As part of a concerted attempt to persuade members to accept UCEA’s offer and end the Four Fights dispute, the General Secretary and those attempting to justify her position have launched an attack on the union’s industrial action strategy.
At briefing meetings on the offer, Jo Grady argued that rejecting it would trigger immediate reballots because of a decision already taken by the union’s Higher Education Committee. As reballots would be futile while campuses are closed, we have no choice but to accept, she argued
In fact, this is a deliberate misrepresentation of the situation. A rejection of the offer would lead to further action, but there is no reason that reballots have to take place immediately. Nothing commits the union to that, and in any case HEC will have the opportunity to amend the timetable it has provisionally set.
If this whole argument is designed to panic members into believing that there is no alternative to accepting a rotten offer, what follows from Jo Grady is an attempt to explain why the offer is so poor.
Wrong to fight?
It was a mistake, we are told, to have balloted on a disaggregated basis. This inevitably meant that we mounted the fight with a minority of branches taking action, weakening our leverage and enabling the employers to ride out the strikes despite the high level of support they had.
No one in the union believes that it would not be better to have a ballot mandate that allows the entire membership in HE to take industrial action. Better still, there would be no anti-union laws. But as Jo Grady admits, because the total turnout was 49.5%, if we had run an aggregated ballot, we would not have been able to take any action at all.
So, amid the praise heaped on members for their commitment and determination during 22 days of strikes, what the General Secretary is really arguing is that the Four Fights dispute was a mistake.
Let’s remind ourselves why we decided to have a pay and equalities dispute this year. It was because members felt that it would be unacceptable for the fight in HE to be confined to a defence of USS pensions. For the second time in two years the UCU would appear to care more about the future comfort of the more secure and better paid academics in the ‘old’ universities than it did about members suffering under the epidemic of casualisation and the persistence of inequalities across the sector as a whole.
So, for all the professed commitment to the cause of anti-casualisation, Jo Grady is arguing that we should have done nothing for our precariously-employed members, our women, BAME and disabled members, for another year.
Not only were we right to mount the Four Fights, we were right to adopt the dual dispute strategy of coupling it with the USS dispute. Because they included the big battalions, the 60 branches initially taking action represented the majority of the union’s HE membership even before they were joined by an additional 14 in reballots.
The final part of the Grady argument is that we need a period of reflection and preparation before any future industrial struggle. Rapid, ‘direct action’ strategies are ‘superficial’, argue her supporters, however much they appeal to casualised members with urgent problems. The CoronaContracts authors are right to point out how patronising and offensive this argument is.
Responding to the assault on jobs
But the wider problem is the assumption that we can all return to work as normal after accepting the offer and deliberate as to when we fight our next battle and over what issue. It is as though the leadership of the UCU has not noticed that university managements up and down the country have responded to the pandemic with an assault on jobs, wages and conditions with a specific focus on those of us who are casualised, which dwarfs anything we have faced hitherto. The idea that we have the luxury of picking the terms or the timing of our next fight is seriously out of touch with reality.
The underlying problem here is that unlike our sister union, NEU, the UCU leadership has failed to respond to the crisis with the urgent ramping up of activity and organisation that is demanded by the situation. While the NEU holds mass online rallies of 20,000 members and organises forums to arm its reps and officers, the UCU limits its dispute briefings to two members per branch as though it still has to pay their rail fares.
As UCU branches consider the offer, thousands of fixed term staff are losing their jobs. Online working has pushed workloads through the roof, while even the pretence of caring about equality has disappeared from our employers’ agenda. These are precisely the issues of our Four Fights, now turbocharged under pandemic conditions.
Why would we consider settling our dispute on the basis of an offer which gives no protection in these circumstances? To do so would be to raise the white flag to our employers, to tell them that our resistance is over and to leave our members to the mercy of their bosses.
The first precondition of resisting the attacks that are now gathering pace is to reject the deal. The timing of reballots can be debated and decided on the basis of the best chance of success. It might even make sense to declare a new dispute focused more tightly on the nature of the specific threats we now face.
In the meantime, we need to act. UCU Left is joining the HE Convention in a call for a Day of Action on June 1st. We urgently need to show solidarity with the NEU in its opposition to returning to unsafe workplaces and with our members and branches facing the threat of mass redundancies.
We should down tools on that day to attend mass rallies of the type pioneered by NEU. UCU Left members will be making this emergency proposal at Tuesday’s branch delegate meetings and at HEC on Wednesday.
Now is the time to organise and build for the massive fights ahead and to galvanise the union for future action, not to capitulate.