By Socialist Alternative members in UCU
UCU members in Higher Education have once again smashed the Tory anti-union laws in both the pay and conditions and USS pension disputes re-ballots. Members have won big majorities for further action, with an 86% vote for action on a turnout of 56% on pay and conditions and an 89% vote for strike action on a turnout of 58% on USS.
This is a fantastic effort from UCU members, and is all the more impressive when we consider the behaviour of UCU General Secretary Jo Grady and the union bureaucracy over the last six weeks. Our elected lay negotiators have been shut out of negotiations, while strike action was called off unilaterally by Grady and UCU President Elect Justine Mercer. The General Secretary falsely claimed we have ended zero-hours contracts and won back pension benefits.
We have been urged to vote in repeated e-ballots with leading questions designed to pressure our elected lay leadership into sanctioning the demobilisation of our disputes. We have been told by officials operating under the direction of the General Secretary that there is simply no point in trying to take more action. Most recently, this has taken the form of a ‘consultation’ to ‘note’ or reject employer ‘proposals’ which has eclipsed preparations for necessary next steps in winning our demands. It is not an exaggeration to say that the General Secretary has done everything possible to shut down action, in her attempt to sell us out in exchange for non-binding promises on pension restoration.
The Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) – a potentially powerful industrial weapon – has been notified this week and will begin on 20 April. It is imperative that we make every effort to ensure this happens. While we have just won a new six month mandate for action, this will expire at the start of the next academic year, so we have a limited window in which we can use this effectively. We need to back this boycott up with strike action, and where employers threaten 100% pay deductions for breach of contract, we need to be ready to escalate to all-out indefinite action.
No more undermining of our dispute
However, we must anticipate that efforts to undermine our dispute will continue. There is a real danger that the marking and assessment boycott will be withdrawn, and the union demobilised even further. The day after strike ballot results were announced, further e-consultations opened on the employer’s ‘proposals.’ These are not offers from the employers as such, and they represent very little in the way of binding commitments, especially on the Four Fights pay dispute.
For more information you can find the latest joint statement between UCU and UUK on the USS dispute here, which outlines a joint agreement to restoring scheme benefits “if sustainable”. The proposal from UCEA here, simply offers further talks until February 2024 on the condition that we take no further action and accept huge pay cuts across 2022-24.
These proposals are so far away from being ‘offers’ that HEC has ruled that voting to ‘accept’ them should not even be an option in the e-consultation. Clearly they cannot ignore that this offers us nothing to ‘accept’ against the terms of reference of our dispute. Members will be given the option of voting to ‘note’ these proposals or reject them, with HEC recommending to ‘NOTE’ on USS and ‘REJECT’ on the Four Fights.
This process has deliberately been made overwhelming for members, with negotiators’ recommendations buried and presented alongside Mercer’s ‘minority report’. It is also worth comparing the wording of this email:
which suggests that recommendations are from “the Higher Education Committee,” with the wording of the previous vote on the (essentially unchanged) employer ‘offer’:
Notably, when a reject vote was pushed by Grady and Mercer, the recommendation was headlined and reinforced (“UCU: Have your say, reject the employer’s offer”; “I support UCU’s position to reject”). Now that they are looking to call off action, the reject option is no longer a recommendation of “Your Union.”
The Higher Education Committee (HEC) agreed to these consultations under considerable pressure from the General Secretary, the President Elect and UCU Officials. We believe this was a mistake, particularly at a time when we have just won renewed mandates for action and have a fresh opportunity to win improvements on these as proposals. The consultations have provided bureaucratic routes to potentially calling off our Marking and Assessment Boycott and seriously undermined and confused our ballot results, which delivered enormous mandates on both disputes.
Socialist Alternative members are calling for a vote to REJECT on both counts, and for members and branches to put as much pressure as possible on the union machinery to follow through with the MAB. Below we outline our reasons for this.
Pay and conditions
On pay and conditions, we face a clear-cut choice to reject. Firstly, on pay, employers have not moved from the 5-8% offer that Grady called a “devastating real terms pay cut” just weeks ago and which at the time members voted to reject. It is not clear if we will even be consulted on this aspect of the claim.
On casualisation, the proposed terms of reference from the employers bear no resemblance to our demands. There is no commitment from employers to end zero-hours contracts, as has been widely (and falsely) proclaimed. Instead, these are nebulous promises which boil down to local negotiations in individual institutions.
