Socialist Alternative

Statement by Socialist Alternative members in UCU

– Reject the Four Fights ‘offer’!

– Build for national industrial action on jobs, pay, conditions and pensions!

– For fully publicly funded and free education – end marketisation!

The consultative e-ballot is now live for UCU members to vote on the final offer from the employers on our four fights dispute. Socialist Alternative members are strongly arguing that this so-called ‘offer’ should be rejected. We have written before about this ‘offer’, which consists of a series of unenforceable expectations on employers, rather than firm and meaningful commitments that will mean real change for university workers. There is also no updated offer on pay from the original and woefully inadequate 1.8%.

Whilst we knew the ballot was coming, the voting period was hastily announced with just two days notice. This has made it impossible to organise branch meetings to discuss with members before the ballot link was emailed out. The Higher Education Committee (HEC) and national negotiators are recommending reject but next to nothing has been done to publicise this to members and there is no mention of the ballot on the main pages of the UCU website. There are also reports that the ballot website is not working properly. Sections of the national leadership are clearly hoping that this dispute will simply go away – we cannot and must not let that happen. We need a fighting national industrial strategy now more than ever. Branch meetings should be organised as soon as possible and motions to adopt a clear reject position should be tabled where branches do not already have one in place. Branch committees should also release statements arguing for rejection and publicise these to members as widely as possible. Branches should also link up to continue the fight if our national leadership is not willing and meetings should be set up whatever the result of the ballot to set out a coordinated plan of action.

We are currently in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that has hugely exacerbated all of the issues we have been fighting on in the four fights dispute, in particular casualisation and workload. University managements are using a projected fall in student numbers to justify cuts to jobs, pay and conditions when these cuts are in fact a key part of their flawed business models and opaque financial strategies. The pandemic is simply an opportunity to attack the very staff that have kept the universities going throughout this crisis. Fixed-term and hourly-paid staff are being laid off in their thousands at a time when their expertise is sorely needed and permanent staff will have hugely increased workloads as a result. The new requirements for ‘blended learning’ mean that at least two different versions of modules will now need to be prepared to be delivered both online and in person, with increasing requirements for staff to undertake mandatory training. Compulsory redundancies and imposed pay cuts are also being mooted and several branches are now in local dispute or soon will be. It is clear that we have a significant fight on our hands and we must be ready to take the necessary action.

Significantly, last month UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, announced a flat-rate levy of all members to replenish the union’s fighting fund (https://ucu.org.uk/gslevymessage?list=10241). In the FAQ document (https://www.ucu.org.uk/levy-questions), it is made clear that this levy is to pay for existing claims for strike pay and not for future action. After a huge outcry, it has now been announced that the lowest paid members may be exempted from the levy, but only if a certain level of donations are received before the end of July. Building the strike fund is a political question and it is disgraceful that this was not addressed fully in preparation for and during our recent strike action, especially when it was clear that our disputes would be continuing. National drives on fundraising at these times would have been hugely successful, as local fundraising efforts showed, and would have put us in a strong position to take much-needed national strike action over our employers’ response to the pandemic. Instead, we are left with the incredibly lacklustre ‘Fund the Future’ campaign that has been launched nationally by UCU and consists of a series of webinars and calls for members to write to their MPs.

As well, the timing of the levy announcement could easily be construed as a move to de-escalate the four fights dispute. By highlighting the current lack of strike fund provision, a clear signal is being given to members, and our employers, that further widespread national industrial action is off the cards. However, this is not a decision that should be taken by a few at the top of the union. Branches should be asking questions of the union’s financial situation, especially in lieu of the postponed national congress, and should demand that the union is fully prepared financially to support members with no excuses. A special meeting of the NEC should also be called to investigate the possibilities for using the union’s reserves.

Going forward, a vote to reject would mean that we could concentrate on the next steps to further both the four fights and the USS pensions disputes. We have argued previously that it is crucial that these disputes are kept together to maximise unity within and between universities – moves to separate the two now would be disastrous. The other campus trade unions must also join with us on pay and this is becoming ever more critical. Not only would this have a huge impact on the confidence of UCU members but would also mean that we could shut down campuses in their entirety.

We must not let our 22 days of action and the progress we have made go to waste – this ‘offer’ does not resolve our dispute and must be rejected strongly and decisively.

