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Learning the Lessons from the UCU Strikes

Recent years have seen an explosion in union activity on university campuses, with two major strike waves against neoliberal reforms – but if workers are to win concessions, they will need to build from the grassroots.

The last two years have seen an explosion of labour militancy in the UK’s higher education sector. A fourteen-day strike over pensions in 61 institutions in 2018 was followed by an even bigger one in 2019-2020, eventually spanning 22 days and 74 institutions. The recent strike extended beyond pensions to cover a wider range of issues, gathered under the label of ‘Four Fights’: pay, workload, job security and the gender and race pay gaps.

However, that surge of activity has not yet resulted in transformative gains for university workers, or a decisive shift in the balance of workplace power. The culmination of this year’s Four Fights dispute is an offer, tabled by employers last month, setting out a loose framework for reducing precarious employment and pay inequality over time, but with no immediate or concrete financial concessions. UCU branches are being consulted on whether to end or pause their disputes, or press ahead and hold another round of ballots to renew their mandate for industrial action.

The offer on the table is underwhelming, but the union has little choice other than to accept it and bank the gains it does provide. The alternative would be to reballot branches for industrial action during the summer vacation, when the postal ballots required by law are difficult to organise and members’ energies are focused on staving off redundancies arising from the Covid-19 crisis. What the union needs to do now is pause, take stock, and think seriously about why the strike did not work and what needs to be done to improve on its disappointing results in future.

Scapegoating Bureaucracy

In the past there would have been an easy explanation for an outcome like this: the ‘leadership’, or alternatively ‘the bureaucratic machinery’. The 2018 pensions dispute ended acrimoniously after the then General Secretary, Sally Hunt, along with allies on elected committees, acted in a way that many members believed was undemocratic by ramming through a weak offer at a time when employers were vulnerable and ready to make further concessions.

UCU’s General Secretary has responsibility for communications with members and management of the union’s resources including the rest of its 200 paid staff, and is often closely involved in negotiations. Their leadership can, under certain circumstances, determine whether a dispute peters out or results in a glorious victory. It was felt that Hunt, a career bureaucrat who had never worked in the sectors UCU represents, was misjudging members’ appetite to hold out for a better deal.

Now, UCU members have had a chance to see what their union can achieve with a different General Secretary in place. When Hunt retired, Jo Grady, a university lecturer and long-serving branch rep, was elected to replace her by a record-breaking turnout and share of the vote.

Since Grady’s election, the union has achieved equally record-breaking results in industrial ballots and thousands of new members have joined its ranks. But that has not translated into meaningful victories, and UCU members are starting to realise that a change of leadership was necessary but not sufficient. The explanation for this year’s difficulties lies not with any of the usual scapegoats, but with broader organisational and strategic weaknesses that can be found elsewhere on the British Left, beyond as well as within the trade union movement.

A Strike Without a Strategy

Strategic decision-making about industrial disputes is not under the General Secretary’s control. In UCU, decisions about the timing and nature of industrial ballots, the calling – or calling off – of strike action, and the conduct of negotiations are a matter for elected members in the union’s national committees and negotiating teams.

The General Secretary’s responsibility is to execute and deliver on the strategy that has been decided by those committees and negotiators: for example, by campaigning and deploying the union’s resources to ensure that the ballot turnout and ‘Yes’ vote for action is high; that picket lines are well attended; that press coverage is positive; that student unions are supportive; and that the strike fund is topped up.

In those areas, there can be no complaints. The union’s ballot results smashed its previous record for a Four Fights-type dispute. Picket lines on the opening day of action were as strong or stronger than the peak of any previous strike. Not only liberal outlets like the Guardian, but even the Financial Times editorialised in favour of the union.

The National Union of Students (NUS) and local student unions backed the action more emphatically than before. Strike fund payments were larger than ever, faster than ever, and weighted progressively in favour of lower paid members. Thousands of new members joined the union before the strikes started, taking membership to its highest ever level.

However, the union has learnt the hard lesson that accomplishments of this nature, however important, do not put offers on the table. No amount of friendly column inches can compensate for an inherently misguided strategy. Unfortunately, the small central committee of elected members that directed these disputes – the Higher Education Committee (HEC) – made one strategic error after another.

First, the HEC decided to conduct the ballots for action on a ‘disaggregated’ rather than an ‘aggregated’ basis. For each UCU branch to take action under the UK’s draconian trade union laws, it would need to cross a 50% turnout threshold among its own membership, regardless of whether the rest of the union has crossed that threshold overall. In an aggregated ballot, by contrast, an overall turnout of 50% would have enabled every branch in the dispute to go on strike. The decision to disaggregate proved to be a mistake.

The union’s campaigning took more branches than ever over the threshold – 56 in the Four Fights dispute, climbing to 69 after another equally impressive set of results in a series of re-ballots. (The previous record was 7.) But 69 was still only a minority of the branches covered by the Four Fights dispute. More than half of the employers in the union’s collective bargaining framework would face no industrial action and therefore no pressure to make the union an improved offer.

