UCU balloon| Photo: It’s No Game – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article UCU balloon| Photo: It’s No Game – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Following an overwhelming endorsement for strike action by UCU members in UK universities, there can be no room for prevarication

The University and College Union (UCU) has announced some strong results in the recent ballot for strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS).

The union balloted on two (in some places three) issues.

Universities at the older pre-1992 institutions were balloted over action to defend members’ pensions. 

The USS pension scheme undertook a revaluation in the midst of the pandemic and is now proposing drastic cuts to pension benefits. 

The vote produced an overwhelming endorsement for immediate action to stop the attacks on pension rights.

A second ballot was held across 146 UK universities for strike action over the four fights campaign, which is concerned with the erosion of national pay, excessive workloads, pay equality and casualisation.

Though 51% of members voted across the country, the union had opted for disaggregated ballots meaning that ‘legally’, only members at the 54 institutions that reached the necessary 50% threshold can be brought out.

In the run up to voting, Counterfire argued against a disaggregated ballot. On a national pay dispute, we need national ballots that enable union members at all universities to take part in the action.

The results, as they have come in, have opened up debate in the union over the appropriate strategy in the next phase of the dispute.

The General Secretary, Jo Grady, has emailed all members arguing for two one-day strikes (one on each dispute) before Christmas and a re-ballot, on an aggregated basis, on the four fights, after Christmas.

Grady is clearly looking for way to park the dispute, hoping the threat of action will force the employers back to the table. She is also arguing that casualisation should be the priority issue.

There is a growing feeling that Grady can’t be trusted.

The vote on the USS was overwhelming. There is no case for suspending action. The attack on pensions is dramatic and there needs to be a robust response. 

The small number of USS universities that didn’t reach the threshold should be re-balloted as soon as possible. The fight to save our pensions is on and there should be no prevarication. Action should start immediately.

The disaggregated ballots on the four fights have made the situation messier than it needed to be. Nevertheless, there is a mandate for action. 

The union should call strikes in the 54 institutions that voted for action. Reballoting for a national aggregated vote should take place before Christmas. 

We can win a vote across the sector for unified national action. And whilst all four of the fights are important, pay erosion is the key unifying element, rather than casualisation. 

Casualisation impacts universities in different ways. By making this the main focus of the dispute, Grady is in danger of throwing away our potential for a strong national vote for action. 

The common, unifying element of the dispute is pay. All of our pay has decreased in real terms in recent years. Now we are facing increases in National Insurance payments and significant inflationary pressures are seeing an increase in the cost of living. 

Halting the pay decline should be the focus of the dispute, tying all the other issues together.

Finally, at Goldsmiths a local ballot for strike action to save jobs was overwhelmingly endorsed. Sheffield University UCU has entered into formal dispute with management over the decision to close the Archaeology department. And the Royal College of Art is three weeks into a local strike action over casualisation and workloads.

These are crucial disputes that are at the forefront of the fight for jobs and working conditions on campuses. They follow the successful action at Liverpool University over the summer and deserve support across the union movement. 

As we move in to action and re-balloting across the union we should ensure that the situations at Goldsmiths, Sheffield and the RCA are brought to every union meeting. It’s them today, but it could easily be your university tomorrow.

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