid low point in the economic cycle), UCU negotiators were frogmarched through a tickbox process at that fateful meeting in March 2021 when UUK railroaded through the cuts – even though USS was reporting that the projected deficit had shrunk to £2bn!
Trusting the employers to make good on these highly conditional commitments without the threat of industrial action looks very much like a repeat recipe for failure.
This is why we say Vote No – Start the MAB
Branches need to get organized to campaign for a No Vote immediately.
The ballot is timed to run over Easter from Tuesday, which will make it difficult for branches to meet.
But branches can meet online to talk through the issues with members. Reps can do vox-pops to camera and put them out online.
Call reps meetings and branch meetings, and invite speakers from other branches, from the HEC or national negotiators.
Let’s get organized!