UCU Picket Line in Brighton, 2022. UCU Picket Line in Brighton, 2022. Photo: brightondj on Flickr

There’s remarkable resilience among university staff as they vote for more strikes against pay cuts, deductions and temporary contracts – but we need a stronger rank and file and to escalate the action, argue Counterfire UCU members

The university lecturers and academics who have struck and engaged in a marking boycott over the last year are still determined to take action. Employers have responded to pay and conditions demands in an increasingly intransigent and vindictive manner. Plans are now on for a reballot to renew their mandate for strikes and action short of strikes for the new academic year. They are also highly critical of the tactics of a national union leadership of UCU which has failed to provide a strategic lead over the dispute. The determination to continue action was illustrated by a Branch Delegate Meeting (BDM) where those present voted overwhelmingly to reballot, and also for continued strike action into and during the new academic year. Votes on continuing the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) were however much less decisive and contradictory.

The MAB has brought the dispute to national attention, with thousands of students across the UK still waiting their marks and to find out what final degree they have achieved. It has been effective, particularly in the larger, older universities. But it has also been uneven. The votes at the BDM reflect this with a minority voting to continue the MAB after the current mandate expires on 30 September, although a majority voting to continue the MAB until then. This doesn’t mean however that the mood for a fight has diminished with 98% of delegates to the BDM voting to reballot with 83% supporting strike action into the new academic year and 54% to call strikes before the current mandate runs out.

The boycott has been running since 20 April and has seen members lose significant amounts from their salaries, some 100%, many 50%. Solidarity has been key with colleagues not directly involved putting large donations into hardship funds. The employers however have chosen to ride it out and think, with some justification, they can wait till after 30 September where without a mandate staff will be under pressure to deliver the outstanding marks. Despite voting for a reballot at the end of May at the annual union congress we are still waiting for one. There will now be a gap between mandates which the employers have banked on.

The employers have also displayed a flagrant disregard for the needs of students at a level which has surprised many. They have cobbled together marks from assessments over the year and brought in scab markers to provide unclassified or interim degrees while students wait to be fully assessed leading to protests at graduations

UCU’s higher education committee (HEC) met this week to discuss the next steps in the long running pay and conditions dispute, often referred to as ‘four fights’ (pay, casualisation, workload and equality). We await to see what action will be called following the HEC and when the much-needed reballot will start. There is some sign that this might face further undue delay. Any action we do take needs to be hard hitting. A return to sporadic one day strikes would be a big mistake. At the end of last year the HEC took the decision to build towards all out strike action from February 2023 but this was sat on by the general secretary, embargoing any discussion, until she eventually informed members at the last minute, leaving no time for preparation and with the plans eventually abandoned.

Our general secretary Jo Grady was elected in May 2019 in what was viewed as a victory for the left and rank and file, defeating the bureaucracy chosen candidate Matt Waddup. Between herself and the other rank and file candidate Jo McNeill they got 74.2%. This has been squandered as Grady has increasingly ignored and overturned democratic decisions. The prevarication over the reballot is only the latest. As was stated in the official UCU email received by branch activists reporting the results of the recent BDM, ‘It was also clear during the meeting that there was frustration from delegates at the perceived lack of strategy and support from the national level regarding the ongoing industrial action, and the fact that a re-ballot campaign was not launched after Congress.’

General secretaries come and go but what is required is a rooting of decision making at the ordinary member rank and file level. The fact that we have delegate meetings at all is a result of arguments being won inside the union that the leadership needs to take account of members’ views. The leadership need to be called to account for continually ignoring conference decisions. For example, we decided in May to have local and national strike committees to direct the conduct of disputes, nothing has been done. This disregard for union democracy has to end.

There are some things we can do. A Special Sector Conference can be called if 20 branches put their name to it. This would be a place to decide an industrial strategy that can win. An argument for all out action until the dispute is sorted needs to be to the fore. The current strategy of blocks of days has led some members to adopt a pick and mix attitude to strike days – we know this from the picket lines. All out action can build and pull more and more members out as it progresses. Combined with the inevitable student protest it can put the employers under enormous pressure to come up with a serious offer.

One of the things which has allowed the employers to behave as they have has been the lack of students on campus over the summer. They won’t have this luxury in the new term. All out action which joins up with student protest can take the dispute to a new level. In addition, members of other unions on some university campuses are also taking action this autumn. Combining our forces can provide a strong front against the employers.

This is not just about pay and conditions, important though they are. It is a political dispute about the future of higher education in this country. Are universities to simply function as degree factories accessible only to those who can afford it or are we going to return them to their true purpose of educating students for their benefit and that of wider society? We need fees to be scrapped and the return of student grants. Well paid staff on secure contracts are about a sustainable higher education sector just as the NHS needs well paid doctors and nurses. The running down of pay is a deliberate strategy.

These arguments also need to be taken to the political masters in Whitehall. That is why the protest at this year’s Tory party conference in Manchester on 1 October is so important. Higher education has been turned into a market and it is in a mess. We not only need to protest this rotten government, we need to let Starmer and Labour know that if they take over at the next election, we expect them to scrap the market and return higher education to serving the interests of society instead of serving the parasites who are currently running it.

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