The UCU #FourFights consultation ballot produced a resounding rejection of the employers ‘offer’ with members voting by 60:40 percent to not settle the 2019 pay negotiations. This is a clear rejection of the employers’ attempts to impose a sub-inflationary pay settlement on those with permanent contracts, whilst refusing to address the issues of casualisation for those not covered by national pay bargaining.
The offer failed to address excessive workloads or the discrimination facing women and, disabled, and BAME members specifically: in reality all those with protected characteristics.
Members clearly understood the divide and rule approach by employers weakened the collective workforce and understood the reality behind the slogan ‘United we stand: Divided we fall’. What is equally important in this vote is that in July, a period of maximum holiday activity, 30 percent of members in HE took time to vote.
This result was achieved despite confusing messages from the centre, and with a turn out 50 percent higher than elected the General Secretary a year before. And, most importantly, at a time when employers are using the Covid-19 crisis to engage in mass redundancies, members understood that their vote was a clear rejection that we should be paying for the crisis of marketisation that Covid-19 has exposed.
What of the response to this vote from the leadership in our union and where do we go from here? Surely, they too are celebrating members’ resilience and commitment to equality? It seems that the opposite is true. They are leading a campaign to argue that the 22 days of action achieved nothing, strikes do not work, and patronisingly, that members’ stupidity and ignorance meant they did not know what they were voting for. The General secretary wrote to members recently claiming that:
“We have to be honest with ourselves that despite our best efforts, 22 days of strike action didn’t produce the results members want or deserve. If we fail to be honest about this, we risk making the same mistakes again, and we cannot afford to do that.” (GS email to members Mon 03/08/2020 11:07).
This belies the commitment of members who voted to take industrial action, organised and stood on picket lines in fair weather and foul, and ignores the casualised workers who, in their thousands, joined UCU in our fight for fair working conditions. It is puzzling to think that the leadership of UCU appear to believe that members took 22 days of strike action on a whim and didn’t really care about equality.
In addition to insulting those who voted and struck, the GS now appears to be making completely the wrong conclusions about strategy. Now calling for aggregated ballots – apparently as a matter of principle. As MICHAEL4HEC pointed out on his blog, had aggregated voting been in place, the #FourFights strike would never have taken place !! So what is being said here?
Jo Grady, won the election for General Secretary on the basis that she could lead a more militant, member-led, activist union to more victories, like that of USS in 2018 when we defeated attempts to close a defined benefit pension scheme. Yet 24 months later we have seen the new UCU leadership in the NEC act in just the same undemocratic way as before, with the union officials seeking to undermine members’ calls for action.
Jo Grady leads a previously secret – but now open – faction which votes in block with the traditional right in the union to stop action. I believe factions in our union are important. They represent the voices of our membership and enhance democracy within our union. However they should be open and transparent. They should make their positions clear and be willing to be held to account.
The real weakness of the faction of NEC members around Jo Grady lay with the belief that ‘expertise’ in negotiation was sufficient to get employers to see common sense. If only ‘correct’ arguments were put to the employers they would change their collective view and unite with UCU to the interest of the sector as a whole. After all we’re all in it together, aren’t we? This naivety therefore led them to see industrial action only as a means to demonstrate to employers that members were willing to disrupt universities to ensure negotiations took place, but not to continue this disruption through militant ASOS and exam boycotts.
It is no surprise then that once employers began to negotiate, the role of industrial action had served its purpose, and indeed could undermine the reasonable negotiation taking place in closed rooms. Unsurprisingly, once the pressure from industrial action was taken off, so too was the employers willingness to commit to changes they had been discussing for months.
Unfortunately, this naivety still permeates UCU’s view of the Covid-19 crisis. Jo Grady NEC supporters think further strikes are ineffective and the union’s emphasis should be in maximising the numbers of jobs that can be saved in an environment where job losses are – unless there are dramatic changes to structures and finance – inevitable. We have seen this in negotiations with employers at local level, at times without the support of elected branch executive representatives.
We have a democratic deficit contributing to the domino effect of attacks, branch-by-branch, on our members, as employers are emboldened by our lack of collective national action. It is clear to me that we need a UK wide strategy of action rather than leaving branches to fight alone, often without the facilities time and supported resources to do this.
We are being asked to sign up to a ‘Jobs First’ approach to bargaining with employers, to be implemented locally. A consequence of this approach will be to accept that inevitably, some jobs will have to be sacrificed while cuts to pay and conditions for all that remain will also be unavoidable. The question remains: who agreed this approach? How is this to be achieved? Some answer: ‘By not smiling on open days (sic); – according to the Jo Grady candidate in the Vice President election whose election team includes current NEC members. If we were to decline to attend open days at all as part of an escalated ASOS – might that be more effective? What is the consequence of the ‘Jobs First’ approach on equality and members’ pay and conditions?
One should recall the Labour Party 1929 poster ‘Equality of Sacrifice’. The only difference, in the UK in the 21st Century, is that the white-male worker on the bottom rung of the ladder about to drown is now also a woman, a BAME member of staff, a disabled member, casualised worker and all the others with protected characteristics, who often collide in the intersectionality of discrimination.
A similar argument is made about the ballots that won the vote and initiated the strike action. As mentioned above, the union’s leadership have called for an aggregated ballot rather than disaggregated ballots, apparently on principle. Yet they have not explained how getting a ‘thereabouts’ 50% turnout would have allowed strike action last time around when the anti-union laws require a minimum 50% turnout. There’s nothing ‘thereabouts’ about it, there would have been no industrial action to defend members’ pay, oppose rising workloads, address pay inequalities or call for an end to casualisation.
Disaggregated ballots should not be a principle but a necessary tactic to ensure our demands are raised to the highest level of the sector and our union can bring real pressure on employers in negotiations. That is exactly what 22 days of strike action has achieved. Employers know they are having to address race and gender discrimination, they know they have to address workloads and casualisation. We have yet to win these changes, but it would be wrong to give up on the pressures which have put these issues on the bargaining table for the first time ever.
As one of the #FourFights negotiators who met employers’ representatives last July through to March this year, I can attest – as will the negotiating team – that we did make progress in our negotiations as a result of the strike action. Covid has exposed and crystallised the weaknesses of the marketisation of higher education. It has provided an x-ray into the inequality and dysfunction of our society, and shown that the priority of our employers is the face-to-face, potentially life-threatening, return to campus working – at any cost?
As a candidate for the Vice President of UCU I commit to standing with members. I commit to campaign for a strategy and tactics where all methods of pressure can be applied. We need action to ensure we win against employers’ attempts to make us pay for their crisis, and above all reject the notion that we are all in this together with our employers. Higher Education is just as divided as many other aspects of our class ridden society, and we should organise in recognition of this power imbalance that exists.
We have something that the employer needs, and they cannot deliver without us – our labour, our teaching, our research, our goodwill, our commitment to our colleagues and our students.
That is where our power lies. We should use it.