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Autumn action fists

Future of our Four Fights dispute after members reject UCEA offer

3 August 2020

As we announced during our live event on Wednesday, members have voted to reject the employers' offer in our Four Fights dispute, by 61% to 39%, on a turnout of 30%.

During this event I mapped out what I think we need to do next. You can watch it here. This email is longer than usual as it offers a summary of that message. 

Reflections on the ballot result

We have to be honest with ourselves that despite our best efforts, 22 days of strike action didn't produce the results members want or deserve. If we fail to be honest about this, we risk making the same mistakes again, and we cannot afford to do that.

Members will vote for strike action again, but this will require our decision-making bodies to do more to bring all members into our democratic process. This doesn't just mean touching base with members when we want them to put an X on a ballot, or sign up to a picket rota, or tell them about decisions that have already been made by a sector conference or committee.

Having spoken to members on picket lines this year I think they've often felt quite detached from the plans that have been made, but which depend on their participation for success. There needs to be more consultation before any future ballot is held.

Looking ahead

My main ambition for our union is to achieve the best for workers in our sector. To do that I think there are four main ways we need to think about what we do next.

  1. Together: aggregated ballots for national action

    It has been three years since the introduction of legislation requiring unions to beat a 50% threshold in industrial ballots. UCU is one of the few unions that have responded well to this challenge. This year we got our best ever results for a Four Fights type dispute. However, our higher education committee voted to ballot on a disaggregated basis, meaning that every single HE branch held its own individual ballot. Despite being part of a national dispute, each branch's ability to take action depended on whether it passed the 50% threshold. It made sense to take this tentative and cautious approach in previous ballots, but now we know we can beat that threshold, it makes no sense to continue with the same strategy.

    When we take action on a national pay dispute in future, it must be aggregated. This brings and keeps everyone together, and gives us maximum leverage. If we cross the 50% threshold next time, we will have over 80,000 members in roughly 150 HE branches who will be able to take action and put pressure on employers. This year, because of the disaggregated ballots, we had around 40,000 members in 60 branches for the first wave of action and 74 for the second.

    There is a further point to make about unity. With disaggregated ballots, post-92 branches in particular - and through no fault of their own - have struggled to beat the 50% threshold. But we know there are many members in those branches who want to be part of a national struggle for better. Branches that pass the threshold and take strike action get a huge spike in membership. We need to see post-92s benefit from collective action in the way pre-92s have since the 2018 USS dispute. An aggregated ballot could spark a renewal of the union's strength across the whole sector, with nobody left behind.

  2. Timing: strategic balloting and timing of national action

    Any future national action must also involve proper consideration of timing. One reason the USS strike in 2018 was highly successful in pushing the employers to walk back on their decision to downgrade USS was because after the initial 14 days of action there was still plenty of time left to schedule further action within our existing strike mandate (a strike mandate lasts for 6 months after the ballot closes). The 2018 action was neatly timed so employers faced more disruption in summer term.

    This year, however, was different. Balloting from September to October meant that the clock on our mandate was ticking from November. By the time we were entering into the second round of action in February and March, employers knew we were reaching the end of our mandate, and they waited. They knew we would have to ballot again. They were willing to take the chance that we would be too exhausted to put in the effort necessary to ballot for more action.

    If we time future ballots and industrial action so that we don't take too much at once, we leave ourselves space and energy to escalate if employers try to turn the dispute into a war of attrition.

  3. Tactics: use every tool in the shed

    It is crystal clear that we all want systemic change in this sector. We all want to eradicate casualisation, to ensure that our BAME colleagues are rewarded properly for their contributions and don't have career paths denied to them, to close the gender pay gap, to bring our workloads down to a sustainable level. But we need to develop a wider range of tactics for achieving what we want.

    This year, a lot of external examiners started resigning in January over the issues we were in dispute about, and it got lots of news coverage at the time. The union did what it legally could to support and signal-boost those resignations. But part of the reason those resignations happened then was because the first wave of action had come so early and been so hard-hitting that nobody had a chance to do anything more quickly in advance. Proper consideration of leverage, timing, and the full range of tools at our disposal will mean we can plan better for future disputes and win.

