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UCU members in Counterfire argue that the latest moves by their general secretary are only damaging to the dispute

The latest move by UCU General Secretary Jo Grady to call off 7 days of strikes to allow a period of ‘calm’ for negotiations to continue reveals a combination of ineptitude, disregard for members and a disdain for union democracy that really takes some beating. Grady has increasingly taken to direct communication through video message which bypasses the union’s elected structures, and which promotes her views as those of the union. Her email at 6pm on Friday evening came as a complete shock to UCU members in universities across the UK. The next two weeks were to have seen a further seven days of strike action and having just taken three days strike action this week, many members are feeling betrayed and ignored in what is becoming widely viewed as a sell-out.

Despite the talk, there is nothing concrete at all on offer from the employers, and many of the signs are that supposed developments, for example on casualisation, are similar to those previously agreed. Above all, on pay the union appears to have abandoned any attempt to win a higher offer for 22/23 than the 3% already imposed on university staff, and there is no sign of more than 5% for most staff in the 23/24 pay round.

Grady is treating strikers like a stage army, who she thinks she can call on when it suits her. But this leads to demoralisation and exhaustion. For many branches we have had four years of strike here, strike there, called out, called off. It’s a disastrous way to run a strike and a union.

On a very basic human level it also shows how out of touch Grady and the rest of the UCU leadership are with ordinary members’ lives. Colleagues are having to scrabble around on the basis that the strikes were on. This follows a pattern of late announcements when it comes to strike dates more generally, all signs of real incompetence at the head of the union.

How did we get here?

This week has seen a complete information blackout as UCU along with four other unions, EIS, GMB, Unison and Unite entered talks with the employers’ organisation UCEA at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Five days of talks have produced a joint statement agreed by all five unions and the employers.

These talks are about the 2023/24 negotiating round. Yet we have been on strike over the 3% imposed pay settlement (i.e. a 9% plus pay cut given levels of inflation) from the 2022/23 negotiating round. The talks have produced nothing on pay for UCU members with only an unspecified uplift at the lower end of the pay spine As far as the rest of the negotiations over pay, talks are described by the employers themselves as having reached an “impasse” and negotiations and discussion over pay for 23/24 are now said to have been concluded with the offer on the table of 5% for most staff having already been rejected by UCU members in a much trumpeted e-ballot held two weeks ago. Not only does UCEA’s press release state that employers will retain the right to defer any pay awards based on affordability, but the joint statement also says that contractual arrangements regarding zero hour contracts will still be for individual institutions to determine.

The question of democracy is linked to these proposed poor outcomes. Grady has taken this decision without any consultation with the wider membership, members of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) or our elected negotiators. Even Sally Hunt, her predecessor, consulted us in 2018 when she tried to sell out in the USS dispute. And contrary to decisions taken at last year’s UCU Congress, Grady has refused to call a branch delegates meeting prior to the upcoming HEC meeting on Friday 24 February.

This is on top of her public attacks on HEC decisions in December during negotiations, which led to bitter arguments in the union and helped to lose the momentum of the earlier strikes in November.

All the focus is now on the reballot. It is a complete nonsense for Grady to state in her email that the employers ‘will fear us extending our mandate by another six months far more than they will the next two weeks of strike action’. In which case, why were we called out on these strikes in the first place? What planet is she living on and what an insult to all the hard work UCU activists and students have put into making the strikes and the wider campaign so vibrant so far. The ballot, starting this Wednesday 22 February, will now be harder to win than before the action was called off, and the employers know that.

Finally, for those of us who work in the older universities, there is still nothing concrete on our pensions either and the risk is that the employers may feel they can row back on any behind the scenes commitments they have made so far. The prospect of us reversing the unnecessary pension cuts made last year just shifted a little further away.

What can we do?

Make sure your branch is holding a members’ general meeting this week and pass motions to go to the Higher Education Committee meeting this Friday 24 February.

Get your branch to support and send delegates to the ‘unofficial’ branch delegates meeting organised by London Region UCU, 4-6pm Thursday 23 February. Register delegates at here.

Add your name to open letter initiated by UCU Left, Stop the Sellout – support this statement to Jo Grady.

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