On 4 March, UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) announced further strike action for members in higher education in the ongoing disputes over pensions, pay, and conditions.
Differences in term dates mean this will see two sets of universities taking five days of strike action each, with the first wave beginning on 21 March.
It is welcome that the union is intending to keep up the fight. The planned action is also better than rumoured proposals for ‘regional rolling strikes’.
Alongside this, the union has also announced plans to re-ballot the membership to extend the mandate for action to the end of the year. Clearly, the UCU is gearing up for a long fight, especially as the bosses remain intransigent.
But with the cost-of-living crisis escalating, and employers set to cut pensions by up to 35%, many members are calling for more than just ‘piecemeal’ strikes; more than just strike action that sends a ‘signal’ to employers; and more than just a marking boycott.
The question of which way forward for the union is now a burning one.
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The struggle is sharpening. Employers have threatened many striking workers with 100% pay deductions for action short of strike (ASOS).
Currently, ASOS merely means ‘working to contract’. Absurdly, these threats imply that by doing so, workers are somehow in breach of their contracts.
In an equally harsh move, employers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) threatened staff who refuse to confirm in detail how they intend to mitigate their own strike action, even where staff are fulfilling all other duties. Many striking staff, therefore, are facing 100% deductions in pay.
The national leadership’s support for filing local grievances over such – potentially unlawful – deductions is a welcome change from their initial proposal to send letters to vice-chancellors. Members at QMUL and other universities have filed grievances and are building to take local action.
But the union leadership must not leave branches in the lurch. If the bosses get away with this at one institution, others will follow suit. These scandalous attacks must therefore be met with the threat of national militant action, with all methods on the table.
Following the rejection of the UCU’s proposal by UUK, cuts to the USS pension scheme are set to be as high as 35% from April.
As we have pointed out, however, the sector has £46.8 billion in reserves; the pension fund’s deficit has shrunk by 80%; and it has £90 billion in assets.
There are no excuses. This is no miscalculation. Employers are waging an onslaught.
Given this, it is notable that discussion on picket lines and in branches around indefinite strike action is increasingly less a question about ‘if’, and more a question of ‘when’.
In our view, escalating to indefinite action is a necessity. In fact, in a dispute such as this one, it is the only thing that will work.
Employer organisations are not – and will not – engage in good faith. They obviously have no intention of making concessions freely. The only thing that will move these people is a fierce fightback.
A motion in support of indefinite strike action at the University of Sheffield branch has certainly helped spark conversations about the need for indefinite strike action nationally. Other branches are reportedly in support.
Under immense pressure, members want to escalate the struggle to defend their pensions and win the Four Fights. Some have posed a planned marking boycott as an ‘alternative’ to indefinite strike action, whilst still being an escalation.
We endorse this action, and the extension of the mandate into the marking period. But currently, it is presented to members as a silver bullet that will finally move employers.
A marking boycott will put the most casualised members under immense pressure. This can be countered and made easier to endure, however, if these members are supported by comrades on picket lines.
The marking boycott is also presented as less taxing on the strike fund. But a mindset that looks for cost-saving actions is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.
Such a boycott can also easily be undercut by precarious labour in ‘marking support’; bosses will turn to their PhD students, many of whom are currently not unionised.
Besides, where this tactic has been successful, such as in Liverpool, where the branch heroically fought back against compulsory redundancy over six months, it was with a combination of a marking boycott and strike action.
Instead of being presented as a substitute for strike action, therefore, a marking boycott should be an auxiliary to strikes and picket lines.
With the current threat of 100% deductions for ASOS hanging over members’ heads, it is almost certain employers will move to deduct 100% for a marking boycott, further reducing the savings for the fighting fund.
Many members are already worried about the state of the fighting fund. Some are saying they don’t want to make a claim from it, even if eligible, for fear of taking resources from more precarious colleagues.
While this show of solidarity is brilliant, each round of action adds to those members’ financial strain, undermining morale for further action.
Rather than ‘saving’ the fighting fund and limiting our options, the UCU should start serious fundraising alongside the latest reballot. This will send a signal both to bosses and to members that the union is preparing for a showdown.
A call should be put out to the wider movement: we need a war chest!
This fundraising should be part of a campaign within the UCU to rally support for moving to indefinite action, and towards serious coordinated action alongside other campus unions.
After all, in the latest round of strike action, those universities that saw Unison members come out alongside UCU comrades, such as in Leeds, saw huge picket lines and a real boost to morale.
At City University in London, meanwhile, the effect of joint action between the Unison and UCU meant a complete shutdown of the campus.
We recognise indefinite action would be a big step, and many members are still hesitant. But this is why it is vital for the leadership to actually take a lead on this, and build confidence amongst rank-and-file members by showing that the union is serious about this fight.
We are therefore calling for this new ballot to be effectively a ballot for indefinite action – including during the marking period.
This is the only way to seriously escalate both disputes: a battle for the future of the education sector.