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Five percent is not enough: we need to keep the dispute alive and fight to win. That means ensuring a good turnout for future action, argue Counterfire members in UCU

Twice now, UCU general secretary Jo Grady has had to apologise to members over her handling of the two disputes in higher education over pay and conditions, and pensions. The first time was when she ignored the rules and suspended strike action unilaterally, and most recently when she actioned an e-ballot which rolled the two disputes into one question and didn’t allow a vote for consultation without agreeing to suspend the action again.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have just been sent yet another e-ballot on consultation. Members have had to fight to keep these disputes alive and are currently in the final stages of a re-ballot on industrial action which would allow us to start a marking boycott in April. Such a marking boycott, backed up by strike action, has the potential to win and win quickly, the employers fear nothing more than threats to students graduating. The question now however is will we ever get there?

The ballot for renewing the UCU’s mandate in the USS and pay and conditions disputes has only a few days left to run. In fact, the national union suggests that the last day for safely posting your ballot is Tuesday 28 March. Ideally, that should even be the day before, to make sure ballots are in, given the chaos in the post.

That means there needs to be a mass push over the weekend and on Monday to ensure as many of those who have not yet voted do indeed vote. Crossing the 50% threshold across the entire sector, as these ballots are aggregated, and doing so decisively, is critical as it means that the employers continue to feel pressure and are faced with our most powerful weapon, the Marking and Assessment Boycott.

There is understandable confusion and anger in the union about the dangers of internal factionalism that has characterised decision-making for years, as well as the shockingly bad communication coming from the General Secretary and union HQ.

Much of this behaviour has been deeply undemocratic. The use of e-ballots with badly phrased questions and with tight turnarounds, or even to gain retrospective approval for decisions, clearly makes a mockery of constitutional ways of making decisions, through branches, branch delegate meetings, and the elected Higher Education Committee.

More than this, our union stands visibly divided, as many post-92 universities feel particularly let down, with no progress on pay and only promises for the future on other issues involved in the dispute. There is a widespread feeling that there has been more progress on the USS pensions dispute, which largely affects the prestigious Russell Group universities, than the Four Fights, which affects most institutions including the post-92s. But even USS is not a done deal and still relies heavily on when the next pension valuation takes place. The employers will look for an opportune moment, as they did with Covid, to undervalue the scheme. The current situation with Credit Suisse and the Silicon Valley Bank should alert us to the dangers in thinking, as the leadership appears to, that this fight is over.

Repeated attempts to present the deal offered by the employers UCEA as a triumph for UCU and to railroad members into voting for it not only flies in the face of the evidence but are in danger of making some members turn away from the action and the union.

We cannot afford this to continue, since a failed re-ballot will only deepen the sense of confusion and defeat among union members, as well as allow the employers to go on the offensive.

That is why campaigning to get the vote out, especially in the post-92s, and engaging members, is so important right now. The union can still get a better deal, particularly on pay, if we stick together and show both our own members and our employers that we are serious about delivering a Marking and Assessment Boycott.

In the coming days, each branch has to earmark ways to contact members who have not told the branch that they have voted, encourage them to think about the possible impact of a nationwide Marking and Assessment Boycott, and concentrate on getting organised now in terms of looking at exam schedules and marking deadlines, organising local departmental meetings, etc.

Branches will be critical to this push, and they can overcome the division at the national level. Branches will also get to take over the running of the dispute with an April Special Higher Education Sector Conference.

This is therefore not a time to disengage but to look outwards in a critical attempt at turning around the confusion of the last week or two into positive engagement with the next phase of the struggle, which can deliver much more than we have so far gained.

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