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How the UCU Beat the Anti-Union Laws

All British universities are facing unprecedented strikes after workers have voted overwhelmingly against cuts to their pay and pensions. Their campaign shows how the fighting mood among working people is growing bigger by the day.

Pay for academic staff has fallen 20% in real terms over the last twelve years, while on average vice-chancellors enjoy £269,000 salaries, rising to £500,000 at some institutions. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Today the UCU made history. We become the third union in the UK to win a national strike ballot since the introduction of the anti-union laws in 2016. We are also the first union in the education sector to achieve this. Despite the size of the challenge, a national ballot is something I have wanted and known the union could win since my election as General Secretary in 2019.

Coming off the back of a relentless period of strike action and then balloting during the Summer when our members were away from the workplace, many–in fact most–thought this was an impossible task.

We set about changing mindsets and developing a strategy that we believed could win the ballot–if every single part of the union came together.

In most major ballots the first place to galvanise votes is in the workplace. This was not a luxury we had so we set about putting together a plan that would mobilise a membership. A meticulous and timed lead into ballot papers being dispatched followed by a week-by-week strategy to deliver the biggest vote in the union’s history.

Each of the weeks in the campaign had a theme–from angering our members, to exposing management, to getting the union ready to vote.

We also thought long and hard about our members habits. Industrial action ballots are conducted by post. Therefore, we conditioned our members to open their mail. Home mailings where we asked members to engage in the campaign, postcards to remind people to vote and posters to give members the chance to publicly back the campaign.

We held a series of live events, but they were not just about pressing a button and hoping for the best. Every live session had a plan and a theme. We heavily advertised them and then once they were closed, we clipped the highlights and pushed across our social media channels.

The UCU has previously pioneered peer to peer texting and phonebanking. This time we made some changes. We built a small team of well-trained individuals. In 2.5 days we sent 50,000 texts.

Alongside this we had a well-executed mix of campaign ambassadors–ready to share our content, emails, texts, social media and video. We hit over one million video views last week and our social media reach has been greater than any other campaign in the history of the UCU.

We knew the final two weeks of our ballot would be crucial too as our members started to return to the workplaces. On this basis we held National Get the Vote Out Day and delivered the biggest ever in person mobilisation of our members. Universities across the UK held meetings, stalls and get the vote out events. This meant that there was no drop off at any point in the voting period. In fact, I have never known a campaign where the flow of images of our members voting was so constant.

This campaign took inspiration from our friends at other unions, and I now hope others can take hope in the UCU smashing through the anti-union laws.

I will finish though by saying winning the ballot is only phase one of the campaign. We must now be ready for action to apply maximum pressure on the employer. If they do not budge, we must be prepared to take that action and in greater numbers than ever. It is vital that every UCU member, representative and member of staff knows the hard work has only just started.

But today belongs to our members. UCU and Proud.