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University of Bristol Unison banner. Photo: Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival

Nathan Street explains how the University of Bristol Unison branch won their ballot and will be striking for the first time after a decisive campaign

This autumn, for the first time almost anyone at the Unison University of Bristol branch can remember, we will be going on strike, beginning Monday 19 September. We are striking due to University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) offering staff only a 3% pay increase - with inflation at 12% in August this amounts to a significant pay cut.

We met the threshold on our strike ballot with over 65% turnout and nearly 90% voting yes for strike action, which I understand to be one of the highest turnout rates of the 92 university branches that balloted. This ballot lasted from 22 July to 26 August, but part of the reason for success was the work done before this. Our efforts really began during the consultative ballot in May when we achieved 55% turnout. But this was an online ballot and evidence from other Unison ballots suggest online ballots have a 10% higher turnout than postal ballots, so we knew work would be needed to maintain this turnout.

A crucial step was that we set up a strike action group with many dedicated members animated to organise around this campaign, in addition to the branch executive.

From May, we started the process of weekly or bi-weekly phonebank sessions, cleaning up the membership data to have up to date contact details and addresses, and to remove lapsed members or those no longer at the university so that they would not count against our turnout. When the ballot began, we persisted with this to keep reminding every member to vote.

Unison members are spread across the campus in many different workplaces, so we postered and leafletted as many of these buildings and desks as possible to raise awareness and help recruit potential members who would join the union too, in part because they would want the chance to participate in the strike. Many of the strike action group members became workplace reps, which gave them the opportunity to directly contact members in their workplaces.

We increased the frequency of branch meetings and endeavoured to keep every member up to date in communications and to mythbust some of the misconceptions around striking, the pay offer and our demands. We sent reminder letters to any members we were struggling to make contact with by phone or email.

We also benefited from very supportive Unison staffers in the regional office, who have helped guide us in many ways, particularly with the phonebanking and sharing ideas with other higher education branches in the South West. Unfortunately, not every Unison branch nationally met their threshold and solidarity should be extended to colleagues in other branches to help keep building militancy. Hopefully the 22 branches who have met the strike threshold can lead by example.

However, our internal efforts have not been in isolation to wider politics. A mass uptick in union militancy through the ‘Mick Lynch effect’ and campaigning around the cost of living crisis as the crucial issue in politics at this time will no doubt have impacted many working people’s consciousness, our branch members included. In recent months, members of the branch have also been in attendance of events that Bristol People’s Assembly helped organise in solidarity with the RMT strikes and against the cost of living crisis.

As a source of comparison, in August 2021 our branch’s turnout for a consultation on last years pay offer was only 26%. It shows how far a branch can progress in only a year. But it also offers a vision of how much further we can go! The next steps are to ramp up our organising to give us the best chance of making the strike a success to win our demands.

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