Nathan Street reports on Unison's ballot of higher education workers at 94 universities, the possibility of coordination with other unions and the solidarity needed to win
During July and August, non-academic workers in Higher Education in Unison at 94 universities are balloting for strike action over their pay offer for the year. The University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) have made their final offer of 3%. However with inflation estimated at over 9% by the RPI, this amounts to a real terms pay decrease of 6% on the year. However, this is not an isolated one-off real terms paycut. Using the Unison Pay Calculator, since 2009 Higher Education staff’s pay has failed to keep up with the cost of living, amounting to between 13.6% and 30.8% (depending on the salary) lost earnings during this time, with the latest paycut being the steepest yet.
The strike ballots of the 94 Unison branches are voting on a disaggregated basis meaning each institution works separately to reach the 50% turnout threshold internally for the ballot result to count. With generally low turnout for votes in recent years, the consultative pay ballots in May tended to provide surprisingly and markedly improved turnout figures, leading to a hope that a number of institutions can get over the 50% line for strike action.
At this stage the circumstances differs somewhat to colleagues ballots to UCU where militancy was higher and not having an aggregated ballot proved to backfire. If Unison has success in these ballots, there is enthusiasm that they can be in a position for aggregated ballot wins in the future and that they can help energise colleagues in higher education in other unions such as UCU and Unite to also go on strike simultaneously, maximising the impact at their institutions.
As part of their message management to avoid a backlash from staff, a number of institutions senior management have indicated they would offer more than UCEA has agreed, but that they are constrained by the collective agreement - in effect saying their hands are tied. However, they do have the option of increasing their own internal pay scales/grades/spines points. Under the weight of union pressure, some universities have offered ‘bungs’ to all staff for example of £500 or £1000 on a one-time basis, to ‘buy-off’ staff and discourage staff from making further pay demands and strike action.
With the higher education sector becoming increasingly unequal in terms of the financial circumstances of different universities, it is important that Unison branches work together and extend solidarity to one another, instead of solely focussing solely on their own situation.
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