Second, the HEC chose a bizarre and poorly timed pattern of strike dates. Eight days were called almost as soon as possible after the ballot results came out. Crucially, they were scheduled to take place before the UK general election. The future of the higher education system hinged on the outcome, with Labour promising to abolish tuition fees and reduce casualisation, and the Tories well known for underfunding and destabilising the sector.

Employers were going to wait until the election was over before they even considered making significant concessions. When the Tories emerged with a massive majority, that outcome seemed unlikely. Employers would not move much further – but after eight days on cold, wet picket lines, members’ expectations of progress were understandably high.

At this point, a number of branches called for control of the Four Fights dispute to be taken out of the HEC’s hands through a wider consultation process. But the HEC ignored their requests, opting instead to press ahead and schedule a further fourteen days of strikes. Thousands of UCU members dutifully returned to the picket lines, but others voted with their feet. Pickets visibly dwindled as the second wave of action went on and no breakthrough was made. Even before the Covid-19 crisis loomed large in either side’s calculations, the writing was on the wall.

The offer which UCU branches are now being consulted on is not much of an improvement on the one which employers tabled after the first eight days of the strike. It does represent progress in some respects, and it should enable the union to make longer-term gains on workload, job security, and equality – but it will make no immediate, tangible difference to university workers’ lives, and it could have been achieved with a less punishing schedule of strike action.

Direct action gets the goods, or so the mantra goes. In fact, no amount of action can compensate for a strategy that ignores questions of leverage, and is inflexible in the face of democratic scrutiny or events on the ground. Next time the union finds itself in this position, there needs to be a broader, more rigorous process of consultation to ensure that members know what they are voting for when they vote for strike action, and branches can influence the dispute if necessary.

At the same time, members need to fill their national committees with reps who can think strategically and are willing to be held accountable for their decisions. Most importantly, there should be no return to disaggregated ballots for UK-wide disputes. For effective action and radical change, we need real unity and real leverage, with every branch in the country turning out on picket lines in pursuit of our goals.

Mobilisation Without Organisation

There are other, broader lessons to be learned from this year’s experience – not just about the dangers of escalating a dispute without full buy-in from the workers taking part in it, but also about the need to underpin top-down national campaigning with local power-building. 

Popular left-wing movements of the past few years, in the Anglophone world at least, have exhibited a fetish for rapid, superficial campaigns: or, in the terms favoured by the labour organiser and scholar-activist Jane McAlevey, ‘mobilising’ rather than ‘organising’. Supporters of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn hoped to propel each man to the top of their respective political systems in the space of one or two election cycles, relying on big rallies and no-frills mass canvassing via email, text-messaging, phone-banking and door-knocking.

Recent legislation has imposed a similar discipline on trade unions in the UK. Since the Tories passed the 2016 Trade Union Act, the 50% threshold which unions need to cross to take action has turned getting the vote out into a do-or-die exercise, with branches scrambling to compile spreadsheets of confirmed and unconfirmed voters and tick off as many as they can before the ballot window closes.

However, a successful ballot does not automatically translate into effective industrial action. Under Grady the union has more members than ever before, but membership density is still below 50%. Even when a branch votes to take action, most of the institution’s staff continue to work. No amount of flashy, top-down campaigning by a union’s head office can change that on its own.

Members on the ground need to be given the resources and the training to organise properly, making their branch indispensable to everyone in their place of work and recruiting as many new members as they can. All of those organisational efforts take time. They need to happen outside of, as well as during, the timetable of ballots for action.

Of course, time never feels like it is on our side. Again, the parallels with electoral politics are conspicuous. A decade of austerity in the UK has created a humanitarian crisis, and Corbyn’s supporters were understandably desperate to alleviate it sooner rather than later. That austerity has had severe repercussions for higher education staff, who are being crushed under unsustainable workloads and a shockingly precarious employment model.

For staff on a three-month or a zero-hours contract, a year or two feels like far too long to wait for real change, and they will be desperate enough to lose 22 days’ pay if somebody tells them that change is around the corner. But the political and industrial lessons of the last year cannot be ignored. Another hasty round of disaggregated ballots will only perpetuate university workers’ precarity.

The offer on the table from employers, however underwhelming, offers a platform to build for something better. It involves an expectation that individual employers will negotiate and consult with their UCU branches – often for the first time – on issues of equality and job security. Branches will get a foot in the door of negotiations with managers at precisely the moment they need it most – when institutions are plotting to use Covid-19 as a pretext for imposing mass redundancies.

With the right resources and support, branches will be able to reach out to their members and other staff in their workplaces and engage them in the process of building power locally. They will have concrete targets and gains to highlight, to show their colleagues that the union is looking out for their interests. And if insufficient progress is being made on a local level, the union can call another national dispute in the coming academic year.

Union branches are not always very well served by the national committees that make decisions on their behalf. It is time for them to take that power into their own hands and start building workplace power, from the ground up, on a local as well as a national level – before it is too late.

About the Author

Leon Rocha is a senior lecturer in Chinese history and society at the University of Lincoln and a member of the University and College Union (UCU).

Claire Marris is a reader at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London and a member of the University and College Union (UCU).