England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Where Next For the USS and Four Fights Disputes? Rank and File Leadership Needed

UCU picket line

As of late last week, UCU has just announced further strikes in both the USS and Four Fights disputes to begin in February, including “coordinated UK wide and regional rolling strikes”. However, this was not accompanied by any detail for members about when strikes will take place, or even how many strike days are planned. The justification for this lack of information is that informing members before employers have been served notice of industrial action would jeopardise the ballot, but this is simply not true. The Tory anti-union laws do state that we have to provide 14 days notice to employers, but nowhere do they state that we cannot discuss our strategy within the union. Socialist Alternative members are unable to explain why our elected leaders would claim that this is the case.

This means that at the time of writing, as we approach what will need to be a period of serious and intensely disruptive industrial action, branches and organisers are totally in the dark about what the plan is. This is an astounding position for us to be placed in. The success of strike action depends entirely on the will of members to carry action through, yet the elected leadership of our union are behaving as if we are inanimate objects waiting to be wheeled onto the picket lines when the time is right. Such an approach is extremely dangerous. 

Even worse, we are now told that industrial action will include “regional rolling strikes”. On 19th January, branches sent delegates to a meeting on the direction of the dispute. This was a confused event, with delegates instructed to discuss in a series of small ‘break out groups’ and to write their thoughts in a large Google document – a far cry from the genuine democratic discussion of action members hoped would take place. At no point was the idea of regional rolling strikes – where regions would take strike action on separate days – discussed or even suggested. Furthermore, regional strikes will reduce the national impact of our action, while providing no clear advantage in terms of additional disruption or leverage in our negotiations. So why is this proposed?

An email to members from General Secretary Jo Grady states that: “Rolling regional action…will allow our union to extend the action for much longer.” But this argument makes no sense. We are already running out of time to fit as much disruption as possible into the period leading up to the Easter holidays. Ballot mandates expire by May 3, and we will need to address how we deal with that. Furthermore, we are limited by the academic calendar. Extending the action for ‘much longer’ by dividing strikes up by region will reduce the number of strike days members can take within the available time. What is needed is a concentrated period of industrial action, designed to cause the maximum possible disruption in the shortest possible time frame. There are real concerns that what is being proposed is effectively a de-escalation of our disputes, and there is no doubt that is how employers will see the situation. 

Based on communications from the leadership of the union, the only thing this can mean is that regional rolling strikes are intended to reduce pressure on the fighting fund by reducing the number of strike days taken. If this is the case, this is a serious and egregious misunderstanding of how to run industrial action which puts both the USS and Four Fights disputes in jeopardy. We do not announce strike dates based on what is available in the fighting fund – a serious fighting union raises whatever funds are needed to sustain the level of strike action that is necessary to win. 

Lack of Leadership at HEC 

We have had almost two months since the last strike days to decide our next move. So how have we arrived at a situation where members are still waiting to find out what our strategy is? In part, this is because of the failure of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) to provide leadership to the dispute when it met on the 19th January, and the failure of any of the three electoral groupings in UCU to offer a serious way forward.

The Independent Broad Left (IBL) had proposed two motions which called for the dropping of the Four Fights dispute, and for ‘targeting’ strike action solely on those institutions refusing to say some warm words in public on the subject of pay and pensions. These proposals were rightly rejected by the Branch Delegate Meeting, which made it clear that members want to see serious and escalating strike action on both disputes. Thankfully the IBL supporters withdrew their motion prior to HEC. 

UCU Commons, the newest of the three groupings in UCU, declined to put forward any strategy for the dispute. They did however propose a shameful motion which attempted to deny the rights of minority negotiators to discuss their perspectives on the dispute with members. Thankfully this was also not heard, and Commons made no other public contribution to the discussion of strategy. 

The inability/unwillingness of IBL and Commons to put forward a strategy allowed UCU Left (UCUL) an open goal to propose the way forward. However, UCUL was unable to win support for a vague plan which called for three weeks of strikes leading up to the 28th Feb USS deadline, followed by “indefinite” action – which most UCU members would assume meant all-out strike action. We arguably do need to be moving towards announcing all-out indefinite strike action. But we also need to explain to members why this will be necessary, time it correctly, and build support for a ‘total strike’, something which has not yet been done in any organised form. UCUL put forward no proposals on how this could be done. Furthermore, their proposal for an immediate – and extremely short – ballot window in the autumn put us in our current position, hampering our vote turnout and leading to a strike mandate that does not cover the rest of the academic year. This has put us in the difficult position of having to reballot if we want to hold a marking boycott in the summer, which should have been anticipated were UCUL willing to think ahead.