UCU: Reject the four fights offer! Reballot on both the four fights and USS pensions disputes!

On the evening of Friday 15 May, UCU general secretary Jo Grady published an update with a summary of the full and final offer that has been received from the employers’ association UCEA in relation to the ‘four fights’ dispute on pay, workload, casualisation and pay inequality. Also included in the update was information about the current situation with the USS pensions dispute where no offer has been received. It is clear that the four fights ‘offer’, which outlines a set of ‘expectations’ on university senior managements that they would be free to ignore, does not go anywhere near resolving the dispute. The expectations also put all of the emphasis on local rather than national negotiations to get concrete change. Crucially, there is no improved offer on pay. On USS pensions, members are continuing to pay increased contributions based on a flawed valuation methodology and our employers and the pensions scheme bosses have so far refused to budge.

Despite the lack of a resolution, there is no doubt that our recent solid strike action pushed the employers into negotiations which they were not willing to enter previously and there were signs of progress in the talks on both disputes. However, there is a clear need to escalate our action in order to get the concessions we are demanding. Plans were made to reballot for another round of industrial action at the end of our last set of strike days but this was postponed by the union leadership due to the lockdown. We in Socialist Alternative argued against this at the time. This postponement was a mistake and has left us without a legal mandate to continue action short of strike beyond the end of April at a time when our workload has significantly increased due to moving online at very short notice as campuses shut down.

Whilst it is clear that the pandemic has created obstacles, this should not be used as an excuse by the union leadership like it is being used by our employers to make swingeing cuts to jobs, pay and conditions. UCU should have fought for a way for us to continue our disputes rather than shelving the fight until some later date. This would have included battling against the insidious anti-trade union laws that require a postal ballot to be conducted according to strict rules and which we have been told is currently not possible. Our rights as workers should not be curtailed and UCU should fight this outrage and to smash these pernicious laws in conjunction with the other trade unions and the TUC.

Since the pandemic hit, the components of the ‘four fights’ have been particularly highlighted, once again emphasising the huge importance of this dispute. Once the lockdown was announced, we had to adapt immediately and continue to deliver high quality teaching, research and support services in extremely difficult circumstances. This relied, and continues to rely, on the goodwill of staff. Now, the most precarious staff on fixed-term contracts are being rewarded with redundancies whilst the more secure will have hugely increased workloads as a result. These job cuts are being blamed on a projected drastic fall in student numbers for the next academic year, but in reality this is due to incompetent and cut-throat managements, a lack of emergency planning and the rampant marketisation of higher education.

Even with the difficulties of the current situation, the progression of the two disputes is urgent. The Higher Education Committee (HEC) should reject the four fights offer and go ahead with both reballots for industrial action. The question of when the reballots should take place is a live debate – we need a clear strategy for the disputes including a serious campaign to get the vote out to smash the 50% threshold required by the anti-trade union laws. Striking members have lost a huge amount of pay during the 22 days of action and we are exhausted. But there is still a willingness to fight if we know that there is a plan so that our action is not wasted and that the union leadership will not seek to capitulate against our wishes. This plan should be formulated now and the lack of strategy should not be used as an excuse to push the reballots further and further down the line. Reballots started by the end of June, as previously agreed by the HEC, could mean that we have a mandate for industrial action in place by the start of the academic year when a withdrawal of labour would have a hugely significant effect. But if obstacles are continually put in our way by those who want to end the disputes, the reballots will not be successful. This will also be the case if the reballots are held later on in Autumn if moves are not made now to build support amongst members. There is also a real danger that the reballots will not happen at all if the timeframe is extended endlessly into the future.

The current moves to end the disputes prematurely or to drive them gradually into the ground are not only a failure of the leadership of UCU but also of the left in the union to provide and campaign for a clear way forward. There has also been a disregard by the UCU leadership for the democratic processes that were put in place after the 2018 USS pensions dispute to make sure members get a say. Branches have been asked to collect views from members on both disputes and these will be presented at a branch delegate meeting on 26 May which will in turn inform the Higher Education Committee (HEC) who will make the decision on whether to continue with the plans to reballot or instead put the offer to members for a vote. However, the four fights offer was received on 1 April yet was not sent out to branches until 15 May, leaving very little time to achieve a meaningful consultation. These time pressures also played neatly into the hands of those branch leaderships who are continuing to refuse to arrange general meetings during the lockdown.

