UCU rally, 2018 UCU rally, 2018. Photo: Magnus Hagdorn / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

We need a new strategy plus rank and file organising to win our dispute, argue Counterfire UCU members

Around 50 universities will be hit with strike action this week in the latest phase of industrial action by the UCU union in the long-running pay and conditions dispute. The action is the last that can be taken under the current mandate which runs out at the end of September. The strikes were originally called to coincide with the continuation of industrial action that would have been made possible by balloting over the summer. This has not happened.

The reason there are only 50 or so UCU branches taking part is due to a decision taken by the union’s higher education committee (HEC) on 15 September that branches could opt out of the action. Many have sought local deals over deductions taken during the marking and assessment boycott. Many have just pulled out all together.

The industrial action over the last year has included a number of strike days, action short of striking and a marking and assessment boycott which has seen some universities make punitive deductions. The MAB has been called off and there have been mixed responses from members about the five days of action.

The union is now in a precarious state thanks to the mishandling of this dispute by the leadership. Congress decisions over reballoting to allow the action to continue seamlessly have been ignored by the leadership and have not been actioned by the HEC. We have just started reballoting leaving a gap of at least a month between mandates and morale is probably the lowest it has been since the start of the dispute back in 2022. The union leadership has prevaricated over this fight and seems to want to end it with or without a decent outcome. Meanwhile members have lost thousands of pounds in pay and some feel there is little to show for it.

Many UCU members are now drawing two conclusions. First, that the piecemeal stop-start strike action we have been taking up to now is not enough. We need to go all out until the dispute is resolved. If we had been in a position to call all-out strike action for the beginning of term, which is this week for many institutions, it is difficult to see how the university managements could have withstood it for long. The second conclusion drawn is that the leadership of UCU needs to change. Several branches have now passed motions of censure, no confidence or calls to resign on the general secretary Jo Grady. The union is dysfunctional and Grady is ultimately responsible for how the dispute is conducted.

An example of this dysfunctionality happened last week at Newcastle University. Unable to secure a deal with their local management for the return of MAB deductions, the branch voted to stay in the strike this week. Late on Friday, the branch was informed that due to an error from the union centrally, notification of strike action had been withdrawn and members were not to go on strike. It is not clear at this stage if Newcastle is the only branch where this happened. It is quite incredible that such a mistake could have been made.

Fundamentally, however, union activists need to recognise that there is unevenness in the union and that we need to strengthen local organisation both to ensure that we are able to take the most effective industrial action and to pressurise the national union where necessary. The branches need to be built around strong networks of reps who can win the arguments about the need to take action and what sort of action we need. What is therefore required is a turn towards rank and file organising inside the branches. We are now in the process of reballoting to renew the mandate for strikes and that will require serious argument and discussion in every branch. The experience of the past year is of an intransigent management determined to sit out strikes and the MAB. The union needs a clear united strategy to win.

There have been decisions taken at national meetings and annual congress for democratic accountability inside the union. It’s important we don’t let the leadership ignore this or decide to shelve all industrial action until it has somehow recruited a super majority of members across the sector. Anyone actually involved in building UCU branches knows that the union grows most during periods of strikes and disputes. Members will leave when they feel let down and betrayed. Therefore union growth is inextricably linked to strengthening industrial action.

If we are going to win the reballot and win successful forms of action inside the union there needs to be a serious turn to rank and file organising and branch building from the bottom up. Any plan for all out strike action will require a far greater level of rank and file democracy than we currently have inside the union. All out action combined with rank and file control over the action is a strategy that can win. The question now is how do we get there. First step is to support all those branches striking this week and to win the reballot.

We also need to link our action to wider questions relating to the HE sector. The business model based on escalating student tuition fees is breaking down and there is a growing crisis across the universities. The fight for better conditions must be linked to an alternative model of higher education based on the needs of students and staff, not on those of overpaid vice chancellors and senior management teams.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Tagged under: