On 6 September, UCU began balloting UK University branches on pay, equality, workload and casualisation. This could mean the largest university strike in history, building on action in recent years. Eligible branches will also be balloted on reversing cuts to USS pensions.
A new campaign has been launched, UCU Rising, with mass online meetings for reps and members. This is a welcome change from a few months ago, when General Secretary Jo Grady argued we should put off strike action in Higher Education and focus purely on recruiting.
Higher Education workers left with no choice
The developing strike wave has shaken things up. Rising inflation also leaves us no choice. Along with other campus unions, UCU is demanding a pay increase of RPI plus 2%. Miserly university bosses instead imposed a 3% pay increase, despite the HE sector’s wealth. The sector had reserves of £46.9 billion as recently as 2020. In real terms, university workers’ pay has fallen 25% since 2009 – one of the worst reductions in pay in any sector since WW2.
Getting above the 50% threshold required by Tory anti-union laws will not be automatic. Even in the 2018 USS dispute, turnout nationally was less than 60% and subsequent turnouts have been lower. Having taken action recently, members are frustrated by the union’s failure to effectively and strategically utilise strike mandates. Workers’ struggle cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Furthermore, unlike recent ballots, this ballot is aggregated. If we do not reach 50% nationally we cannot legally strike. Losing the vote at this critical juncture could have lasting consequences.
Winning will depend on rank and file efforts to get the vote out. While the activities the union has run can be helpful, it is reps and members that have campaigning experience who can get us over the line.
Preparing for the fight
We also know we cannot rely on the current leadership to plan action as it has been suggested that a strong ballot result might produce a win without striking. Employers may well gamble that the union will not follow through on threats of significant action. We need to prepare members for serious struggle, and coordinate rank and file discussions and planning on a successful national strike strategy, particularly given UCU’s record of capitulation during disputes. We can start by agreeing on optimal dates for hard hitting strike action across the UK HE academic calendars.
UCU has not shown any signs of pausing disputes following the Queen’s death, and strike action was set to begin as planned in 26 FE colleges from 26 September. Jo Grady reported that she argued against delaying TUC Congress; an entirely correct position.
The leadership’s current shift gives us a huge opportunity to struggle alongside other workers on the key question of pay, terms and conditions and to win real victories. However, the situation is fluid and can change dramatically. Union members and activists must have democratic control of our disputes and be sufficiently organised to direct strike strategy. We must take nothing for granted.