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Essex UCU banner. Photo: Michael Bailey

Counterfire members in UCU argue the next steps for escalation in the UCU dispute and the need for political trade unionism

Staff at 58 universities across the UK struck the first blows in a campaign of industrial action on 1-3 December in what is likely to be a protracted dispute over pension cuts and employer failings on pay, casualisation, conditions and equalities.

The three-day strike provides momentum as the union prepares to escalate the struggle. More staff will be re-balloting in another 42 institutions, after they just missed the 50% turnout needed under draconian, Tory anti-union legislation passed in 2016.

We will know the results on 14 January. But there is clearly a mood for a fight. In a three-week ballot in November on the USS (pensions) and ‘4 fights’ disputes, more than 50% voted in both ballots, a large majority in favour of action, which shows that there is great depth of feeling in our union.

Some universities have seen even bigger votes and fights. Goldsmiths UCU has just completed 3 weeks of strike action and voted for a further 3 weeks if 52 redundancies are not taken off the table as part of a restructuring package. Earlier this year strike action at Liverpool University successfully resisted redundancies.

We should not be surprised that there is widespread anger. After decades of marketisation of higher education, pay has been falling, student numbers and workloads increasing, and demoralisation runs rife, while vice-chancellors pick up huge bonuses and new billion-pound investment in physical infrastructures criss-cross the higher education landscape. The latest pay offer from employers is for only 1% next year when inflation is running at over 5% on even the government measure of CPI, and a whopping 7% on RPI.

The losers are not just the staff but our students. Our working conditions are their learning conditions. When they are taught by overworked and underpaid – and insecure – lecturers, the quality of the education suffers. It is not by accident that the National Union of Students has backed the UCU strikes.

Cleavage between the USS and ‘4 fights’

Nevertheless, there is a lot of work to be done. Much of this work needs to be about better integrating our struggles to overcome serious unevenness in the union.

While the vast majority of pre-1992 institutions will be out fighting over the proposed pensions cuts, the situation over the ‘4 fights’ is less clear cut. In fact, a majority of post-92 institutions, including some of the largest metropolitan universities, are not yet on strike. And this leaves us much weaker and more vulnerable. We are in this situation partly because the ‘4 fights’ have left many unclear about what the struggle is about and wondering what exactly a win would look like.

Much is often made of the ‘4 fights’ being about inter-generational fairness, dealing as it does with issues of casualisation and equality as well as pay and workload. But  the pensions dispute also affects those across the generations. There is a danger of seeing the USS dispute as only affecting older, permanent staff. In fact, it is older colleagues who have already built up significant pensions based on the now defunct final salary aspect of the USS scheme that are the most cushioned from these changes. It is the younger staff who have the most to lose. In the first USS strike in 2018, the picket lines were strengthened in a big way by postgrad members and young staff on casualised contracts who understood this reality. The union should make this case clearly and effectively to unite workers at different career stages.

Disaggregated ballots

But we also have to confront the reality that the divide between pre- and post-92s is made more stark because of some of the consequences of ‘disaggregated ballots’. This is a tactic that has been adopted to circumvent the Tory anti-union laws. It certainly guarantees that some universities will be on strike over the 4 key issues. It is understandable that many militants prefer disaggregated ballots because they allow some of the stronger universities to come out, and not to be held back by other less organised places.

But we need an honest assessment of what it means on the ground. At present we have just over a third of HE institutions in official dispute. Whilst more will hopefully join them in January, it leaves large numbers of institutions unaffected, and large numbers of branches cut off from union action. The danger with the tactic is that it can reinforce huge unevenness in the union. There is no shortcut to overcoming this unevenness, but we should not give up the idea of a national dispute involving all universities. The only way to achieve that is an aggregated ballot at some point. Those branches which were below the threshold have to be organised to raise their turnouts. Otherwise the danger is writing off many branches and thus potenitally weakening the union.

Further, this is the second period of significant strike action over the ‘4 fights’ where the majority of HE institutions have not been involved. There is a danger that this wil lead eventually to local pay bargaining, which many employers would want but which would be a big step backward for the union. We should be more confident about our ability to win members to action – and, remember, if the last ballots had been aggregated we would now have action across the whole sector.

In the short-term, we need twinning between stronger branches and those that are re-balloting. It is crucial we get as strong a vote as possible and as many institutions joining the action as possible. There should also be a campaign to build solidarity among non-striking staff for those taking action. But we need to prepare for a national aggregated ballot that draws the union together. That pulls out the whole sector. And which creates the conditions for a significant victory. Disaggregated ballots make this much more difficult. They present a danger to national bargaining and threaten the union’s ability to take national action in the future.

National action and escalation now

We clearly need a strong national lead to ensure that we keep momentum on our side. We need to escalate strike action beyond symbolic strikes lasting a few days and the minimalist action short of strike we are currently engaged in. We should also immediately escalate action short of strike, moving to the full spectrum of what we voted for, including marking boycotts.

Here, we should take the lead from unions like the University of Liverpool UCU which has recently won a major dispute to end redundancies. We must likewise be prepared to use this strike period to prepare for a national ballot on the ‘4 fights’. To enthuse members and overcome unevenness, we must highlight demands that will unify the whole sector. No other demands can do this better than increased pay and secure, decent jobs. Inflation is rising, which means a real terms pay cut and that affects us all. This is why pay is a unifying demand. Fighting this as a priority is a way of protecting jobs, lessening workload and reducing casualisation.

Moreover, we are striking at a time when there is growing discontent among working people about pay and conditions and a rise in the number of strikes. This presents us with the opportunity of forging wider links to fight alongside other workers and make the strikes more political.

Political trade unionism

Indeed, we must make common cause with other unions, students and the wider community to fight for the common good against the marketising and privatising agenda of a government that lurches from crisis to crisis. We have every reason to feel confident that we can win. In our sector, our employers depend on us to deliver teaching, produce world-leading research, and perform the necessary administrative tasks that make things tick at universities. The sector is awash with cash and our employers can afford to pay us a decent pension and wage, and end endemic overwork and casualisation.

But our union must make the wider political argument that critical services have been hit hard during the pandemic and that we must stand together to defend not just education, but the NHS and the welfare state as a whole from the criminally incompetent but cynically brutal Tories. Working people more broadly have an interest in fighting collectively to better our lot, against greedy bosses and a government bent on passing the buck of the crisis of their own making on to ordinary people, while flouting all the rules. We have strength in unity. Solidarity and militancy across our sector and the trade union and working class movement is our path to victory.

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