On the evening of Friday 15 May, UCU general secretary Jo Grady published an update with a summary of the full and final offer that has been received from the employers’ association UCEA in relation to the ‘four fights’ dispute on pay, workload, casualisation and pay inequality. Also included in the update was information about the current situation with the USS pensions dispute where no offer has been received. It is clear that the four fights ‘offer’, which outlines a set of ‘expectations’ on university senior managements that they would be free to ignore, does not go anywhere near resolving the dispute. The expectations also put all of the emphasis on local rather than national negotiations to get concrete change. Crucially, there is no improved offer on pay. On USS pensions, members are continuing to pay increased contributions based on a flawed valuation methodology and our employers and the pensions scheme bosses have so far refused to budge.
Despite the lack of a resolution, there is no doubt that our recent solid strike action pushed the employers into negotiations which they were not willing to enter previously and there were signs of progress in the talks on both disputes. However, there is a clear need to escalate our action in order to get the concessions we are demanding. Plans were made to reballot for another round of industrial action at the end of our last set of strike days but this was postponed by the union leadership due to the lockdown. We in Socialist Alternative argued against this at the time. This postponement was a mistake and has left us without a legal mandate to continue action short of strike beyond the end of April at a time when our workload has significantly increased due to moving online at very short notice as campuses shut down.
Whilst it is clear that the pandemic has created obstacles, this should not be used as an excuse by the union leadership like it is being used by our employers to make swingeing cuts to jobs, pay and conditions. UCU should have fought for a way for us to continue our disputes rather than shelving the fight until some later date. This would have included battling against the insidious anti-trade union laws that require a postal ballot to be conducted according to strict rules and which we have been told is currently not possible. Our rights as workers should not be curtailed and UCU should fight this outrage and to smash these pernicious laws in conjunction with the other trade unions and the TUC.
Since the pandemic hit, the components of the ‘four fights’ have been particularly highlighted, once again emphasising the huge importance of this dispute. Once the lockdown was announced, we had to adapt immediately and continue to deliver high quality teaching, research and support services in extremely difficult circumstances. This relied, and continues to rely, on the goodwill of staff. Now, the most precarious staff on fixed-term contracts are being rewarded with redundancies whilst the more secure will have hugely increased workloads as a result. These job cuts are being blamed on a projected drastic fall in student numbers for the next academic year, but in reality this is due to incompetent and cut-throat managements, a lack of emergency planning and the rampant marketisation of higher education.
Even with the difficulties of the current situation, the progression of the two disputes is urgent. The Higher Education Committee (HEC) should reject the four fights offer and go ahead with both reballots for industrial action. The question of when the reballots should take place is a live debate – we need a clear strategy for the disputes including a serious campaign to get the vote out to smash the 50% threshold required by the anti-trade union laws. Striking members have lost a huge amount of pay during the 22 days of action and we are exhausted. But there is still a willingness to fight if we know that there is a plan so that our action is not wasted and that the union leadership will not seek to capitulate against our wishes. This plan should be formulated now and the lack of strategy should not be used as an excuse to push the reballots further and further down the line. Reballots started by the end of June, as previously agreed by the HEC, could mean that we have a mandate for industrial action in place by the start of the academic year when a withdrawal of labour would have a hugely significant effect. But if obstacles are continually put in our way by those who want to end the disputes, the reballots will not be successful. This will also be the case if the reballots are held later on in Autumn if moves are not made now to build support amongst members. There is also a real danger that the reballots will not happen at all if the timeframe is extended endlessly into the future.
The current moves to end the disputes prematurely or to drive them gradually into the ground are not only a failure of the leadership of UCU but also of the left in the union to provide and campaign for a clear way forward. There has also been a disregard by the UCU leadership for the democratic processes that were put in place after the 2018 USS pensions dispute to make sure members get a say. Branches have been asked to collect views from members on both disputes and these will be presented at a branch delegate meeting on 26 May which will in turn inform the Higher Education Committee (HEC) who will make the decision on whether to continue with the plans to reballot or instead put the offer to members for a vote. However, the four fights offer was received on 1 April yet was not sent out to branches until 15 May, leaving very little time to achieve a meaningful consultation. These time pressures also played neatly into the hands of those branch leaderships who are continuing to refuse to arrange general meetings during the lockdown.
It is vital that the four fights and USS pensions disputes are kept together to maximise unity both within and between universities. There must be no attempts to separate these by accepting the four fights ‘offer’ when no offer has been made on pensions. If the HEC do not reject the four fights offer but instead decide to put it out to members in a ballot following the branch consultation, a clear recommendation should be made to reject and branches should campaign on that basis. Now is not the time for us to back down. We have held off the threatened destruction of our pensions for over two years and, with a fighting strategy, we have the collective strength to win what is now the most urgent fight that higher education workers have ever faced.