It is vital that the four fights and USS pensions disputes are kept together to maximise unity both within and between universities. There must be no attempts to separate these by accepting the four fights ‘offer’ when no offer has been made on pensions. If the HEC do not reject the four fights offer but instead decide to put it out to members in a ballot following the branch consultation, a clear recommendation should be made to reject and branches should campaign on that basis. Now is not the time for us to back down. We have held off the threatened destruction of our pensions for over two years and, with a fighting strategy, we have the collective strength to win what is now the most urgent fight that higher education workers have ever faced.

University Strikes: All Out To Win on Pensions, Pay and Conditions

Following 8 days of heroic industrial action by UCU members at 60 Universities, our employers are trying to give the appearance of concessions. In reality however they have offered no concrete promises, and the union has announced 14 more strike days as agreed by delegates at the December Special Conference. This time, workers at 14 more universities will join the picket lines after smashing the Tories undemocratic anti-union laws at the second attempt.

UCU members are fighting on two fronts. In pre-92 universities in defence of our pension in the USS dispute, and across the whole university sector against ever increasing workloads, rampant casualisation, a shameful gender pay gap and years of falling real terms pay, in what members are calling the ‘Four Fights’ dispute. The employers’ ‘offer’ in response to the Four Fights dispute does nothing to resolve this. They offer only recommendations which local universities may wish to follow – leaving us in the same position we were when we started, fighting in our branches for local management to act on casualisation, workload and the gender pay gap. On pay, they have offered no increase on the insulting 1.8%. Right now, we are fighting together in a national campaign on the Four Fights and we need to stick together to win.

Delivering 14 days of strong action is a tall order – but the pattern of action mirrors exactly the successful strike plan that was used in the 2018 USS pension fight, which caused huge disruption to universities and successfully forced the employers to ditch plans to scrap our Defined Benefit pension. Only sustained and serious industrial action will secure what we want and need – a decent pay rise, job security, reduced workload and an end to pay inequality. We are fighting on multiple fronts but combining struggles has built unity and collective strength across the pre and post 92 sectors.

Some union activists believe that we should separate the two disputes and focus our energies on the USS pension fight. This approach was rightly rejected at the December Special Conference – to abandon the demands for action on pay, workload, casualisation and the gender pay gap would be to abandon the most exploited sections of our membership, that have been at the forefront of the struggle for better working conditions. It is essential for the success of both disputes to keep them linked.

Disappointingly, our new General Secretary Jo Grady also seemed to suggest that the ‘Four Fights’ be put on the back burner. In an email to members, pre-empting the Higher Education Committee meeting to decide next steps, she suggested that while a new offer from the employers was “some distance from fulfilling all the demands we have lodged with employers…it is a big step forward”. Grady went on to say that leverage in the dispute had been limited by anti-union laws and that “the best solution to this problem is an aggregated ballot”, at some point in the future. This is a mistake – the union has tried an aggregated ballot and failed to reach the threshold, and the fight for pay and working conditions cannot simply be pushed back to some future date.

It would be wrong to back down now when a further 14 branches have beaten the strike threshold. What’s more, the employers have not moved on pay at all and while they have begun to suggest proposals on other issues they have given no concrete workable commitments on improving job security and workload or reducing the gender pay gap. UCU’s elected negotiators have made clear that although progress has been made, we need concrete guarantees from the employers.

The union nationally should be boldly going to all members with written material about the national strike fund and the local hardship funds, to reassure those in need that the union stands by them financially. Locally, mass members’ meetings should be planned with negotiators or NEC members speaking at them, explaining the truth about the employers’ offer and the 14 more universities joining the strike action.

Fourteen new branches joining the action is a huge boost. Other branches should re-ballot again to boost the dispute further. Unison and Unite members in universities should also re-ballot – this struggle affects us all. We need to build this dispute on campus and across our towns and cities, appealing to students and other groups of workers for support. We must also look beyond the upcoming period of strikes and be ready to escalate further, with more well-prepared strike dates and a marking boycott. We are fighting not just for our pensions, pay and conditions but for the future of Higher Education.

  • Keep fighting on USS and the Four Fights! No decoupling of the disputes – maximum unity among university workers.
  • All out on Feb 20th and beyond – join the pickets, set up local strike committees, organise marches with trade union support in every university town!
  • Prepare for further action and a summer marking boycott – if the employers don’t move, we don’t mark!

