In the wake of strike cancellations by UCU union leadership, UCU activist Goretti Horgan warns of an impending sellout and argues that workers need to keep the pressure on to ensure that the union bureaucracy does not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The University and College Union (UCU) started 18 days of strike on the 1st of February with huge turnouts and picket lines across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was a real feeling of strength and optimism that we could win our “Four Fights”: deal with workloads, end casualisation, get a decent pay rise and an end to discriminatory pay practices after a decade of real cuts to wages.
In addition, UCU members at some universities (including Queen’s and Ulster) are also fighting to reverse cuts of up to 50 per cent in their pension rights.
A Compromise Strategy
The 18 strike days had been a compromise. Last autumn many branches had passed motions calling for indefinite strike and UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) had voted for indefinite strike action at the earliest opportunity and a marking and assessment boycott to be launched in January. This escalating action, driven by the members, was to replace the strategy of odd strike days here and there, which has been ongoing since 2018.
This compromise arose because the General Secretary, Jo Grady, and her supporters had originally not planned any industrial action during the academic year 2022/23.
So when the General Secretary (GS) announced, on 9th February, that the dispute was going to the arbitration service ACAS, along with the other four unions in dispute with the universities, there was huge concern on the picket lines about what deal would emerge.
From A Pause…
The fear that the dispute would be sold out was palpable and proved to have been justified when, on the Friday night of the second week the momentum built up in the first two weeks of the strike was demolished. General Secretary, Jo Grady emailed members to announce a ‘pause’ of the strike to “allow a period of calm” while negotiations continued at ACAS.
The email, which arrived after 6pm on the Friday night, threw staff and students into disarray. Did we have to spend the weekend preparing classes for the coming week? Students who had taken on work for the strike days, who had no childcare organised because of the strikes were distraught, while staff who commute long distances found themselves unable to get cheaper train or air fares.
It would be hard to exaggerate the shock and anger at the move, which was done without any involvement of the democratic structures of the union. Anger at the undemocratic announcement was increased when it became clear that the strike had been ‘paused’ without any clear commitments to deal with the Four Fights or the pension cuts.
…To An Imposition
Worse, this information was gleaned not from UCU structures but from Unison members in higher education who were able to tell us that the pay element was being imposed by the employer and that we would get no more than 5-8% over the two years 2022-24. This at a time when inflation is still well over 10% for basic goods.
We appear to be moving closer to securing our pension rights, an issue we have been fighting on for eight years now. But that is mainly because of the work of our elected negotiators and pension experts who are members of the union, not because of the ACAS negotiations. And here the employers’ body have only committed to consulting their members.
Why Are The Strikes Being Paused?
The GS’ announcement to pause strikes can be difficult to understand, especially as in similar circumstances, when the previous general secretary in 2018 tried a pause in strikes to allow for ACAS negotiations, Jo Grady was among the most vocal condemning the move.
The answer to this volte face lies in the nature of the trade union bureaucracy. Union bureaucrats may initially come from the rank and file membership but they move into an intermediary position between union members and employers. They are not subject to the pressure of line managers and often considerably better paid than the members they represent. Further the logic of their job is to compromise with employers’ representatives; in this regard strikes are often seen as a barrier to a negotiated settlement.
This is why socialists have argued for Fighting Unions, where rank and file members are part of the negotiating teams. In UCU we have democratically elected national negotiators; however, as the talks at ACAS started the GS side-lined those negotiators and kept them out of the talks.
The lack of any concrete proposals from the employers, the imposition of a pay deal that was rejected overwhelmingly by members a week earlier and the GS’ actions all point towards preparing the ground for a sell-out of our dispute.
The Gen Sec has now put all our eggs into a re-ballot which is necessary in England, Scotland and Wales, if we are to have a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) at the end of this semester. The problem is that it’s really hard work ensuring that enough people vote in the postal ballot to ensure a 50%+ turnout. After all, the 2019 local elections in England had a turnout of just 35.9%; elections to the European Parliament just 37% turnout.
There is a real danger that some members will ask what the point is of voting when the rug can be pulled from under them without consultation as it has been by the ‘pause’ in strikes. Activists will do their best but demoralisation is a real danger.
There Is Light
A good number of university branches have tried to retrieve the momentum by arguing for the seven days of cancelled strikes to be added to the end of the strikes due in March. Ulster University was one of those branches where, of 39 members voting, 35 voted to send a strong motion to the Higher Education Committee (HEC) of the NEC, which met on 24th February.
The Branch resolved to: demand that all elected negotiators are given the opportunity to be fully involved in all negotiations, call on HEC to reinstate the seven days of strike action lost and on the General Secretary to evidence how the pause was decided upon, and within which rules. It also sought to extend the Fighting Fund to cover 20 days support and expressed its support for a national response to threats of pay deductions because of the ongoing Action Short of Strike (work to rule).
The HEC meeting on 24th February voted to add one day of strike – on 15th March when the Tory Chancellor will deliver his Spring Budget statement and other public sector unions will also strike, including London Tube drivers, civil servants, teachers and junior doctors.
We are now waiting to see if the Gen Sec will carry out the democratic decision of the HEC. Before the pause in the action, the strike was solid and the employer was starting to weaken. We need to push now to ensure the union bureaucracy does not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.