England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

“What the hell is going on?”: UCU members must now mobilise to win!

This is a follow-up article to “What the hell is going on?”: Next steps in the UCU Higher Education dispute  – Published 16 December 2022

By Socialist Alternative members in UCU

On Friday 17 February at 7pm, all UCU members involved in the national Higher Education dispute received an email informing them that strike action had been ‘paused’. Effectively the union leadership told members that strike action scheduled for this week and next week would not be going ahead, and to spend their weekend planning for work they had not been expecting to deliver. 

The reason given for this ‘pause’ was that ostensible progress had been made at ACAS with UCEA, the employers’ association. This ‘progress’ included: 

  • Agreement to hold ‘time limited negotiations’ on casualisation, workload and equality pay gaps 
  • Agreement that UCEA would ‘consult members’ and recommend action on zero-hours contracts
  • Agreement to scrap the lowest point on the pay spine and hold ‘time limited negotiations’ on revising the pay spine.

It was also claimed that progress had been made on USS pensions, though there is a lack of clarity around what this progress is as there is no new offer. Furthermore, the pensions dispute is with the ‘old universities’ of Universities UK, since post-92 universities are not involved in the USS pension dispute. 

On Monday evening, to add to the confusion, UCU members received an impromptu invitation to vote in an e-ballot, where they were asked to vote to support the decision to suspend strike action – a decision which had already been made and could not be reversed! 

No new offer from employers

It’s important to be clear that there is no new offer. There has been no movement on pay since the last offer, which General Secretary Jo Grady described as “insulting” and which members rejected. Even scrapping the lowest point on the pay spine is somewhat misleading, as this is below the living wage and is not used by many universities. And while progress on zero hour contracts, similar to what was offered in 2020, is welcome news, there is nothing binding about a consultation and so far no guarantees on avoiding redundancies. 

Why then is UCU calling off strikes? Particularly after 5 years of bitter disputes, it is clearly  a very bad strategy to pause strike action unless there is at least an offer from the employer serious enough to be worth consulting members on. The official line from UCU HQ is that progress has been made but in reality there is very little evidence to support these claims. Employers were clear in the joint statement (available on Unison website but not on UCU website) that pay is at an impasse and they would not move on this. 

It is interesting to compare UCU’s suspension of strikes with the action of other public sector unions. The NEU and RMT for example recently rejected ‘offers’ from employers on the perfectly correct grounds that they were too meagre to be worth considering.

Keeping pay in line with inflation is particularly important. Anything less means members will see a real-terms permanent pay cut. With the current offer, members will lose at minimum an additional 5% of the value of their pay (given inflation of >10%) year upon year, after decades of below-inflation pay rises. Furthermore, employers have refused to negotiate over 2022-23, and are making offers for the 2023-24 claim, ignoring any future economic turmoil. In contrast, meaningful pay raises are not impossible: contrast private sector increases, with a high of 11.5% in March 2022, or the recent wins from London bus drivers (18%) and Luton airport workers (28.5%) in Unite. 

Attack on lay democracy 

For a dispute to go to ACAS, either the employer side or the union side needs to request this. But it is not clear who requested ACAS talks, or why. What is clear though, is that elected lay negotiators (negotiators elected from the rank and file membership) were shut out of the process. They were not told why the ACAS talks were happening or who had requested them. We can only assume that this was because they would not have agreed to suspend strike action without a clear offer. 

This is a direct attack on lay democracy in the union and the idea that members should be able to exercise some degree of influence and control over disputes. The only two elected representatives from UCU in these negotiations were General Secretary Jo Grady and President Elect Justine Mercer. No other elected representative was involved in the discussions or in the decision to suspend strike action. 


‘Pausing’ strike action can only be understood as a de-mobilisation. And this is not the first de-mobilisation that we have had in the course of these disputes. Prior to December, the union had real momentum. We had held an effective ballot campaign resulting in an unprecedentedly large mandate. The initial days of strike action were extremely well supported, with members’ confidence raised by the fact we were taking strike action alongside other unions. The HEC had resolved to begin a marking and assessment boycott in January and to move towards indefinite strike action from February onwards, although, significantly, this decision was not communicated to members and branches, which paved the way for Grady to undermine it. 

In December, Jo Grady came out publicly to attack the idea of indefinite strike action and to argue for limited strike action building towards a reballot. We covered this period in our recent article What the hell is going on?, but it is enough to say here that the marking boycott and the indefinite strike action was called off. At a time when you would expect a General Secretary to be building support for the action the elected leadership had decided on, instead Grady came out against the plans, argued to withdraw action, and the union was plunged into confusion. 

