Thousands of UCU members took three days of strike action last week in a resumption of their long-standing disputes with employers over pay, casualisation, discrimination, workload and pensions. Nick Cimini (a member of the EIS-ULA, UCU and rs21) reports on what the other higher education trade unions are doing.

UCU members at 58 universities (which is around 50,000 members) took three days strike action last week in a resumption of their battles with employers over pay, pay related matters and pensions. The three days of action involved picket lines, branch meetings, departmental meetings, teach outs, marches and rallies, and experiments in virtual picketing. There were marches and rallies in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and other towns and cities across the UK. The first day back at work after the strikes (Monday 6th) also marked the beginning of a planned six months of action short of strike (ASOS).

Despite the wintery weather, the picket lines were typically very vibrant and well attended. This set of photos from rs21 members, who attended various pickets as strikers, students, and locals in solidarity, demonstrates this nicely:

The Open University in Scotland, Edinburgh
Sheffield University
Manchester Metropolitan University
Edinburgh University

Student support for striking staff has been significant. Research conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) suggests that 73% of students supported the strikes, whilst just 9% opposed. A Manchester based member of rs21 and the UCU reported ‘lots of support’ from students and estimated that ‘on our picket line we managed to persuade about 20% of students going into the building to not go in.’

What happened to all the other unions?

The UCU are not alone in this fight. There are other unions with a stake in the game: Unison, Unite, GMB and the EIS-ULA in Scotland. The UCU just happens to be the only one ready to strike.

The others have been slow off the starting block (some are maybe even reluctant to start running) and those that are balloting have not yet finished doing so. Though these other HE unions have spoken about taking a steady and measured approach, exhausting all options and fully consulting with members, there can be no justification for the delay in getting to ballot.

This dispute was entirely predictable. HE staff have been here before. Indeed, unions and the employer’s association (UCEA) have been in dispute over pay and related issues every year since 2009! 

There have been several months of stalling and inaction between the beginning of the 2021-22 dispute and the launch of any ballots. The New JNCHES bargaining process for 2021-22 began in March 2021 and UCEA made a so-called ‘final offer’ in May. Dispute meetings occurred in July without a satisfactory conclusion and yet here we are in December still waiting on other unions even balloting. The pay ‘uplift’ was imposed without agreement on August 1st.

The EIS-ULA finally decided to follow the UCU in moving to statutory balloting in the middle of November – a whole four months after the unsuccessful conclusion of the dispute meetings! It is one of the smaller of the trade unions in HE and so, perhaps inevitably, it often lags behind or is unwilling to take independent action. 

The executive committee of the EIS-ULA needed to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the point of a statutory ballot. Meeting after meeting voted to dither and delay, launching consultative ballot after consultative ballot. Their catchy campaign slogan, #DifferenceIsStriking, appeared for a while to be slightly ironic given the decisions made at executive. Though they have never previously achieved a mandate with a Scotland-wide aggregated ballot, this was their decided course of action. Their ballot closes on Wednesday 8th of December.

Unison, meanwhile, has no excuses. It has far more clout than the EIS-ULA at a national level and yet has only just started balloting. Their disaggregated balloting of a select number of branches began on Monday the 6th of December and closes on the 28th of January (9th of Feb in Northern Ireland). 

Another 42 UCU branches that don’t yet have a mandate to strike, after missing the anti-union thresholds first time around, are being balloted again from Monday 6th till January the 14th.

Box ticking exercises in consultation

Many unions now run consultative ballots, ostensibly to test the mood of members, prior to beginning any statutory balloting processes. The EIS-ULA likes consultative ballots so much it ran two in quick succession (with very similar outcomes). Union leaders have referred to these consultative ballots when attempting to explain/excuse the delays in getting to a statutory ballot.

A consultative ballot could theoretically be a useful tool in the union’s armoury. It could allow for the quick and easy surveying of members. Unlike a statutory ballot, the outcome of which is public information, the results of a consultative ballot can also be carefully curated by unions to avoid any embarrassing outcomes. 

Get a low turnout in a consultative ballot? No problem! Don’t reveal the turnout.

