UCU flag outside Westminster UCU flag outside Westminster. Photo: Flickr / Simarchy / CC BY-ND 2.0

UCU members in Counterfire argue the union must reject the current offer from employers, and increase real democratic involvement to win the dispute

The university staff dispute has reached a turning point. Employers are digging in over pay, with offers less than half the rate of inflation. At the same time, the UCU General Secretary, Jo Grady, has hailed a very poor settlement overall as a historic victory. Members are divided, with Grady launching an e ballot for members in what has become an increasingly plebiscitary style, going over the heads of the union structures in order to decide on continuing the dispute.

This has provoked fury in many sections of the union, as a Branch Delegate Meeting took a different position, and the Higher Education Committee decided not to call off the strikes or consult on the offer at this stage. The conduct of the dispute has been found seriously wanting, and the danger of demoralisation and confusion are real. The left must try to find a way out of this in order to win a ballot to continue action into the summer and to ensure UCU members get the deal they deserve.

The last few weeks have seen extreme turbulence hit our union. It started with a Friday night email in mid-February calling off seven days of strike action, ostensibly to allow for intense negotiations between the union and management.

Rather than strengthening the union’s hand, calling off strikes proved to be an own goal. Despite promising not to impose a deal during the pause period, UCEA – the employers’ organisation – proceeded to impose a below-inflation pay rise for next year as well as this.

Unfortunately, that proved not to be the end of it. It was obvious – to the employers as well as to union members – that the General Secretary (GS) on the one hand and the union’s sovereign, collective decision-making body, the HEC, on the other, were growing ever further apart.

The employers decided to use this cleavage as their leverage in the dispute. They made rather different offers in the two disputes that the union is pursuing, seemingly making acceptance of both and the end of strike action conditions for moving forward in the dispute.

In doing so, the employers amplified another division in the union – so not just between the more moderate GS and the more radical, outgoing HEC – but between the elite Russell Group universities and the post-92 universities.

This is because the USS pensions dispute affects only the former group, whereas the 4 Fights campaign centring on pay, casualisation, equalities and conditions affects all institutions.

Divide and conquer

By making a seemingly better offer on USS (the promise of restoration of benefits and lower contributions for members IF the next pension valuation next year shows the scheme performing well), and offering only sops in three of the 4 Fights (excluding pay), the employers calculated that they could divide and conquer.

They were not wrong. Since it was obvious from last year’s dispute that the GS sees union density as too low to achieve major victories, the employers gambled quite correctly that the GS would want to take almost any result back to the membership.

Never mind that the same pay deal was resoundingly rejected as inadequate by a majority of the union in February in an e-ballot, the GS decided to announce a historic victory in both fights and put another e-ballot to the membership tying consultation on the deal to an end in strike action.

She implausibly claimed that continuing to campaign to get the vote out in the current, simultaneous re-ballot to renew our union’s mandate for action would be sufficient pressure to keep the employers committed to negotiating in good faith – for what we have won is not even a deal on ending casualisation, inequalities and overwork, but a framework for negotiations.

Her claim is implausible because getting another mandate will only be effective until the early summer – when we have the ability to deliver a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB), allegedly Jo Grady’s own preferred tactic for winning. But once exam boards pass, it is unclear how the extra mandate of six months could be an effective weapon for our side.

But Jo Grady did not allow members time to consider the minutiae of the deal before declaring the historic win in an hour-long podcast, opening another e-ballot to survey member views and arranging a Branch Delegate Meeting and an HEC meeting over the following two days to decide on whether to pause action and put the deal to a vote.

The result of her actions has been to confuse and disenchant members, and to further sow division in the union. Many members voted in the online survey to accept another pause and put the deal to the membership. But the Branch Delegate Meeting voted down her proposal.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that where branches held meetings, and discussed the deal, members became more sceptical of its benefits. Moreover, it became obvious that there was great anger both at the mode in which the GS announced the deal on social media and conducted the survey.

Even more worryingly, there is a visible difference between how Russell Group and post-92 branches have reacted. Among the former, there is hope that the employers’ commitment on USS are genuine but there is clearly a long way to go even on the pensions issue. Among the latter, there is bitterness that a resolution in that dispute is being tied to an issue that does not directly affect them.

Many in the post-92s voted to accept pausing action and voting on the deal out of despondence. Seeing themselves as cannon fodder for a deal on pensions, they want to cut their losses and end action. On social media, some individual activists even wondered what the point of staying in UCU was for them.

Such a state of affairs would clearly signal a significant defeat for the union. Having already effectively accepted a record single-year pay cut for this year – a 3% pay rise in the context of a minimum 9% rate of inflation) – the union was now recommending we accept a further pay cut for next year (5% rise, paid early, in the context of continuing high inflation), in exchange for promises that pensions might be restored next year, and that they recognised problems on casualisation, equalities and workload.

Democratically elected

Unions exist to fight and win for their members. If they cannot, they risk decline and irrelevance. So it is not a wonder that the HEC voted to continue the dispute and not put the offer to a vote. Some members have reacted by arguing that HEC acted undemocratically by not recognising the e-survey’s results and appetite for consultation. Yet the HEC is the democratically elected decision-making body that exists to consider proposals. It is not a group that exists simply to rubber stamp a rushed and badly-worded survey.

Individual members of HEC took to social media to complain about limitations on voting. While the vote in HEC was split into two – on pausing action and on  consulting members, committee members weren’t allowed to vote separately on the two different disputes

If this is true, it was unfortunate that HEC accepted the GS’s terms, but it was the GS’s actions that were designed to put our elected bodies under undue pressure to accept her deal.

The atmosphere is incredibly tense across the union. But all is not lost. Members will now take industrial action on 20, 21 and 22 March, and continue balloting in an aggregated ballot until the end of the month to deliver another six-month mandate for action.

Collective action is what has got us any concessions we have received so far. There is no alternative now to redoubling our efforts to cross the anti-democratic 50% threshold imposed by the Tories to renew our mandate and prepare for a MAB. If we stay united, this threat will concentrate our employers’ minds and open the road to more concessions.

We also have a Special Higher Education Sector Conference in April, at which we as branches can take control of the conduct of the dispute, over the heads of the GS and the HEC. Branches across the country must take the view that continuing the action has risks, but not taking further action will weaken and endanger our union going forward.

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