England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UCU: Rebuilding the Higher Education disputes

By Sam Morecroft, Socialist Alternative South Yorkshire

UCU members in universities have been involved in two long-running disputes – one on pay and conditions, and one to restore USS pension benefits. This has seen sporadic, limited strike action since December 2022 alongside frequent strategy U-turns and mistakes, despite an unprecedented national mandate with strong ballot turnouts.

End of the MAB 

In August, UCU members in universities voted to end the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) that had been in place since May, without an improved offer from the employer. This was not because of a lack of fight from members – when the results of the vote were broken down, 60% of UCU members participating in the MAB voted to continue the action. 

Even in July when the Higher Education executive (where there is a narrow right wing majority) voted to ask employers to negotiate an end to the MAB, effectively signalling a desire to give up, members continued to strongly support the boycott. It has been an effective and disruptive tactic, albeit at a significant cost to members in the form of retaliation and punitive pay deductions. Tens of thousands of students have graduated without degree classifications or full results and huge quantities of student work has still not been marked. 

However, members have been left with little choice over ending the MAB, because the mandate UCU won in April expires on 30 September, and the national union has failed to hold a ballot to extend the mandate. Under the Tories’ vicious anti-union laws, we cannot legally take any further action after this date. 

Failure to ballot

Members and branches were aware that if the mandate was not extended, employers could simply wait out the action. In May, at UCU’s annual Congress, delegates voted overwhelmingly to reballot over the summer in both disputes. This ballot should have begun in July or August, and finished in mid-September to prevent a gap in our mandate. 

The ballot never happened, and to date no official explanation for this has been provided. Ensuring the ballot took place was the responsibility of UCU General Secretary Jo Grady and the other national officers of the union, and the failure to do so is arguably the most serious and damaging betrayal perpetrated by the leadership of UCU against members over the course of the General Secretary’s 5 year tenure. As a direct result, there have been further votes of no confidence in Grady’s leadership in many branches including Ulster, Durham, Newcastle and Glasgow. This is in addition to the no confidence vote that Grady narrowly survived at Congress this year. Socialist Alternative supports these calls, but stresses they must be linked to building the rank and file leadership we need.

A new ballot has now launched on 20 September, and will run until 3 November. This means the earliest we can take protected action would be mid to late November. This ballot is only for the pay and conditions dispute however; there is no ballot on the pensions dispute, despite Congress instructing that this should be the case. The General Secretary claimed back in March this year that we had won full restoration of pension benefits, but in fact employers have not yet confirmed that they will do this, and could be emboldened to backtrack on their commitments by the fact we are not dispute ready. 

Upcoming strikes 

A full week of strike action in universities is scheduled beginning Monday 25 September. This was originally intended to supplement the MAB, and to show employers that industrial action will continue into the next academic year. But without the MAB, and without a mandate for further action, many members now feel confused about the purpose of the strikes. 

The situation has been made even worse by the Higher Education executive. Less than two weeks before the strikes were due to take place, the right wing majority passed a motion giving branches the option of simply opting out of the strikes. No guidance or criteria for why they would do this has been provided. Even worse, the national union appears to be actively encouraging branches to pull out of the strike.

Despite all of this, many branches decided to go ahead with strike action, including Oxford, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Scottish universities, as well as Sheffield, Liverpool John Moores and others, have already been taking strike action against punitive deductions from the MAB and will continue to do so. The contrast between the willingness of branches and members to fight, and the capitulation of UCU leadership, could not be more stark. In a bizarre and shameful turn of events, despite Newcastle UCU resolving to go ahead with strikes, the national union has ‘accidentally’ withdrawn their formal notification of strike action. We send particular solidarity to Newcastle UCU and hope they have the confidence to strike regardless as planned. 