Now, Grady and Mercer have de-mobilised the union further by withdrawing seven planned strike days, despite the fact that the employers are refusing to move on pay. Clearly, the employers are unlikely to feel under any pressure to negotiate when sections of the union leadership are so desperate to withdraw action at every possible opportunity. It is now highly likely that universities will be able to claim that Learning Objectives (legal obligations) have been met for their students. Several UCU representatives report that local HR departments are asking them “why on earth would you call off action now?”. 

This is not 2018 

Understandably, many activists in UCU have been quick to draw parallels with former General Secretary Sally Hunt’s handling of the USS pension dispute, who twice attempted to push members to accept a bad deal, the second time successfully. But this is not the same situation and we need to be aware of that. Sally Hunt wanted members to swallow a bad deal – Jo Grady does not have a bad deal she can put to the members. In 2018, the task was to mobilise to reject the offers, but now, our role is to find a way to resuscitate the dispute itself. 

Grady does not want to put a deal to members – at least not right now. What the General Secretary wants to do is abandon the current strategy of significant strike action and disruption, and return to her favoured plan of reballoting, winning a new mandate, and initiating a marking and assessment boycott in the spring. This is despite the fact that this strategy has been repeatedly rejected by HEC, branches and members. The idea behind this is that refusing to mark would prevent students from graduating. 

The plan is not without its risks, not least because repeatedly calling off action means that it will be a huge uphill struggle for local branches and activists to get the vote out to beat the Tory anti-union thresholds all over again. It’s also unlikely that the employers will see the boycott as a credible threat, given that UCU has called off the last two marking boycotts in Spring 2022 and Jan 2023. Finally, UCU has not run a marking and assessment boycott nationally since 2006. Given changes in assessment, the boycott should have been launched in January this year to test out the tactic.

The fact is we know little about employers’ ability to mitigate marking and assessment boycotts. It seems, then, that the General Secretary is deliberately torpedoing the possibility of significant strike action in the hope that this ‘silver bullet’ boycott strategy will lead to a better deal.

What is most dangerous is the fact that Grady sees Higher Education workers’ struggle as something she can simply turn on and off, like a tap. Nothing could be further from the truth. Powerful industrial action is driven by activists and members on the ground – if all these workers are demoralised and demobilised, there is a real danger that disputes could fizzle out, giving employers a chance to win, simply by waiting out the union. We cannot allow this to happen!

What Is To Be Done? 

HEC meets today (Friday 24 Feb) and could well resolve to call further strike action using the existing mandate, although it is possible that Grady and Mercer have promised the employer that we will not do so during the ‘pause’ – this is currently unclear. Regardless, HEC definitely should call more action – we desperately need to show the employers that we are not de-mobilising and that members are determined to win these disputes despite our union leadership. In particular, additional nationwide strike action should be called on 15 March so that UCU members can join the NEU, PCS and others going out on Budget Day. But simply calling more action is not going to be enough on its own. 

We need a national meeting of branch representatives to discuss the way forward. Despite the fact that a Branch Delegates Meeting should be taking place before HEC, UCU has simply avoided having one. If the official structures of the union will not allow branch representatives to meet, this will need to be organised outside of the official structures. This week, an unofficial Branch Delegate Meeting was held, with 70 branch representatives in attendance, and this is a good initiative to build on. A national meeting of reps could discuss a strategy to reboot the disputes and restore the sense of ownership members feel over our industrial action that has been taken away. In addition, there is a motion going through branches to call a Special Higher Education Sector Conference to formally debate and make decisions on the way forward. UCU members in Socialist Alternative support these moves.  

Core to any strategy needs to be a realistic assessment of our ability to disrupt learning outcomes and threaten student progression. It is not at all certain that a marking boycott alone will deliver this, especially where management has been able to anticipate it. We also need to develop our strategies regarding the non-teaching members of our union and the leverage they can exert during industrial action. Key to all this is ensuring that all members remain engaged, feel empowered and have input into the disputes, rather than being stood down at short notice to enact a plan that is not working. 

Also key is to make meaningful and lasting alliances with our students – our fights are linked together and are rooted in the struggle against the deeply damaging marketisation of Higher Education. The recent rent strikes at universities around the country have been inspirational and have spurred us on. Importantly, the students taking part have clearly linked to the UCU disputes and included our demands along with their own.

We are in real danger of suffering yet more defeat and demoralisation. If this is to be avoided and serious gains are to be made in these disputes, lay representatives and members must assert themselves and reject the attempt by the General Secretary to exercise veto power over our struggles and democratic demands we make. 



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