Glasgow UCU rally, 12 March 2020. Photo: Glasgow UCU via twitter Glasgow UCU rally, 12 March 2020. Photo: Glasgow UCU via twitter

We should not even be balloting on this, but focusing on the issues arising from the universities’ response to the Covid-19 crisis, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Union members were informed this morning that the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) met on Monday 8 June to consider its response to the latest offer from the employers in relation to the ‘Four Fights’ dispute around pay and equalities.

The HEC has decided to conduct an e-ballot on the offer, recommending that we reject it. We agree that the deal should be rejected but calling an e-ballot is a poor decision.

The majority of two to one of branch delegates had voted to reject the deal at the HEC meeting on Wednesday 27 May. The majority did so again on 8 June.

The email sent out by General Secretary Jo Grady also states that a majority of delegates had agreed to an e-ballot, but it is not clear that delegates had been mandated to vote on this. There is an increasing tendency for votes to take place at HEC without requisite time for branches to discuss proposals.

Do not forget that the union leadership under Sally Hunt also tried, unsuccessfully, to ballot us on a bad deal during the USS dispute in 2018.

Balloting now diverts the energies of union activists at a key time, in the midst of the crisis facing the sector following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The union leadership had better options. It could have postponed decisions to a special HE sector conference to give branches the time to discuss with members how the ‘Four Fights’ campaign could be taken forward. This was the decision taken related to the USS dispute.

The issues in the ‘Four Fights’ campaign are just as important. Members took 22 days of strike action and got the acknowledgement by employers that casualisation, high workloads and gender and race pay gaps were ‘important matters’. More importantly, the union recruited members and rebuilt branches in several institutions during the dispute.

However, the lack of any legally binding mechanisms to enforce changes and the employers’ refusal to raise pay above inflation means that the offer falls short of what the union should be demanding.

The deal, if accepted, would also leave members with less developed union organisations in their institution at the mercy of local bargaining with cut-throat managements who are already making clear that they will use the crisis to ignore union demands. We should not accept this – because solidarity is our strength.

We should therefore mobilise to reject the offer, and fuse this mobilisation with demands on management on issues that extend to Covid-19 related issues now.

Several branches have already indicated the way that this could be done. Witness the UCU Online Solidarity Rally on 16 June called by the SOAS, University of Liverpool, Imperial College London and University of Roehampton UCU branches to stop redundancies and the sackings of casualised staff, and defend jobs and pay in Higher Education.

Union members should also actively back the union’s Fund The Future campaign, being launched on Friday 12 June.

On the whole, we need a more militant response from our union, more akin to the spectacular struggle conducted by the NEU against school re-openings in England. We will only get it if we get actively involved in our branches, co-ordinate our response nationally and develop a workable but radical strategy.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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