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A proposed marking boycott is off after members of the UCU voted overwhelmingly to accept a 2% pay offer. Des Freedman looks at the implications

University lecturers and support staff in the UCU have voted overwhelmingly to accept a pay increase of 2% for next year with no additional money on top of the 1% already imposed for 2013/4. Some 84% of members supported the employers’ offer in a deal which bring to an end more than six months of industrial action over pay which included full-day strikes, two-hour walkouts and the threat of a full marking boycott due to start this week.

Given that inflation is hovering around the 2% level (with RPI at 2.7%) and given the union’s much publicised claim that, while vice-chancellors enjoyed an average 5% increase last year, university staff have suffered a real-terms 13% fall in pay over the last five years, the acceptance of the offer is not so much about ‘catching up’ but falling further behind. This is mitigated by the perception, clearly expressed in the ballot, that it was only the determined resistance of union members that was able to protect national bargaining and force the employers to respond with an improved offer even if this was far from satisfactory.

Debates

Not surprisingly, there is a serious debate now taking place amongst union members about the significance of the vote, the tactics pursued in the dispute and, indeed, the future of the union.

The first question is why members voted so overwhelmingly to accept a deal that so clearly falls short of the hopes that many had to address the deterioration in pay at a time when universities, bolstered by tuition fee income, are seeing healthy surpluses across the sector.

The most obvious answer is that many were intimidated by the employers’ threats to withhold 100% of pay should they participate in a marking boycott. This followed the docking by some institutions of a full day’s pay for those taking part in the two-hour strikes earlier this year. The idea of being ‘locked out’ for an indefinite period (running into the summer) without any conviction that the union leadership would be able to mount an effective response is likely to have deterred those in less organised workplaces from stepping up the action. Many union members felt particularly vulnerable to management pressure and were unsure as to how, in the context of an aggressive management, they would be able to operate the boycott effectively. The response to this pressure from UCU was patchy and confusing and totally failed to reassure members that we had a gameplan that was well conceived and likely to succeed.

There is also a perception that the employers were far more well organised and militant than our own side. Aside from the bullying tactics and threats of lockouts, UCEA (the employers’ negotiating body) had a long-term plan to offer a slightly higher increase for next year while refusing to increase the money for this year. UCEA’s plan was to defuse a potentially highly disruptive campaign at relatively low cost to the employers.

Some members may have been reluctant to take part in activities which might damage students as opposed to the institutions themselves. However, the support for the dispute offered by a whole host of Student Unions (including even a motion at the National Union of Students Conference) belies the idea that students were overwhelmingly hostile to the action. Indeed, many were quick to tie the pay dispute to their own struggles against marketisation and privatisation.

Some others will claim that UCU members are effectively a bunch of atomized, comfortable, middle-class professionals compliant in their own exploitation and that the overwhelming vote to accept the offer demonstrates their lack of bottle. Well that may certainly fit the description of some of the people we see every now and again on campus but, if this is true for all, then it is strange that 62% of those who took part in the original ballot last autumn voted for strike action. It also ignores the fact that, far from being a highly settled workforce, some 35.6% of those working in higher education are on short-term contracts with many permanent staff stuck at the top of their pay grades and unable to progress. It also underplays the anger over related issues such as the gender pay gap, increased workloads, rising managerialism and the general marketised orientation of the university sector. These issues are not immune from any institution.

Confidence

A more viable explanation for the ballot result is that members were simply not confident of winning. A campaign that had already lasted more than six months and which had been allowed to progress until the spring before a marking boycott was called was starting to de-mobilise people; a dispute that was tightly controlled by a small union committee, the Higher Education Committee, that mysteriously imposed two-hour strikes, occasional one-day walkouts and delayed the boycott until the end of the academic year failed to engage members in tactical discussions. Too many people simply thought they had no control over the day-to-day course of the dispute and, given the fact that support for the action was always going to be very unevenly spread, there was little public discussion about how best to overcome this unevenness and to support those in a weaker position. Far from reassuring members, endless emails from the general secretary simply intensified this feeling of alienation.

So what should our response be now? Instead of shrugging our shoulders or, worse, threatening to resign from the union, we should be re-focusing our efforts to take up the questions of pay as they play out in relation to our own institutions. Leaving the union because the vast majority of members chose to vote in a way we do not agree with shows a rather strange understanding of union organisation.

We should pursue local actions such as demanding that students sit on staff remuneration committees, calling for equality audits to address the gender gay gap, organising with hourly-paid staff to ensure they are treated fairly and assimilated onto the conditions of permanent staff and, crucially, working with everyone on campuses to resist marketisation as it comes to be imposed in very concrete ways – through the thousands spent on branding, the outsourcing of facilities, threats to cut courses and increases to the pay of senior staff.

It is interesting that in those institutions who have adopted an unashamedly political approach to organising on campus and who have organised campaigns as described above, the vote to reject the offer was highest. At SOAS, Goldsmiths and Brighton – institutions that have long mobilised members around broader issues of marketisation – votes to continue the dispute were more than triple the national average.

Look reality in the face

This does not mean abandoning a national strategy or orientation. In each branch, we should also be raising the forthcoming national demonstration in London called by the People’s Assembly against Austerity; without letting this dominate our work, we should still press for union structures that best represent an ability to defend wages, conditions and the idea of the public university; and we should still coordinate national actions over the issues that are set to absorb us in the next few years as the government’s tragically short-sighted plans for higher education bear fruit with the possibility of institutional closures, attacks on widening participation, the prospects of an increase in private providers and the possibility of higher tuition fees. Doing nothing is not an option.

The left in UCU needs to look reality in the face. It is not the result we had hoped for but at least it presents us with a clear choice:  either we start to rebuild the union at its grass roots by campaigning vigorously and imaginatively on a range of political and local issues that will involve members themselves – or we run the risk of being further marginalised.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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