As the UCU’s marking and assessment boycott gets underway, rs21 members in UCU underline the need for more rank-and-file initiatives and a commitment to genuine member-led democracy in the union.

Credit Martin Abegglen/Flickr

Even before the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) by UCU members in the higher education sector got underway, the union was racking up some successes. At Queen Mary, threats to deduct 100 percent of pay for not rescheduling teaching missed while on strike were defeated by the UCU branch after a firm stand and the threat of strike action. A week after the boycott began, Leeds University were forced to climbdown over the same deductions policy after a big vote for strike action by the UCU branch. These wins should be a big boost to the confidence of members as we continue to organise the nitty-gritty details of the boycott at a college and departmental level.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) is clearly spooked by the action. The threats of punitive deductions of 50 to 100 percent, way out of line with our actual marking load, are intended to frighten members out of participation, and local branches are devising ways of frustrating management’s plans. At the University of Hertfordshire, threats of 100 percent deductions have been abandoned after the local branch pushed back against them. Demands to declare participation in the dispute are being rightly ignored, and institutions are having to move their declaration deadlines back.

A flurry of organising in recent weeks, including rank-and-file initiated trainings and discussions of the boycott, indicate again the creativity of the membership and our capacity to build a MAB that is not limited to a campaign directed by HQ, but that is rather led by the membership in every institution. Our mapping of departments and marking loads, and our conversations with colleagues about their participation, will be critical to the success of the action, and showing management early on that the dispute is going to be hard hitting. Such organising is not only crucial for this dispute, but it lays down the ground for ongoing and effective local organisation.

The need for such organising has been underlined in recent months by what might be called a dispute within the dispute, with conflict between the general secretary, Jo Grady, and members of the elected lay executive increasing and playing out visibly on social media. The MAB was very nearly derailed by a series of flawed and highly questionable consultations initiated by the leadership. The general secretary launched an informal survey over whether to halt action while negotiations continued, despite employers imposing a derisory 5 percent pay award. The survey was widely criticised for the confusing and leading nature of the question asked, as was HQ’s social media propaganda offensive in support of standing down the action.

After a branch delegate meeting voted against pausing action, the union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), the subset of it’s National Executive Committee (NEC) with responsibility for matters in the HE sector, voted for a more formal consultation. Even then, many of us were frustrated and angry at the fact that the HEC’s recommendation to reject the offer on pay and conditions was barely mentioned in official union communications, while HQ’s social media trumpeted the offer as a significant advance. It is a testimony to members’ organisation and determination that the pay and conditions offer was rejected.

This was just the latest in a series of clashes between Grady and the union executive and underpins a tension at the heart of the union. On 13 December last year, and Grady took to Twitter to complain that the NEC was preventing her from reporting to them. Bemoaning a lack of accountability, she omitted to mention that all NEC had asked for was to receive her report in advance so that meeting time could be spent more productively in responding to or asking questions of her about her report.

Similarly, the misrepresentation of HEC’s decision last November to explore some form of indefinite action was portrayed on social media as being some sort of undemocratically-decided forever strike, rather than the targeted, hard hitting action which had been agreed and one that would only proceed if members agreed. In so doing, the democratic decision of HEC was sabotaged in favour of a rinse-and-repeat variation of action which had failed to deliver in previous years.

As with our previous general secretary, we have manipulative plebiscites backed by inadequate information promoted over proper deliberative democratic decision-making. Tory anti-union laws forced individualised, atomised voting for industrial action as a way to attack unions, so it is bizarre to see UCU promote this approach as more inclusive. Too much criticism of the leadership has been characterised as bullying, particularly the bullying of paid senior officials. The irony of this, when Grady is on record saying, “I will take responsibility for my decisions and actions, and I will never use staff as a shield to defend myself from criticism.”

While the HQ’s social media pronounces that UCU is a member-led union, much of this is rhetorical window-dressing, behind which sits a very top-down, bureaucratic machine which has changed little under the current general secretary. In an earlier article, we argued for the need to build an organised rank and file within UCU, specifically “to explore ways in which the rank-and-file networks that exist informally in and around the union can cooperate more effectively”. The urgency of this has not been lost on a broad layer of activists, though the precise structure and means of achieving it have yet to be properly pinned down. Nevertheless, even in its amorphous state, the rank and file have been consistently providing an important corrective to UCU’s official communications and growing as a result.

As Ian Allinson points out in Workers Can Win

The rank-and-file approach recognises that workers’ power in relation to the bureaucracy is an echo of our power in relation to the employers. When workers are weak, we are more dependent on the union bureaucracy for support and assistance. Building workers’ collective power and self-activity is central to reducing our dependence on unreliable allies – the paid officers. We do this with their help when we can, but we do it whether they help or not.

The Edinburgh-born Irish socialist, James Connolly, famously said that, “The election of a Socialist to any public body at present, is only valuable in so far as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace”. In a trade union context, political peace involves the bureaucracy’s expectation that employers will negotiate in good faith, while members are wheeled out as leverage, occasionally. The bureaucracy may fight rhetorically and superficially, but all too often fears a mobilised membership. We should keep up the pressure on the general secretary to disturb the peace, and to back the action to the hilt. We do so by continuing to broaden and deepen member-led, rank-and-file organising at a local and national level, working with the union leadership if we can but bypassing them if we need to.

You can sign-up for the online Workers Can Win organising school with Ian Allinson, starting on Tuesday 2 May, here.


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