Employers in higher education have plenty of money but won’t spend it on their workforce. Only mass action will force them to concede, argue Counterfire UCU members
Monday sees higher education workers in UCU out on strike again. The strikes are part of the ongoing action in support of the ‘four fights’ (pay, workload, gender inequality and casualisation) and against draconian changes to USS pension payments.
UCU members have been in dispute on these issues for over two years and strikers continue to show immense resilience and willingness to fight.
In the USS element of the dispute – which only applies to some, older universities - employers have disregarded union alternatives to impose changes that will significantly reduce member benefits. Employers used the pandemic to initiate a revaluation and took low share prices at the start of the crisis as the benchmark to guesstimate the pension pot. It was a ridiculous and scandalous decision, not least because the scheme’s assets have risen by a third – to some £90 billion – in the two years since the 2020 valuation. They will now try to impose increased contributions and reduced benefits for members.
The ‘four fights’ vary in their impact across the sector.
There is no doubt that high workloads blight the sector and local workload agreements and a nationally agreed 35 hour working week urgently need to be put in place. Most teaching staff work far longer hours than this as routine, including at weekends.
Casual working is far more significant at the research intensive institutions, where, in some cases, over 60 percent of staff are on short and casual work contracts.
Pay inequality is stark across the sector - a reflection of the relatively small number of women, black and disabled colleagues in senior positions. A flat rate pay award, which the union is demanding, would mark a step in the right direction in addressing this inequality.
But there is no doubt that the question of pay is increasingly central to the dispute. As the cost of living crisis rips through Britain workers will need a double digit pay rise just to stand still; bosses are offering a miserly 1.5 per cent, with threats of a similar small rise next academic year. The effect of this is a massive pay cut of around 10 percent if inflation predictions are correct.
The strikes over the next two weeks are a vital part of the ongoing struggle and UCU members need the active support of trade unionist and socialists across the country.
As the strikes start the union is starting to reballot all members across the country. As before this will be on a ‘disaggregated’ basis, meaning each university branch will need to get a 50 percent turnout amongst members and a positive vote for action in order to ‘legally’ join the dispute. This high threshold is the deliberate result of vicious Tory legislation, the Trade Union Act 2016, whose aim is to prevent industrial action.
The strikes give us a great opportunity to build the vote and push for as big a vote for action as possible.
Whilst we should do all we can to support the strikes and get a positive vote out, it is important to recognise that the dispute is throwing up some very important strategic questions. These are crucial questions for UCU, but some aspects of the leadership strategy are also being debated in other unions.
Central to this is the question of disaggregated ballots.
For some in UCU the strategy of disaggregated ballots has become akin to a principle of how unions can beat antiunion legislation. It is considered preferable to fighting to get more than 50 percent across the sector, which is obviously a challenge. It certainly means there will almost always be some action being taken by some part of the union.
But we have to consider whether as a strategy, it weakens our ability to win.
Disaggregated ballots have in these disputes meant that the union is relying on a minority of members, at a minority of institutions, to deliver victory for the whole union. Yet for two years the action of dedicated members in a minority of institutions has not shifted the management side.
Looking at it in the cold light of day, we are asking just over one third of the branches to force through a victory on nationally negotiated pay - and so far employers have been willing to sit it out (especially at the two thirds of institutions who are unaffected).
Further, disaggregated ballots leave some active trade unionists outside the action. There are many active unionists who want to join the fight, yet because their branch didn’t get the threshold they are unable to do so.
Disaggregated ballots guarantee some action, but they divide the union. They weaken our position. They make the fight harder. The argument in their favour also reflects a deep pessimism that we can’t win a national aggregated ballot, that members in some institutions aren’t up for the fight.
Yet across the country members clearly do want to fight, and the cost of living crisis can lead to thousands of others coming to that conclusion. And, of course, we did win a majority across the whole union in October and would have had national action if we hadn’t been caught in the ‘disaggregated trap’.
Much of the UCU leadership has been particularly inept during the two-year dispute. The start stop approach to strikes has dragged things out. There has been a lack of leadership and no attempt to campaign on the issues beyond abstract calls and tweets on social media. Strike days have been called at different times in the two disputes, leading to a further sense of fragmentation.
The present leadership strategy is in danger of taking us down a path of division, demoralisation and defeat.
We need city rallies, a focus on branch building and a campaign around national pay in the face of the cost of living crisis. We need a campaign to bring our colleagues out who didn’t strike last time. At the heart of this should be a demand for a substantial flat rate pay increase.
The fight can be won, but we need consistent, sustained action, involving all members and that means building for national action called on an aggregated basis.
The tasks for socialists in the union are urgent. We need to work to get the vote out, make the action over the next two weeks as dynamic as possible and we need to argue for a serious strategy to win, that is based on collectivising and unifying our anger.
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