Victory to university workers – support the UCU strike!

University workers are striking on the issue of pay, conditions, and increased insecurity at work. The last decade has seen a serious decline in the conditions facing staff. Higher education workers have seen a real-terms pay cut of 20.8%. Insecure fixed-term contracts have skyrocketed. UCU estimates that more than 50% of teaching staff are engaged on some kind of casual or insecure contract.

The gender pay gap is much more severe in higher education than the national average. Women are paid on average 15% less than men, while BAME staff are 10% more likely to be on an insecure contract. This means one thing: industrial action is not only necessary, but long overdue.

UCU members at 60 universities voted overwhelmingly at almost all universities to strike but it was blocked at many due to the Tories’ anti-trade union laws. Many of these branches are already planning to re-ballot and join the strikes however. Unite and Unison should also re-ballot their members working in higher education, so they can join the picket lines too.

At most universities facing strike action, union members are fighting not just for decent pay and working conditions but also to protect their pensions. The scandalous attempt to scrap Defined Benefit from USS pensions last year was met with 14 days of militant action at pre-92 universities. This won a brilliant victory, stopping the employers from cutting pension benefits. Employers have since imposed steep contribution increases on workers, further denting their take home pay, despite the fact the pension scheme is healthy.

Fighting to transform education

The events of this year and last have acted as an example of how workers can fight to reclaim their unions. Many members were outraged at the inaction of the last union leadership. The election this year of a rank-and-file candidate, Jo Grady, as General Secretary reflects the view among UCU member that we should all have democratic control over our unions.

It is significant that such militant strikes have taken place in higher education. This fight has the potential to demonstrate to the wider movement that working people and the unions can have real power when they take action. It could demonstrate these lessons to a new generation of students, most of whom will graduate into workplaces of their own. Unionisation among young people is at a record low, but the lessons of struggle can resonate widely.

The press has churned out propaganda against the strike, claiming falsely that most students oppose it. We have to prove this is false. Socialist Alternative is calling for and supporting efforts to build links between students and striking staff. Students should form strike support groups, to plan interventions and marches around the pickets. The success of this strike will determine the future our education.

Where to go now?

There should be a democratic and open discussion on the strategy needed to win. Post-92 universities that failed to meet the strike turnout threshold could be targeted by union campaigns, led by the UCU leadership and branches in anticipation of possible action in the future.

Winning the strike will involve mobilising the largest possible force that we can gather. On November 29, young people will be taking to the streets continuing their #YouthStrike4Climate movement. Now it should be a priority to link up with this. Mass rallies, organised jointly between UCU members and youth strikers would be a show of strength, as we would be able to assemble and discuss the future of our education, our planet and our services.

For a Corbyn-led government

It is significant the strike is taking place during the general election period. Workers will have an opportunity to vote against austerity and to get the Tories out.

Corbyn’s manifesto includes a promise of free education and an opposition to the privatisation of education. He is calling for the re-nationalisation of Royal Mail and for a Green New Deal. The protests and strikes taking place in November and December should also mobilise support for a Corbyn majority government.

In the event of a Corbyn victory, a mass mobilisation of working people and youth will be vital to ensure that his policies are put in place. He will face opposition from the representatives of big business, including those in his own party – the Blairite MPs – and our movement will need to be there to fight for anti-austerity policies to be implemented.

Win the strike – change the system

Ultimately, people who are fighting against exploitation of workers and the planet are fighting the same thing – the profit-above-all rules of capitalism. An end to poor working conditions and a solution to the climate emergency can only be achieved on the basis of a democratic socialist society, where the wealth and resources of the planet are taken out of the hands of the capitalists and put into those of working people and youth. By linking up the strikes, we can fight together to demonstrate the power that people can have when they fight!

What we stand for

  • Expand and link up the strikes! Develop strong, fighting branches at all universities. Organise mass rallies to link up lecturers, postal workers and youth on strike for their future.
  • Student-worker solidarity – form strike support groups on campus. Students should join the strikes and visit picket lines. When we unite, we can win!
  • A Corbyn-led Labour government to end austerity.
  • Scrap the 2016 Trade Union Act and all anti-union laws. For the right to strike!
  • Free and fully funded education, publicly owned and democratically run – for management by elected bodies of lecturers, teachers, support staff and students.

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