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With the disputes in higher education at a turning point, Counterfire UCU members discuss the state of the struggle and the tactics needed to win

The long-running disputes involving university union UCU are at a turning point. There is a great deal of anger among activists who have taken strike action over a range of issues for the past four years. However, the latest ballot results, for both the Four Fights and USS disputes, show a decline in the number of universities who are able to take strike action, which means that only around a quarter have mandates to do so. The union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, sent a personal email last week which suggested putting the disputes on hold for a year and this too has caused widespread anger, especially as it pre-empts decisions to be taken at two members’ conferences to be held this week and next.

UCU members are right to be concerned: the union leadership has dragged its feet over the disputes and preferred internal manouevres to putting its full weight behind them. This is despite the fact that most UCU branches have come a long way building momentum over the last four years. Apart from union membership being at an all-time high, there’s been a visible increase in academic and eligible administrative staff participating in picket lines, teach outs, public rallies and other solidarity building activities.

However, the left also needs to look reality in the face over the disputes. The strategy pursued so far hasn’t significantly shifted the employers, and the disaggregated ballots – which mean each university votes to achieve the 50% government-imposed participation threshold – has resulted in a minority of branches fighting over what are national disputes. This has weakened the impact of our strikes. The fact of the matter is that there’s been a notable downturn in the number of universities that met the 2016 Trade Union Act’s draconian requirement of a 50% turnout for workers to strike legally. Though an impressive 79.5% of members who voted back industrial action in the USS dispute, only 24 branches achieved a new six-month mandate over cuts to pensions (compared to 37 last November). Similarly, while 74% of members who voted are in favour of further strike action in the Four Fights dispute, just 36 branches are in a position to take strike action over pay and working conditions (down from 64). So no more than 40 out of a possible c.150 branches are permitted to escalate with industrial action over the summer.

We have made repeated calls for aggregated ballots - which require an overall majority across the university sector, which then means all institutions are able to take action. The main argument against this from the left is that, if not achieved, it means there is no action, even in those universities which did achieve the threshold. But the turnout overall in autumn was 51% and even this time 46%, so 50% is certainly achievable and can be fought for. And the recent reballots were extremely close, tantalisingly so in the case of the USS dispute, which saw a 49.9% turnout. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to fathom that it’s far easier to push for an extra aggregated 0.1% increase in voter turnout than it is trying to get each of the 41 USS branches that failed to reach the required threshold over the hump.

The alternative is to continue with disaggregated ballots, which has diminishing returns. This is the argument put by UCU Left, but it is looking increasingly unworkable. Disaggregated ballots have resulted in a minority of branches trying to win both disputes for the majority. This is unsustainable. Not only does it risk putting too much pressure on the more active branches but, equally, it’s become increasingly clear that management have decided to ride out the strike actions given their fragmented nature. Indeed, when quizzed about ‘the repeated industrial action taking place’ during a Universities and Higher Education parliamentary committee meeting last month, Quintin McKellar, vice president of UUK and vice chancellor of Hertfordshire University, was remarkably bullish:

… it is not universal across the sector. Some universities have been affected to an extent by industrial action, others not at all. There has been quite a disparity and many of our staff have not taken industrial action … and most universities where they have occurred have been able to ensure that the students receive appropriate teaching and learning during that period.

If we are to successfully take on the employers we need a dispute that involves all our members in action. We also need to focus on how we win. The main discussion for now is what action should those branches that have a new mandate take in the summer term? Grady’s latest email to members recommends that the union delays any further strike action until 2023. Though some members will doubtless support a regrouping strategy, equally, there will be others who want to continue strike action. There are calls for an immediate marking boycott, which would hit the universities affected hard, for both Four Fights and the USS disputes. Assessment boycotts have been successful in forcing employers to the negotiating table, most recently at Liverpool University. Such action this time would require serious organisation and discipline in order to be successful and would be a means of maintaining action in the summer before further action in the autumn. Head office and local branches would need to raise serious amounts of money in their hardship funds in the event that employers decide to dock 100% pay for partial performance.

Clearly the union can’t sit back and do nothing over the summer in those branches that have successfully balloted for further strike action and ASOS. Backing off until 2023, as proposed by Grady, is overly defeatist and concedes too much ground to employers. Whatever is decided at the upcoming conferences the summer months need to be spent mobilising for an aggregated ballot in the autumn term, organising membership recruitment drives, and coordinating national and local marches that focus on the cost of living crisis with other trade unions and social movements.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that many UCU members wish to see a rebranding of the Four Fights dispute so that it focuses on pay as the main unifying issue across the sector. With the cost of living crisis dominating working class life, we must fight for a pay rise which takes growing inflation into account. This should be flat rate so that it benefits the lower paid – especially women - more than those on higher grades. A serious fight on this would help win on the other demands over working conditions, equality and casualisation in the longer term.

Finally, the forthcoming special sector conferences are important in terms of how we discuss and arrive at these decisions. Branches must ensure that all members have an opportunity to engage in proper discussion with their elected delegates. They, in turn, must be allowed to debate openly and honestly with one another this week and next week. This has not been in the case in recent years due to online meetings being tightly controlled by head office. Additionally, UCU Congress should be face to face in order for delegates from across the country to meet and discuss strategy and tactics in the most effective way possible. And the HEC, the body tasked with organising any action, must take on board the outcomes of the two branch delegates meetings, properly gauge the national mood and, ultimately, act in good faith. To do otherwise risks further undermining the internal democracy of the union and, above all, turning a difficult but winnable struggle into a destructive war of attrition.

The union has many strengths which it can utilise, not least the militancy developed in both disputes in recent years. But this requires that we prepare for a national fight against intransigent employers. The danger of fragmentation and even a break up of national bargaining is there. Of course, local disputes are occasionally necessary and desirable, for example, where members face the threat of redundancies as we’re seeing at Goldsmiths right now. But employer-level negotiations are a poor substitute for nationwide collective bargaining, not least because there’s a danger that more hawkish employers could gladly exploit local claims over pay and working conditions as a form of divide and rule.

This is a time to recognise the challenges facing us after long periods of dispute. We should not be afraid to do so and to argue for the tactics necessary to win. This is the least that members deserve.

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