UCU strikers in Durham. Photo: Elaine Brunskill
UCU strikers in Durham. Photo: Elaine Brunskill

Unifying strategy needed to prepare for new term

Kat Gwyther, UCU member (personal capacity)

Since the end of 2021, University and College Union (UCU) members in universities around the country have taken significant action on pay, pensions and related issues. Although this has been disaggregated, UCU has been the only public sector union so far to take national action.

UCU announced a marking boycott to begin on 23 May 2022, agreed by delegates at a meeting of UCU’s higher education (HE) special sector conference, as an escalation of the ongoing disputes across university campuses.

Members were recently balloted on whether to continue and escalate industrial action in the two disputes over pensions, and pay and conditions. 36 universities voted in support of industrial action on pay and conditions, while 24 universities backed further action over pension cuts.

The success of the reballots demonstrates that there remains a clear mood to fight back. However, building a successful fightback in the face of increases in redundancies and workloads, pay inequality, and casualisation is no easy task. There are serious issues that need to be considered, including a unifying strategy in order to win.

One key question is the balloting strategy. Many branches narrowly missed the 50% threshold, in some cases due to ballots arriving one or two days after the balloting period closed. The short turnaround undoubtedly played a factor in branches missing the threshold; UCU announced the balloting days before it opened with only a three-week turnaround.

There are questions to be asked about why there was such a short turnaround and why more attention and support was not given to branches which are hovering around the threshold.

Branches, too, have been consistently balloted on a disaggregated basis. This should be used as a step to grow the action with the aim to build towards more nationally coordinated action with an aggregated ballot ready for the new term. It is clear that there is still a mood for struggle.

Defend members

There are also concerns about retaliation from employers. The marking boycott could lead to a 100% withdrawal of pay for failing contractual obligations. University bosses have already threatened this over ‘action short of strike’, and so this is a serious concern. The union has to fight any victimisation of reps and members. The next steps in the dispute should focus on supporting sustained strike action. The scale of the assault on workers in the HE sector means that there is no alternative but to resist.

To do this effectively, there needs to be clear direction from the national union leadership about the future direction of the disputes, especially as universities are bringing in cuts while members are out on strike against those cuts. There must be clarity about what the expectations are for the dispute moving forwards, and members’ role in that.

The union should commit to cover the loss in wages in order to mobilise as many members in industrial action as possible. Connecting with the wider trade union movement for solidarity donations could also help with this.

Wider solidarity and coordination with other unions could also strengthen the fight. UCU should coordinate with other campus unions that have strike mandates, for example Unison.

These disputes are taking place with the backdrop of growing industrial action on a national scale. We should anticipate that the situation could rapidly develop, and that a win is possible as workers begin to put pressure on bosses.

UCU should take the lead on approaching the other public sector unions to offer joint strike action on pay.