The protracted dispute in Northern Ireland’s higher education sector is at a crucial juncture. With UCU union members’ industrial action applying significant pressure on the sector’s employers, the union leadership (again) appear to be manoeuvering to settle the dispute without any significant concessions. Goretti Horgan analyses the current state of the dispute and crucially what union members can do over the coming months.
It has seemed to many rank and file University and Colleges Union (UCU) members that the current General Secretary is determined to pull defeat from the jaws of victory in our “Four Fights” on pensions, pay (including gender, race and disability gaps), workloads and casualisation. Her recent actions have only reinforced that feeling.
In May, the union’s annual Congress voted for a reballot of members to extend the strike mandate, necessary under the Tory anti-union laws, though not required in Northern Ireland.
But when the Higher Education Committee (HEC) of the NEC met on 17th August, they were told that no work had been undertaken to ensure the Congress decision was implemented. Further, the HEC was told that the reballot would take five weeks to prepare, which was a shock. If this is true – and it has not been confirmed formally – then this will open up a large gap in the mandates available to UCU members in England and Wales, weakening the struggle overall.
In nearly 70 universities there is an unsettled dispute over cuts to the USS pension rights. Unfortunately, this pension’s dispute was taken out of the reballot motion, with some members of HEC clearly influenced by the idea that reballoting on USS would be seen as an act of ‘bad faith’ in the negotiations. But USS has acted in bad faith for years now, imposing draconian cuts on members’ benefits for two years – cuts which at the time UCU and others showed were unnecessary.
It is good news that USS employers have recognised there is now a surplus in the scheme and the cuts imposed in February 2022 were not necessary. However, there is a real danger that, if UCU doesn’t hold firm and show we are ready to strike again if necessary to defend our pensions, the employers will take a “contribution break” or even a cash bonanza from our pensions, thereby weakening the future of the USS pension.
However, the HEC did pass a motion calling for branches to take strike action in one of the last two weeks of September, depending on what makes sense for individual regions. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, this now means just Ulster University and St. Mary’s College since the UCU branch at Queen’s agreed a local deal which takes it out of national bargaining and the national dispute.
This move is a real shame and one which the Queen’s branch is likely to come to regret. UCU at Ulster broke from the national union in this manner in 2006 and it took ten years for the branch to resume trade union traditions. Let’s hope that the trade unions at Queens will be able to recover more quickly.
Marking and Assessment Boycott
Over the summer UCU members have been carrying out a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). In a number of universities this has been met by punitive deductions of pay up to 100% for a number of weeks. For example, at the University of Sheffield UCU members have faced two periods of 3-weeks (i.e. a total of 6 weeks) with no pay since the start of June. Effectively management are attempting to break union organisation through these de facto lock-out tactics. Most of the universities affected are on indefinite strike, until their pay is restored.
At the Ulster University (UU) members’ meeting on 10th August, members were unanimous in agreeing the importance of maintaining the MAB, if only in solidarity with those universities where UCU members are being locked-out and losing most, even all, of their wages. Because UCU at Ulster has shown itself to be a strong, even militant, union branch, senior management has not taken deductions from those taking part in the MAB.
This was in contrast to Queens University which deducted 50% of the wages of those who were part of the MAB.
UCU members are not the only workers facing a decade of real terms pay cuts, casualisation and ever increasing workloads. On 21/22 September, members of Unison in the health service across NI will be taking strike action. This presents an opportunity for UCU members in the North to continue their tradition of linking up action and expressing solidarity between different public sector workers.
Building such solidarity networks at a rank and file level of branches has proved crucially important so that union activists can share experiences and learn of what works in building strong and fighting union organisation. Rank and file union organisation can act to stop sell-outs by union leaders.
Strikes in September need to be built now to show the employers we are not defeated. Whether in the week before teaching starts when academic-related members in registry and student administration have most power or in week one of teaching, these strikes can have a real impact, especially if they coincide with Health Service strikes. But our employers have so far pursued a policy of waiting out such time-limited actions.
Therefore, the view of most active members at UU is that any future strike action should be an indefinite strike – one that the employers cannot wait out. Members have lost thousands of pounds over the last five years taking strike action for three days here and a week there.
As a result, there has been a growing realisation that indefinite strike is the only weapon that will really worry the employers. That’s what we need to argue for over the coming weeks and months.