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Bristol University UCU picket line

Bristol University UCU picket line. Photo: Naz Massoumi

UCU members in universities nationally have voted overwhelmingly to strike

Union members on university campuses across the UK have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action over both pay and working conditions and pensions. After years of real-term pay cuts and attacks on the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), 81% of UCU members supported strike action over pay (on a 58% turnout) while 85% supported strikes to defend pensions (on a 60% turnout).

The votes demonstrate the fury of university workers as they see many institutions packing students into lecture theatres and labs and pocketing the money without adequately compensating staff or improving the learning conditions for students. According to the UCU, the higher education sector generated record levels of income last year and made a £3.4 billion surplus. Given that the employer’s pay offer would cost them only £660 million to implement, no wonder campus staff have had enough and are prepared to fight for a meaningful pay rise. This is all the more dramatic when it comes to pensions given that the employers insisted that cuts to the scheme were necessary to address a huge deficit – one that miraculously almost disappeared in the most recent report, after the cuts were introduced.

UCU ran a lively and imaginative campaign, #ucuRISING, that targeted the excessive pay of vice-chancellors and lamented the growing casualisation and marketisation of the sector. Despite some nerves about not reaching the government-manded threshold of 50% in a national ballot, we smashed through this barrier – well up on the 51% participation in the disaggregated ballot that took place last autumn. The fact that such a decisive vote for action was reached in a national, aggregated ballot is a resounding confirmation of the position, long argued by Counterfire members, that we are stronger when we fight together.

The lesson is clear: UCU members have voted decisively to take part in the growing wave of strikes in response to the cost of living crisis.

The next step has to be to use this momentum to build effective action this term that involves both escalating strikes as well as the option of a marking and assessment boycott. The employers are likely to be unwilling to budge unless there is a serious and coordinated threat to the normal functioning of university life. Limited strikes or the prospect of a marking boycott down the line next summer are not going to shift their position.

Yet it’s clear that there are tensions in how we move forward. Thousands of members have already taken part in a consultative survey issued by UCU about what action they would like to see while branches are being asked to consider a range of options – including delaying action until next term – ahead of a national branch delegate meeting on Monday 31 October. One of the survey questions asks whether members should give the employers ‘a time-limited period of negotiation’ before strikes are called. Yet surely the results of the ballot mean that the employers have already been served notice and that they need to make a serious offer if we are not to proceed with industrial action – we don’t need to give them any more breathing space.

Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, has now issued a ‘discussion document’ that summarises the findings of the survey but also proposes her own view of what action should be taken. While her decision to call for at least some strike days this term is welcome, she suggests that the bulk of the action should start in February – four months after we have balloted for action. This risks de-mobilising members more than inspiring them and puts the onus on a reballot in the spring. Also, her document is a worrying departure from the traditional structures of union democracy which are based on delegate-based voting and not the personal intervention of one senior figure. She may claim to be just “one of 70,000 voices in this debate” but she is also the general secretary of the union and her plan is likely to have significant influence ahead of the forthcoming representative branch delegate and Higher Education Committee meetings.

Interestingly, most union members who took part in the consultation called for strike action in November as well as for a marking and assessment boycott from this December – and not one that simply kicks in towards the summer after a further ballot.

Of course it’s vital that there is a serious discussion about tactics and it is true that there are a range of voices in these debates but the dominant mood is one of anger and determination: rage at how university staff have been treated and a commitment to build momentum from now. There’s a difference between developing a “clear” industrial relations strategy and one that risks handing the initiative to the employers by not mobilising ourselves fully this term.

For now, we need to press for strikes this term that are coordinated with other unions like the RMT and CWU and to get the word out to students that our fight is also their fight: one that challenges the employers’ priorities – of securing maximum revenue from fees with minimum spending on working and learning conditions – and that puts university staff and students at the heart of the growing resistance to austerity and cuts this winter. Let’s not delay our response – this fantastic ballot result shows that members will support action that seizes the initiative and demonstrates to the employers that we are serious about addressing pay and pension inequalities in higher education.

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