Socialist Alternative

UCU ballot results and next steps in the USS and Four Fights disputes

Following our previous update on the UCU Special Higher Education Congress (SHESC) on the 9th September we now write on the back of the USS and Four Fights strike ballot results. These ballots were run over a compressed 2.5 week period, closing on 3rd November and returning an impressive set of results given this tight window – 53% average turnout on USS (76% yes vote for strike action) and 51% average turnout on Four Fights (70% yes vote for strike action). Both reflect the incredible hard work and dedication of activists and the progress we are making as a union against anti-trade union legislation.

Unfortunately, despite increasing our overall turnout, fewer branches made the threshold individually than last time out (37 branches on the USS and 54 branches in the Four Fights). This is still more than enough branches to put massive pressure on employers, but considerably less than could or should have been had we left the ballot period open for just a few more days or a seen more concerted effort from the national union to build for strike action over the course of the Summer.

In our previous update, Socialist Alternative outlined the importance of coming out of SHESC with a fighting strategy. While UCU Left motions won mandates across the board, we nonetheless failed to see a clear strategy emerge. Various motions calling for a four week ballot period and for the two disputes to be coordinated on a disaggregated basis were passed, but in the following weeks these were not fully implemented by the executive (HEC).  

Rather than pick that apart, the key question now needs to be how we move forward. The General Secretary wasted no time – using the ballot announcement to run a live stream video conference laying out her plans to quickly backtrack and de-escalate on both disputes. The plan put forward was essentially: reballot individual branches on the USS, but not until next year, and start again on the Four Fights via a complete reballot of all HE members on an aggregated basis.

This plan presents several obvious problems, and the suggestion is that the General Secretary’s proposals (and potentially only her proposals) will be put to branches in a ‘branch delegate’s meeting’ on Friday the 12th November. These problems are laid out below. Putting aside the hugely questionable decision to hold a meeting with no standing orders to consider the General Secretary’s personal plan to completely change direction mid-dispute, we do need all branches to organise to make sure these damaging proposals are voted down this week.

Problems with the ‘Jo Grady Plan’ (JGP)

Crucial loss of momentum: disputes thrive on momentum, and halting any reballots until next year kills what momentum we’ve built this term. The proposal to hold two ‘one off’ strike days this term is better than nothing, but if done in isolation from any reballoting or any threat of escalation they have rightly been criticised as ‘tokenistic’ and ‘pointless’.  

Misunderstanding of the Get The Vote Out (GTVO) process: linked to the loss of momentum is the impact the JGP will have on morale. Many branches worked their socks off to deliver record turnouts in the recent 2.5 week ballot, racing through what would normally take 4 weeks in a little over half that time. For branches that hit those figures, to say that that counts for nothing and to ‘go again’ seriously risks reduced engagement next time round. Closely linked to this is the more general issue with aggregated ballots tending to return lower turnout figures. The last stand alone aggregated ballot on the Four Fights ran in 2019 and returned a 41% result. Is there a strategy to beat the 50% threshold this time? Because if not this means taking activists through two back to back GTVOs and potentially having nothing to show for it, effectively killing off the Four Fights. 

Confusing for members: If you’re not a UCU activist then you’re probably confused reading this update. Imagine having to explain the difference between ‘aggregated’ and ‘disaggregated’ balloting to members and trying to explain why we’re balloting again in branches that smashed the 50% threshold last time. Members: ‘I thought we’d already voted for this?’ Activists: ‘you did, but this time the General Secretary wants to try an aggregated ballot’. It’s not going to work. Plus, in many branches we’d be separately re-balloting for USS (on a disaggregated basis) while opening a new ballot on the Four Fights (on an aggregated basis). Confused? You should be.

Side-lining the Four Fights, and casualised staff, in favour of the USS dispute: In August, the General Secretary, alongside national officials, argued that SHESC delegates should vote against even balloting on the Four Fights. SHESC delegates rightly rejected that and voted for ‘coordinated action’ on the Four Fights and the USS. This approach was as successful as anyone could possibly have hoped for given the 2.5 week ballot window. It’s perhaps no surprise that despite the success of coordinating the ballots to date, these latest proposals effectively split the two disputes and would very likely lead to the USS dispute continuing based on the mandate already achieved, while the Four Fights will be derailed onto a separate timeline.

So what should be the plan?

We should waste no time in getting reballots out – this means continuing on the disaggregated strategy on both disputes for this year and targeting our resources on supporting remaining branches in getting over the line. Bearing in mind that many were very close and clearly do have the votes to succeed given a proper 3 to 4 week ballot window and the targeted support of the national union alongside other regional branches who have already hit turnout.  

Both ballots should be coordinated – minimal confusion, both ballots distributed in the same envelope, no change in method or need to explain the difference between ‘aggregated’ and ‘disaggregated’ ballots to members. Just crack on.

Action before Christmas. This is a clear SHESC mandate and one that the General Secretary seems to be willing to stick to. If there is a coordinated reballot then limited strike action, for example two ‘one-off’ days might not be an unreasonable compromise, and would at least have the benefit of not exhausting activists in branch who have already hit turnout as we support other branches and look to get them out alongside us as quickly as possible. However, if we do go with ‘limited’ or ‘discontinuous’ action there needs to be a clear escalation strategy, for example January marking boycotts and a plan for joined up continuous action in the new year, if employers don’t agree to our demands.  

What does a win look like?

We have heard many times that it is not clear what a win looks like on the Four Fights dispute, besides an improved pay offer, while on the USS dispute employers argue that the scheme is ‘simply unaffordable’.  

However, on the Four Fights, we already have a clear set of demands that have been laid out in the latest joint union pay claim. For example: on workload, a maximum 35-hour working week; on pay equality, for equal pay audits to be carried out at every institution to an agreed timescale and then a plan to be agreed and implemented to close the gaps; and on casualisation, a minimum contract length of 24 months, which would allow workers to access more employment rights, and an end to the use of zero-hour contracts.  

Meanwhile, on pensions, many experts have pointed out the health of the USS scheme and the fact that the supposed deficit was entirely a construct of the flawed 2020 valuation. Our demand as a union is to protect the defined benefit element of existing scheme and oppose further rises in member contributions. We also need to continue to coordinate the dispute with the Four Fights and draw the wider political critique of the system through which workers are exploited – both through direct wage theft (Four Fights) and deferred wage theft (USS).

Achieving these demands would mean a thorough shake-up in how universities are currently run and will require an intense and escalating struggle. But we mustn’t put off this struggle to some unspecified future time. Members have shown that they are willing to fight on these issues and abandoning these disputes now will embolden employers and demoralise our members, leading to further attacks on our terms and conditions.