Negotiators have pointed out that this is a step backward from the 2020 proposal from employers, with fewer concrete commitments. Even an end to zero-hours contracts (which employers have not promised) would not address the predominant forms of casualisation in HE, where true zero-hours contracts are rare, and instead many staff are offered inadequate minimum-hours contracts or fixed-term contracts.
Casualised staff have begun circulating an open letter with a detailed analysis of the failures of this proposal. Most saliently, the proposal would require us to stand down industrial action during the 11 months of closed negotiations. This is an unacceptable sacrifice of our bargaining power and our ability to pressure employers, particularly when the proposal itself is so shoddy that casualised members stand to gain next to nothing in return.
On USS, the situation is less clear than in the pay and conditions dispute, where the offer is far short of anything we could possibly accept. There is good news in the sense that UUK have agreed to “prioritise the improvement of benefits to pre-April 2022 levels, where this can be done in a demonstrably sustainable manner”. However, this is not the same as a concrete written guarantee to restore benefits. Even if this materialises, benefits would not be restored until April 2024.
While this is positive, we cannot end the USS dispute. Doing so would mean we no longer have leverage and would allow the employers to renege on restoration of benefits. This is why we are being asked to ‘note’ rather than to accept the proposals. The result of a ‘note’ vote would be that the notice of the MAB would be withdrawn in respect of the USS dispute.
However, given the limitations in the latest UUK agreement – notably that benefit restoration is contingent on employer’s and USS interpretation of the “if sustainable” clause in the joint statement, and to simply “explore the option” of backdating benefits to April 2022 – we believe there are precise gains to be made in the short term, and on the back of the 31 March 2023 valuation data.
The role of Marxists in industrial disputes is also to develop serious perspectives for workplace struggle and consider the wider implications of taking action. If this USS dispute were taking place in isolation, we might argue to hold off action.
However, the USS dispute is not taking place in isolation. It is happening in the context of a concerted attempt by the union leadership to confuse members and demobilise the union. It is not true that “we have won our pensions back” as the UCU twitter account declared a few weeks ago. We must be aware that we can no longer trust information from any part of the union machinery controlled by the General Secretary.
In this context there is a real danger that a vote to ‘note’ progress might be used to pull the MAB on pay and conditions as well. Since almost all branches involved in the USS dispute are also on strike over pay and conditions, there is little to be gained by withdrawing the threat of action on USS.
We are therefore in a situation where we cannot trust the union leadership enough to allow a ‘note’ vote and need to send the strongest possible message to the employers that their proposals are not good enough and that they must offer more or face significant industrial action. We also should not believe Grady and Mercer’s scare mongering that rejecting the current proposal will lead to it being withdrawn.
In this context the results of the USS ballot, with strong turnout and a 91.6% “yes” vote to action short of a strike (which would include MAB) reinforce the point that members are willing to continue the pressure on employers.
Build the MAB, build a fighting grassroots left
We must reject the idea that struggle can be postponed yet again until the next academic year. This means moving forward with the MAB, as 82% of UCU branches voted to do at the recent Branch Delegate Meeting. We must also prepare to use strike action alongside this.
This will not be easy – we have not carried out a national MAB since 2006. However, individual branches did carry out MABs last year, after the national union abandoned our disputes. Many of these were successful, winning significant local concessions on pay and conditions as well as agreements with individual universities to adopt a more conciliatory approach on USS pensions.
We need to harness the experience of branches such as Liverpool, Sheffield, Goldsmiths and Heriot-Watt to give us the best chance of success. Resources have been produced by these branches which should be shared as part of local branch training, along with visits from experienced activists where possible. We cannot rely on the official structures of the union to build this action. It will fall to the branches and activists that have got us to this point to deliver.
It is the absence of a strong grassroots left with a clear perspective and program for our union that has allowed the bureaucracy to ride roughshod over lay democratic structures. Alongside building the action, we need to continue to develop grassroots organising, building real networks of solidarity between branches in the absence of genuine regional and national structures. We need to use these networks to prepare for the upcoming battles at Congress and the special HE sector conference over the future of the disputes and the way forward for our union.
We also need to build strong ‘Reject’ campaigns in the branches and link these up to challenge the attempts of the union leadership to derail our action and bury our disputes. Members are more engaged than at any time since the USS pensions strikes in 2018. We have delivered back-to-back national strike mandates, busting through the 50% voting threshold. Now is the time to push forward and achieve real change for our sector.
Reject the proposals! Escalate to win!