Even worse, during the Branch Delegate Meeting, UCUL supporters confused the situation by explaining that the “indefinite” action specified in the motion did not really mean indefinite action, but simply that strikes should continue intermittently until the disputes are resolved. This is extremely unhelpful at a time when our task is to convince branches and members of the need to consider genuine indefinite action, and to make our proposals clear and understandable.

UCUL comrades will no doubt argue that they cannot be blamed for the fact that HEC voted down their proposal. But this is a misunderstanding of the role of a union broad left. The focus of a genuine grassroots left should be to build support for ideas among the membership, not to win votes at the executive. Had UCUL made a serious attempt to convince members of their strategy over the last few weeks, this could have created sufficient pressure to force HEC to vote in favour of their proposal. But UCUL’s approach is predicated on winning votes at the top of the union, and not at building action from the ground up. This is not genuine left leadership, merely left bureaucratism. 

It is important to remember that very soon all of these groupings will be asking you to vote for their slate of candidates in the NEC elections. But these groupings have failed to provide real leadership in our disputes. Socialist Alternative members will likely be voting for several UCUL candidates, and we encourage members to vote for serious left candidates who are committed to leading our struggles. But we also encourage members to ask candidates what they plan to do about the crisis of lay leadership in UCU, and whether they are prepared to be part of building a serious broad left in the union. We note that there are also independent left candidates standing in these NEC elections, such as Pete Wood and Rhian Keyse, who we work with as part of the Corona Contract campaign. 

The failure of HEC to agree a proposal made it possible for Grady and the officials to push through a plan of action, which was not put to the the Branch Delegate Meeting, never mind scrutinised, and which remains a mystery to members. We urgently need to know what this plan entails and we need to be prepared to swiftly correct the union leadership if it does not involve a viable strategy for victory in our disputes. 

What Now? 

We must know the details of the plan HEC has agreed. Our pay, terms and conditions depend upon it, and it is irresponsible for our elected leadership to keep this information from us. 

If, as we suspect, the plan involves weak and drawn-out rolling regional strikes, it will be necessary for branches and activists to correct these errors and unite around a clear strategy to win. We need a national meeting of branch delegates to discuss the way forward – and we don’t mean a conference where we debate motions written on the back of a fag packet line by line, we mean a genuine participatory debate structured around voting on concrete proposals and dates for action. To this end, Corona Contract has put out an open letter calling for “an urgent meeting of all branches with a strike mandate”.  UCU should begin organising as soon as possible, but if the national leadership is unwilling to do this then we will need to be prepared to argue for our branches to come together independently. We should not rule out the possibility of forming a permanent grassroots strike committee, perhaps with an elected leadership, particularly given the failures of our elected lay representatives.

We note that branches have begun passing motions calling for a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC), and we support those calls as we recognise there may be a need for one to officially amend dispute strategy. Our priority though must be to decide what is to be done and to build support for doing it – if we can create enough pressure on the HEC to implement a sound strategy, we may not need a SHESC.

Socialist Alternative believes that it will require significant struggle to achieve victories in our disputes, but we also note that UCU has developed formidable industrial strength in recent years and that members have shown incredible determination in repeated rounds of strike action. Our perspective is that we need sustained and escalating national strike action to win these disputes, building rapidly towards indefinite strike action (by which we mean striking every single working day, for clarity) and a marking boycott if necessary. Furthermore, we believe that raising the money to sustain the disputes is a political task, one that must be taken just as seriously as the program of strikes we develop. We must not be afraid to acknowledge the need to raise funds, but rather be confident that our members and the wider labour movement will find ways to support us if we show that we are serious about winning. 

We also need to urgently discuss our plans for the expiry of the ballot mandate if we want employers to take us seriously. The threat of a marking boycott means little if they do not believe we are in a position to carry it out. We would need to begin a reballot in spring to retain a continuous mandate. If this happens, UCU nationally needs to dedicate significant resources to organising strong reballots, and should ensure that reballoting coincides with strike activity and is incorporated into the strikes (when we are most able and willing to participate in GTVO) as a top priority. The other option is for the union to consider running its own online reballot to directly challenge the Tory anti-union laws, since the best time to do this is when we are fully mobilised on the picket lines. While employers would undoubtedly contest the legality of this, we should nevertheless acknowledge that at significant moments workers have had to break the law and have won gains nevertheless (such as in the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike in the USA, not permitted under law, where teachers won a 5% pay raise). 

What Socialist Alternative believes should happen is irrelevant however, unless we can convince broader layers of the union of our approach, and this is the same for all tendencies within UCU. That’s why we urgently have to come together to agree on a strategy to navigate the constraints of the anti-union laws and win on both the Four Fights and USS disputes. What is more, rank-and-file UCU members coming together in this way, to discuss our perspectives and decide on the way forward, is necessary not only to save our disputes from disaster, but also to address the crisis of lay leadership in the union, and lay the foundations to build a genuine broad left in our union. 


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