UCU strike rally, London UCU strike rally, London. Photo: @ucu / Twitter

As university staff stage the first of a series of strikes this year, Counterfire UCU members look at how we can strengthen our side and defeat the government and employers

UCU members at universities across the UK will be joining teachers, civil servants, rail workers and bus workers on strike this Wednesday 1 February in the largest mobilisation so far against the Tory government’s pay restraint policy. With inflation still in double digits, there has been no sign of any moves to settle the disputes, some which are just under way like the teachers, others which have been running for months, like rail and postal workers.

The disputes affecting universities are twofold. Pay is the central issue uniting staff across the old and new universities. We are still fighting over last year’s 3% pay deal which has left our wages 25% down on 2009 figures in real terms. The second strand of the dispute is pensions, where a now widely discredited valuation taken at the start of the pandemic saw cuts to our pensions last year which we are still fighting to be reversed. And finally, there are demands over workload, equality and casualisation, which the employers continue to refuse to engage on.

To add insult to injury, the employer’s organisation UCEA started the 2023/24 pay talks early last week, only to come up with an offer well below inflation.

Activists everywhere need to be doing everything they can to build Wednesday into the biggest show of force possible. It is the first time for many years that so many different groups of workers have taken action together. Unlike in recent years, this time all the universities are out on strike as the result of an aggregated ballot, which has the potential to make a much bigger impact and defeat the employers.

However, as a union, we have some serious issues to address over how we got here. The union has set out 18 days of strike action starting on 1 February. This decision follows on from a damaging argument in the bureaucracy of the union, when our general secretary Jo Grady decided to launch an attack on the decisions of the higher education committee (HEC). The HEC had decided last year that we should begin a marking and assessment boycott in January and that this would be accompanied with all out action – meaning an indefinite strike – from February. This has now been overturned. Grady launched the attack on the HEC in public, the day before talks were due between the union and employers over pay. It was no surprise then that the employers came back with no offer to resolve the dispute, probably calculating that they could just watch from the side-lines as the union fought amongst itself.

Part of the problem with this was that Grady embargoed HEC members from communicating with branches about the decision to launch all out action in February. This meant there was no discussion or preparation and when she announced the decision herself at the beginning of January, it was a shock to many members.

Calling off the January marking boycott was a mistake. In addition, all out action would be preferable to what we now have as a plan. All out action is a tactic that can win, and it avoids the pick and mix attitude some members take over long calendars of intermittent action. It can build momentum and is more likely to lead to a settlement than a series of discontinuous strike days across a longer period of time. Stretching things out just prolongs the hardship and is less likely to get a result.

Grady puts a lot of store on a summer marking boycott, which will require a reballot of all members, and is not guaranteed to reach the government-imposed 50% threshold.

The stakes are very high in the universities and there are many union members who have not taken action before but who want to support the union. We need proper explanations and discussion on the different tactics facing us. We also need to build confidence that we can win, especially given the considerable number of strike days. One urgent question is building a strike fund which can assist especially the lower paid, who are understandably concerned over losing money. Missing here is any serious attitude to finance. Eighteen days of strikes will see members’ pay packets hit hard and many will need financial support. Very little has been done to build a national fighting fund able to cope with the likely demand. That should be an urgent priority.

Finally, it is simply unbelievable that when picking the 18 days of strikes the leadership managed to miss 15 March, budget day, which is shaping up to be another major mobilisation across the public sector, with the NEU teachers’ union already announcing that they will be out that day.

Despite these problems, we are part of a much bigger movement and can draw solidarity from other union members and from members of the public who support us. The employers and government can be put on the back foot with this latest wave of strikes. It is now up to us to put everything we can into building the action and encouraging everyone to join the strikes. Local strike funds will need to be built, particularly to support the low paid and insecure colleagues, and solidarity from beyond our ranks sought.

The fact that we are not alone in this as a union gives us greater strength. More and more groups of workers are entering into the action, all with different issues but with pay as the central factor. The block on settling any of these disputes is the Tory government and that is where we need to build the pressure. Wednesday is shaping up to be an excellent start to that process.

Stop press

UCU activists were surprised to receive an email from their General Secretary asking them to take part in an informal vote on the employers’ (already rejected) final pay offer. Just over 36 hours before our next day of strike action this threatens to undermine the democratic processes of the union.

Jo Grady’s gamble is that she will receive overwhelming endorsement for her strategy. But this is not guaranteed. A marginal vote to support – or even worse a vote to accept – would leave the union in a terrible position. What on earth does she think this will achieve? Why has she decided to do this just prior to strike action taking place? These are urgent questions that need to be answered.

This is just the latest example of what we might term the social media unionism Grady promotes. While it is right that we need a media strategy, Grady’s media and social media activities have come to dominate the campaign, with appeals and declarations on twitter, but little direct engagement with members.

The General Secretary should concentrate on building the union, allowing spaces for activists to shape the strike strategy. Grady should be touring the country speaking at rallies and meetings arguing how we can win. She should be establishing links with other unions in dispute (and coordinating strike days whenever we can). And she needs to be leading a huge fundraising drive, at branch and national level, so we have a full fighting and hardship fund to support strikers.

However, the fact is that Grady’s announced the online vote and it’s proceeding. This means we have to vote ‘reject’ in numbers by mobilising as many colleagues as possible to do likewise because the consequences of anything less than a clear majority against this offer will damage the coming strikes.

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