The reality is branches should not call off strike action – at least not without securing concessions locally from employers. For example, at King’s College London the employer has offered a local paylift. At Durham and Aberdeen improvements to contracts for casualised staff have been secured, which provides some justification for pulling action. But we need to make sure employers understand that the union leadership does not speak for us, and that unless an improved offer on pay and conditions is made then industrial action and disruption will continue. We cannot call off action without any concessions from the employer. Joint student-staff solidarity can be crucial here. Protests, occupations and meetings can show university bosses that they have not won and that we will not go away, and boost the confidence of workers and students to struggle.

But these five days of action alone are not going to force much in the way of concessions from the employer. The question is: how can we use them to rebuild and remobilise the disputes?

Where do we go from here? 

UCU members have been, once again, placed in an impossible predicament when the GS and executive undermined the democratic mandate. This has had a disastrous impact on the confidence of UCU members. We urgently need to begin rebuilding these disputes. Member ownership and control of these disputes is essential. 

Our union has fallen into a bizarre routine. For the last two years, we have won ballots ending in November, and taken a few days of tokenistic action. Since many university terms end in late November and early December, scope for disruption is extremely limited. We cannot let this happen again this year. 

We should therefore be consciously building towards indefinite action starting from January, perhaps even combined with a new MAB for winter assessments. We have to show employers that this time we will use our mandate to seriously disrupt the sector, instead of piecemeal action.

We could have done this at the start of this year – in fact this was the plan! General Secretary Jo Grady came out publicly last December to attack the strategy agreed by the executive for indefinite strike action in the Spring semester, and impose her strategy of limited action combined with the summer MAB. 

There is a view developing among some activists that it is pointless to continue trying to win these disputes under this General Secretary, backed by her supporters on the executive, and that we should focus on electing an alternative leadership. This is understandable given the betrayals we have been subjected to. But the reality is that if we simply abandon the disputes, this will further demobilise and demoralise members. It is essential that we link the tasks of rebuilding the dispute, developing a democratic fighting leadership and winning national elections. A demoralised and demobilised membership could open the door to Grady and the right wing being re-elected on a low turnout. Furthermore, we will not win any victories with a ‘better’ leadership without a mobilised membership organised to fight. 

Branch reps and activists should use these strike days to have serious discussions about the mistakes that have been made over the last year. They should also be used to plan how we can win a new mandate for action, in spite of the confusion and despondency generated by the failures of the union leadership. We have to be clear that it will not be easy to win this ballot given the repeated failures, and reps and activists must be honest with the broader membership. We must also argue that this is why branches and members must set the strategy of the union – not passively through bureaucratic ‘consultation’ but by forming cross-branch rank and file industrial action committees where tactics are shared and proposals are debated and agreed. We cannot passively wait for decisions to be handed down from UCU HQ – a dynamic which has repeatedly undermined the disputes. Nor should we rely on internal union procedures which the GS has proved fully capable of bypassing. Without organising from below to force through the necessary strategy, Congress decisions and democratic processes in our union will continue to be ignored.

It will also be necessary to develop a united approach to elections between the existing left electoral grouping in the union, UCU Left, and the much wider left and rank and file sections of the union. If we see left candidates standing against each other, as we have in the past, this could allow the right wing to maintain control over the union machinery. We need a unified approach on a clear political program to ensure we kick out the failed right wing leadership and this failed General Secretary, and should consider a national rank and file conference to develop a way forward. 

Socialist Alternative believe that clear commitments, such as taking the average UCU member’s wage instead of the GS’s 6-figure salary, and support for a recall process so that a General Secretary who loses the confidence of members can be forced to face an early election, can help to demonstrate the leadership that we need to demoralised UCU members. Elected leadership must be totally accountable to members, and demonstrate a clear program to win our disputes across post-16 education. This must be the focus of our campaigning.

  • No backing down! Strikes stay on unless bosses offer concessions
  • Build a strategy to win ballots and disputes 
  • For a united left and rank and file union leadership 
  • For worker control of our disputes and our union

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