    Using every tool in the shed also means thinking more creatively about what type of events and activities we target, beyond teaching activities. We aren't all teaching staff, but so often teaching and teaching-adjacent activities are the main targets of our industrial action. We need to think more cohesively about ensuring all members, including those who don't teach, can be included and not left to their own devices.

  4. Thresholds: organising and recruiting

    The legal threshold of 50% should not place a limit on our ambitions. We have to set our sights on much higher levels of participation in ballots and industrial action. We have made a net gain of 7,000 members in the past year, but we need to keep building the union to encompass more and more of the workforce.

    We can confront our employers and win, but we won't do that by simply pressing the repeat button. Yes, this year's action and the outcome from it will have battered some people's confidence. But under the right circumstances and with the right planning, campaigns and industrial action like this year's can win. We can improve our workplaces, improve university governance, have better relationships with students and colleagues, and be less intimidated by bullying managers. That is going to be achieved by doing things differently from how they were done this year.

Union democracy: having YOUR say

I will always give my advice on what we should do next in our Four Fights dispute, but ultimately the crucial decisions will be taken by UCU members, via our higher education sector conference. This sector conference will be attended by one or more delegates from your branch as part of our annual congress. The date for this meeting has not yet been finalised, but we anticipate that it will take place in the autumn.

Every branch can send at least one delegate from its membership to a sector conference. Each branch has different procedures for choosing which members serve as delegates, so if you would like to attend, please get in touch with your branch. If you can't attend but would still like to have a say, ask your branch how it will be consulting members on the positions which they want delegates to take into the conference.

These sector conferences will be important because they will allow us to take the temperature of members, discuss our priorities as a union and decide on a strategy for the coming year.

Our immediate focus: defending jobs, keeping staff safe, building the union

Before sector conference meets at congress later this autumn to discuss the Four Fights dispute, there will be a separate, special sector conference on 30 September to discuss the matters that are our immediate concern right now: defending the sector and keeping members safe.

We have already developed our five tests for a safe return to face-to-face working and started preparing reps to keep campuses safe next term, and we are well underway with our national Fund the Future campaign to protect jobs in the sector. The conference on 30 September will be an important opportunity to take stock and consider what else we can do to defend the sector and keep staff, students, and the wider community safe.

We are currently as busy as we have ever been supporting every branch facing redundancies. As well as the extensive support provided as always by regional and devolved national offices, this has involved extra support from our campaigns and bargaining and negotiations departments in our head office, as well as an extensive programme of events for members and branches to coordinate their campaign activities and learn from each other and UCU staff.

Meanwhile, UCU's membership team have completed the extraordinary labour of helping more than 20,000 members update their contact details so that we can continue to conduct industrial and other postal ballots when campuses are closed. Our press team has generated a huge amount of press coverage of what is happening across the sector, particularly in terms of cuts to precariously employed staff, and we are using that coverage to apply as much pressure as possible to employers and the government to prioritise your livelihoods above everything else in their response to the crisis. At the same time, I am also busy visiting branches. I know how important it is to have the general secretary reinforce to branches under attack that they have the whole union's backing.

Finally, I am pleased to announce that UCU has also partnered with internationally renowned trade union organiser Jane McAlevey and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung to offer members access to a six-session online educational programme called Strike School. This will be invaluable for any member who wants to help defend jobs and improve working conditions in their institution as part of our Fund The Future campaign. The course starts on 24 September.

Jane and I will be hosting a live online event on Wednesday 2 September at 7pm to introduce and give UCU members a taste of the programme. Please put the date in your diary and join us. This programme aims to give members the skills, the confidence and the political understanding to grasp what it takes to win and achieve life-changing victories in their workplaces.

If you have any questions about our next steps or anything else that is happening in the union, as always, please send me an email and I will try to reply directly or cover your question in future communications.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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