rs21 members in UCU analyse the current UCU dispute and consider the role of the UCU bureaucracy in recent weeks.

Photo: Steve Eason

In January, the future of the UCU dispute over pay, pensions and conditions was in a precarious situation. A vote by the Higher Education Executive committee (HEC) to call indefinite strike action had been publicly denounced by the general secretary, Jo Grady. A branch delegates meeting was held that refused members the possibility of debating the way forward on the basis of all the information and options available. Delegates voted against an indefinite strike after weeks of misinformation portraying the strategy as a “forever strike” took its toll.

Nevertheless, the next HEC meeting voted for a more ambitious agenda of strike action – 19 days over two months – than Grady had wanted. The HEC voted to coordinate action with other unions, leading to the tremendous strike of half a million people on 1 February. Picket lines were vibrant and the mood on strike was positive.

Alarm bells rang for many when the union announced it would be entering Acas negotiations. These negotiations – which took place without the presence of our elected negotiation team – ended with two weeks of strike action being paused. On the table was a deal in which management had not budged from their previous offer on pay – already rejected by e-ballot – and offered some low-hanging fruit, such as restricting the use of zero hours contracts (though not the real casualisation scandal of the sector: the rampant use of fixed term contracts with little to no job security and stability). While there appears to be promising progress on the USS pensions dispute, many of the institutions on strike are not even part of that pension scheme.

Members across the country were stunned to hear of a pause in strike action late on a Friday afternoon. Lectures and classes that had not been prepared were suddenly scheduled for Tuesday. To make matters worse, there was no clarity on whether we were still engaged in Action Short of Strike, which would protect us from having to work through the weekend to prepare, until a Tweet from the UCU account the following morning confirmed that we were. Incredibly, HEC and the HE officers had not even been consulted on the decision to pause the strike.

The campaign has been characterised by an infantilising social media presence, in which members are repeatedly affirmed as being in control of the dispute. “You are in control”, “you decide”. But simply saying it doesn’t make it so. In reality, democratic norms and structures of the union are ridden over roughshod. This cynical behaviour has more in common with human resource management than it does union democracy. Members on Twitter supportive of the pause were approvingly retweeted, while those critical were patronised by an anonymous, unaccountable social media account.

The dispute has starkly highlighted a serious dilemma for the most militant sections of the rank and file in the union. Despite a substantial left presence on leading bodies, the union bureaucracy has clearly decided that it will go over the heads of elected representatives and subvert democratic practice while cobbling together retrospective justification via social media. Witness, for example, a poll of members asking if they supported the pause after it was already in effect, with a leading question that indicated that voting against the pause was somehow voting against the ability to properly negotiate.

Members are not being trusted with the real details of what is going on, and are instead encouraged merely to trust the best intentions of the bureaucracy. But the trade union bureaucracy must be held to account. That is why, for example, we have elected negotiators with a base in the union. Those of us in UCU who want to extend meaningful democracy need to explore ways in which the rank-and-file networks that exist informally in and around the union can cooperate more effectively. This would mean existing organisations such as UCU Left and the associated UCU Solidarity Movement working closely alongside a layer of independent militants, and all being open to discussion, debate and cooperation.

Friday’s announcement from the employer’s association, UCEA, that it was pressing ahead with imposing their real-terms pay cut during the two-week ‘period of calm’ due to strikes being paused, and despite talks at ACAS continuing, is a clear indication of the employers’ intentions. In some institutions, management are pressing ahead with punitive deductions policies and threats of individual breach of contract meetings for failing to reschedule classes. They expect the unions to sit on their hands while they have free rein to do what they want. The rumoured addition of an extra UCU strike date on 15 March to coincide with strike action by the NEU, PCS, BMA and others is certainly a welcome response, but in and of itself insufficient.

In the immediate term, it is still unclear precisely what the next steps our leadership plans to take – will they attempt to sell a terrible pay cut? Or is the pause just a ploy to reduce the democratically agreed number of strike days we take this term? Either way, the pause is terribly demobilising and has already emboldened employers. We will need to organise to build the biggest possible vote to renew our mandate for industrial action beyond April, to reject any shoddy deal put on the table, and to get people thinking and strategizing now about how we can win an effective marking and assessment boycott. We know the employers are already putting contingency plans into place. We need to be serious about making sure such attempts fail in the face of a renewed press by our side against pay cuts, and for a higher education sector that is genuinely rewarding and worthwhile for staff and students alike.

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