These consultative ballots may give the impression that union leaders are listening to members. In reality, however, they are mere tick-box exercises that deny members more meaningful opportunities to consult. More often than not these plebiscites are counterproductive and a waste of time – especially when the same questions are repeated multiple times with very similar results – possibly inducing ‘ballot fatigue’ among members. It’s also common for the results of these consultative ballots to remain secret (or only for the privileged few) and so rank and file activists are rarely able to use such data for mapping and charting their workplaces. 

A series of rank and file meetings, with opportunities to question and debate, would ultimately be a more meaningful way to consult. These would give members a better opportunity to share, discuss and learn from each other. 

Scabbing on the strikes

The EIS-ULA represents academic staff across Scotland, but its membership is concentrated primarily in the post-92 institutions. Members are often found in institutions working alongside members of the UCU such as at Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of the West of Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University.

As a result of entirely avoidable delays in getting to ballot, last week, whilst the UCU were at the picket lines, EIS-ULA members at some branches found themselves sitting on the sidelines without a legal mandate to strike. In this context, on the first day of the strikes, EIS-ULA officials sent an astonishing email to members with the instruction to scab on the UCU picket lines. The message stated:

… The EIS is also part of the national pay dispute, and we are currently balloting members for industrial action. The EIS, therefore, does not have an industrial action (for a strike and/or ASOS) mandate whilst the UCU does at some universities. This means that EIS members do not have the indemnities that are associated with an industrial action mandate and should not participate in the UCU strike. EIS members will, therefore, need to continue working during UCU strike days, and, unfortunately, that may mean crossing UCU picket lines if you are attending your workplace. [emphasis included in original]

There are a number of things to be said about this. 

First, these instructions to cross a picket line are a grim indictment on the state of the trade union movement today. Hampered by repressive legislation and relatively low levels of combativity (notwithstanding a recent and possibly slight upturn, epitomised by the UCU strikes), the above shows that parts of the trade union movement lack the confidence or the wherewithal to stand-up for the traditional values of trade unionism: never cross a picket line!

Second, the instruction appears to suggest that the EIS-ULA would refuse to defend any member who wished to take strike action: ‘EIS members do not have the indemnities’. This seeming refusal to support striking workers is astonishing since, in all of the relevant cases we are familiar with, the employers themselves recognised that academic staff have a legal mandate to strike as a result of the UCU vote. In some ways, therefore, the EIS-ULA appeared to go further than employers in imploring staff to cross picket lines.

Third, the EIS instruction ‘not to participate in the UCU strike’ shows how the interests of a trade union – as a distinct and highly bureaucratic institution – can often differ from the interests of the workers it represents. As suggested by Ray M. in this recent article

‘It’s often said that ‘members are the union’, but it’s important to recognise that unions are also an institution. For workers, the union is a means to an end. But for officers, this situation is turned on its head, because officers will see themselves as custodians of the Union, its resources, and its assets.’

Instructing EIS-ULA members to cross picket lines was evidence of these differential interests. For striking workers, the union is a means to an end. For union officers, however, the union is an end in-itself. The difference on this occasion was indeed striking.

In legal terms, it was not necessary to recommend scabbing. Those members of staff who wanted to strike could have done so. It is after all lawful for non-union members to strike. Alternatively, striking staff in the relevant institutions could join the UCU and therefore take action with its full backing. Recommending either course of action, however, was contrary to the distinct interests of the EIS-ULA as an institution. With a view on the income generated by membership fees, EIS-ULA officials felt unable to recommend either of these courses of action – since to do so would risk rendering themselves redundant.  

Fighting to win

Higher Education staff desperately need a plan to win.

The immediate and urgent priority should be supporting branches to meet the anti-union ballot thresholds. Every effort should be made and support should be provided to ensure that all university staff are able to join in with future actions. Branches that already have a mandate need to partner with those that don’t. 

Branches that fail to meet anti-union thresholds should be immediately reballoted. If aggregated ballots fail, we should move to disaggregated ballots without hesitation.

Staff and their supporters need to build on the momentum of last week and prepare for more action. Now is not the time for dithering and delay. It’s essential that there’s a series of widespread and escalating strike actions early in the new year. The ASOS also needs to go further and put even more pressure on employers.

Like workers in other sectors, however, Higher Education staff cannot depend entirely on their union apparatus – since that apparatus vacillates according to its own distinct interests. Instead, there’s an urgent need for activists to build genuine rank and file networks – within and across unions, in every workplace – to ensure that staff themselves can act independently of unions when necessary.

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