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The stakes are high as UCU members at universities nationally begin balloting for strike action

Around 70,000 lecturers, administrative staff and researchers in the UCU union at universities across the UK have begun balloting this week for strike action over cuts to pay and pensions and over deteriorating working conditions. This is our opportunity to join rail workers, postal workers, barristers and an increasing number of other unions in the strike wave currently taking place against the effects of the cost-of-living crisis and the Tory government’s callous disregard of people’s needs.

Unlike previous ballots this one will be on what is termed an aggregated basis which means we must achieve a 50% turnout across the entire sector. Previously the union has balloted each university individually which has meant a guarantee of action at the stronger well organised branches but with the downside that large numbers of members have been left uninvolved. This change of tactic has come about only as a result of many debates at national meetings and at our congress.

This means that the stakes are high but also that the prize is huge with the prospect of a shut down of the entire higher education sector on offer. The other campus unions are also moving into action with Unison announcing strikes at 22 universities across the UK and Unite currently consulting its members on whether to ballot for action. All unions have rejected the employers pathetic 3% offer.

According to the Guardian, housing and energy costs have increased by 19.6% since June 2021. The official RPI measure of inflation was 11.8% in June and is still rising. The value of pay in higher education has fallen by 17.6% since 2009 and if you factor in the current offer and the most recent inflation data the drop is 25%. The unions are demanding a pay uplift of at least RPI plus 2% on all pay points. In addition to pay, the ballot will address the issues of casualisation, equality and workload which the employers have made no meaningful moves on.

In addition to the ballot over pay and conditions, UCU is balloting members over the long-running unresolved pensions dispute. A supposed £14.5bn deficit in the USS pension fund was used as justification to cut our pensions by 35% last year. This deficit has now miraculously transformed into a £1.8bn surplus. Spurious valuations of the scheme with contested methodology which can see swings of over £16 billion in a few years need to be uprooted and replaced with a system all can agree with.

The national leadership are taking the ballots seriously and are putting resources into achieving a high turnout and a yes vote in both ballots. Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary has stated that we “have been consistently lied to and gaslighted by people stealing our wages. We have been proven right but we need to make this right and to do that we need to deliver the biggest YES vote in the union's history”. She rightly accuses university chiefs of “hoarding billions of pounds in cash”. UCU has found that collectively, holdings of cash and liquid assets have grown by £3.4bn in the 12 months to April 2021, while spending on staff has increased by just £200mn. Combined revenues have risen to £41.1bn, up from £39.6bn the previous year.

There is plenty of money available to settle the disputes. It is the marketisation of the higher education sector which has seen assets spread unevenly across the sector that is one of the problems. There may well be a need to share some of these gains, mainly seen by the wealthier institutions, across the sector for the benefit of all staff, regardless of institutional employer. Phony rigged markets shouldn’t be a barrier to settling this dispute on a national level.

Posters are going up around campuses across the UK and local campaigns are getting off the ground. These local Get the Vote Out campaigns will be key in ensuring a high turnout. The enthusiasm of the leadership is welcome and will make a difference to members confidence, but it is vital that branches learn from each other on how to beat the Tory anti-union threshold of 50%. Branches which have achieved this in the past need to be thinking of how they can improve on previous experience to boost the national total. Every branch needs its own get the vote out campaign and needs to start organising for the highest possible turnout now.

We have around seven weeks to maximise the vote. Now it is our turn, let’s get to it.

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