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UCU rally. Photo: Magnus Hagdorn / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked below article

There is an appetite for a fight, but the union must urgently change tack, argue Counterfire UCU members

The last year has seen some heroic fights in Britain’s universities. However, as the academic year draws to a close, there are now some crucial decisions needed which will determine the future not just of the current disputes but of UCU’s strength and combativity in the coming year.

There are two current national university disputes – over pensions and the 4 fights (pay, casualisation, workload and equalities) – which have entered a critical time. Following a disaggregated spring reballot to continue industrial action, only a quarter of institutions made the threshold to allow this to happen. The strike action and action short of a strike already taken has put real pressure on the employers and there are signs that some universities want to reach local settlements.

It is clear that employers are nervous, as the series of local offers by management make clear. At the University of Durham, the university management and the union concluded a deal which saw the university give out a lump sum payment and make a series of promises related to national and local pay scales, as well as casualisation, workload and equalities.

While this deal shows that employers are running scared of a marking boycott, it is also obvious that there are dangers for the union at this time. It is understandable that many union members who have already sacrificed pay in a series of strikes are keen to settle, and to win at least some of their demands, such local deals are in danger of abandoning the national dispute, allowing those in a stronger position to gain more, while achieving nothing for the other universities. Behind this immediate problem lies the danger that national bargaining could break up, leading to different deals for Russell Group or post-92 universities, for example, or even for individual institutions.

This situation highlights the weaknesses of disaggregated balloting, where individual institutions have to each achieve a 50% threshold of members voting in order to take industrial action. We have argued consistently that the danger of disaggregated ballots is that they could lead to union fragmentation. While they appeal because they mean that some universities are guaranteed to be on strike, they also guarantee that others will fail the threshold and so will not be able to take part in industrial action. An aggregated ballot, where the total voting across all institutions has to get to 50%, obviously runs the risk of failure. However it also enables all universities to take part in industrial action which is by far the most effective way of dealing with a national dispute. We need urgent action to keep a focus on national, unified action and aggregated ballots and action around pay – especially in the context of a cost of living crisis where inflation has reached 9% and where employers nationally are offering only a pittance - must now become central to our campaign.

The union nationally has also delayed and created problems for those taking action. At two special higher education sector conferences in April, delegates voted to implement a marking boycott, as well as for new rounds of action in the autumn term and a new national ballot. The mood changed between the conferences, and although only a minority backed aggregated ballots at the first one, a majority backed them in the second.

However, the union leadership, the Higher Education Committee (HEC), has once again frustrated action. It inexplicably delayed convening from late April to mid-May. Under pressure from some of its members and from below, it did notify employers of a marking boycott to start on 23 May. But, incredibly, after conducting a round of consultations with branches, it failed to reach any decisions at its meeting on 12 May.

Rather, the national union has gone back to branches claiming that delegate meetings had betrayed dwindling support for a marking boycott and asking branches if they still wanted to go ahead. This highly questionable claim and the resulting dithering risks turning union democracy into a farce, as members keep being consulted until they give the answer being sought by HEC.

But there is still much to fight for. University workers are under huge pressure of workload, and this is likely to worsen by the autumn. There is a major attack on arts and humanities teaching, with valuable courses and departments under threat in Goldsmiths, Roehampton, Wolverhampton and elsewhere. The cost of living crisis is hitting very hard, and the measly offer from the employers for next year will mean a pay cut approaching double figures when inflation is taken into account. This is on top of years of real terms reductions in pay going back a decade.

The union faces real dangers and is at a crossroads. Fragmentation across the union is real, which is why there is the temptation for some branches to make local agreements in exchange for pausing or moderating national action. With some members beginning to question the utility of taking industrial action, we need to show members that they can win. The situation can be salvaged and turned in our favour. Indeed, HEC can still go back and implement the April conference decisions, implementing a marking boycott in the branches with a mandate, and setting out a clear roadmap for more action in the autumn, including an aggregated national ballot. We need to launch a national dispute centred on pay then, where the union nationally fights to achieve a 50% turnout across the board. Unfortunately general secretary Jo Grady is talking about putting everything on hold for another year. The danger here is that management will see this as a green light to continue with attacks on pay and conditions.

United across the sector, we can win. With inflation getting rapidly out of control, workers across HE will be prepared to take action to defend pay and conditions if we argue it properly and for one national fight. Now is not the time to give up. It is time to fight back: recruit to the union, strengthen local organisation, and be prepared to take on the employers through industrial action on a national scale.

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