UCU did not ‘fail’ to win the campaign it set out to win with the pay claim of 2015/16: it walked away from the opportunity to win. This pay campaign had a very successful launch (the suggestion that External Examiners resign in particular was instantly and widely acted on), something that suggested much about members’ willingness to fight on pay when the headline figure (the claim was for 5%) was designed to make explicit, and to require movement from UCEA on, gendered inequalities, and on the abuse of casualised contracts, within the sector. The two days of strike action taken in May were successful (of course there was an uneven spread of success) and contributed to building a sense of momentum: UCU was serious this time. Even though there appeared to be no timetable for ASOS (industrial action short of strike action) – for the marking boycott we knew would have to come – and there was a mess with branches having the local strike days (June or July) imposed on them in some instances, the campaign as a whole was a strong one.
Over the Summer it disappeared, and on Friday the 14th of October, the Higher Education Committee (HEC) met and voted to murder it. That vote is key to understanding what happened to our pay campaign of 2015/16 (and the campaign of 2014/15 where the Union proudly ‘noted’ 1% rather than concede in rhetoric that it in effect accepted 1%). I am in my fourth year as a member of NEC and so have sat on HEC whilst we have voted to throw away this and previous campaigns. The elected leadership bodies of our Union contains a majority of individuals who hold to a philosophy of trade unionism that sees local negotiations, with national lobbying of parliament and other organisations a useful extra, as a credible route to survive. This is not a strange situation but rather articulates a pessimism tactically familiar to trade unions across the UK and more widely across Europe. The central pole of this position is that members will not take industrial action in sufficient numbers or with sufficient militancy to enable even concessions from employers let alone a win.
Here is not the place to go into the history and limits of that particular trade union response to the play of forces over the last generation, in particular what has happened to national bargaining agreements. The decision made at the HEC on the 14th of October, on my (fallible) count a decision of 17: 13, meant that our pay dispute was suspended (formally as informally it had been dormant over the summer) whilst the UCU consulted members on the way forward. Some of us on the HEC begged (this is not an exaggeration) HEC members to vote for sending a recommendation of ‘reject’ with the consultative ballot. This too was voted down. The result was the ending of our pay dispute with a turnout of 15%.
Two things now become important if the UCU is to survive – and arguably its survival is crucial to the sector’s survival as a whole. Anyone who is cynical about the possibility of UCU turning itself around from the chasm it is in is welcome to put forward an alternative: I don’t see one.
The first is that we become stronger locally – that means involving more members in branch work – and the second is that we find new ways to push forward on developing national strategies. Higher Education is being undermined from within (the fees regime and the ways we bend to it in terms of adhering to the REF, the NSS and the misery of recruitment, retention and satisfaction behaviours it generates) and without (the Higher Education and Research Bill, the TEF and a VCs’ body which is either cravenly complicit in these or jockeying for position to see who can pick up the most valuable crumbs). Our colleagues in Further Education, Adult and Prison Education have been subject to even more devastating attacks – in funding, structural autonomy, on jobs and on conditions of work. Local branch work alone will not save us. With the Trade Union Bill about to become an Act of Parliament, the ballot threshold for national industrial action is going to be extremely hard to achieve. At best this will mean we face a fragmentation of pay and conditions across the sector and at worst no real prospects of a national pay dispute to advance members’ pay, jobs and conditions in the years ahead. Pensions cannot be defended at the local level for example; both USS and TPS, already battered, are now even more vulnerable.
To push from below towards a restoration of the credibility of UCU at the national level is the only way I can see that we can work towards resisting and potentially defeating the rot that is encompassing post-16 education. For HE, we are in a situation where we have taken a formal turn away from national bargaining towards local work: in his email to members explaining that the pay dispute was being called off, the Head of HE, Paul Bridges wrote:
In 2016, women are still paid a little over 12% less than men. More than half of all teaching staff plus close to 70% of research staff do not have permanent contracts. Set against that the employers’ offer to jointly examine and report on best practice in the sector, while useful, will not by itself win equal pay or a secure future for one single UCU member.
So, while we will be entering these national discussions in a positive spirit we will also be taking nationally supported local action to hold every individual employer to account. The Higher Education Committee has decided that nationally backed local claims on gender pay and the reduction of precarious employment should be made with every HE institution.
Guidance and resources will be provided to your branch as will regional and national support to achieve these twin aims.
(Bridge, National Head of HE, email to all members, 15th Nov. 2016, my italics).
In effect, branches are being called upon to campaign locally against their own institution’s gender pay gap and rising casualisation. This in itself is not going to work. Only 15 % of members voted in the ‘consultative ballot’ just held. Branch officers themselves are frequently overwhelmed with case –work and with holding together their own local credibility in the face of HEIs’ increasingly desperate degradation of terms and conditions, of academic governance and professional autonomy. Branches in other words will not be able to conduct this work unless we change the way we operate.
This will not be an easy task but it is urgent. Take one example, the opposition of the NUS to TEF (see their excellent campaign by searching for #TEFOff) and how this informs their policy on boycotting this year’s NSS. This is our best chance now to push back against a widespread acceptance of TEF as inevitable. What is your Students’ Union doing with the boycott? What is your local branch doing to work with the SU, or if your SU is not supporting the boycott, how will staff in your institution deal with the NSS this year. To encourage final-year students to fill in the NSS this year will be to put them in the invidious position of going against their national union’s policy; not to encourage them to do so risks your own institutions numbers in the league tables falling. Media and Cultural Studies as disciplines have not developed collective responses to TEF but now might be a good time to begin: we know how damaging, how corrosive, any more attention to ‘student satisfaction’ will be to our relationship with our students, our disciplines and each other. Bring a motion to your branch calling on all members not to promote the NSS this year given the NUS’s policy, and our own Union’s long-standing policy of opposition to metricisation and to discourses of consumerism.
That is one way branches will become transformed into spaces of hope and of resistance. Right now, they are places in my experience of exhausted people: officers who are asked to do too much with too little. All members must become ‘activists’.
Secondly, we need to link a radicalisation of branch work to our regional and national structures: to do that we need discussion and decisions which carry the credibility of having been thrashed out in argument. I see no alternative way to do that than to have a recall sector conference and I support the UCU Left call for one. You can find their model or draft motion at or create your own. We do need to do this however: working at branch level only will cripple the sector as the weaker branches are picked off and ugly precedents are set.
Finally, you need to vote in the elections for the NEC which will open in the new year , and you need to vote in the election for General Secretary which is being contested by Sally Hunt (who has led our Union since its inception) or for Jo McNeil who is putting forward a more militant way of conducting ourselves. Turnout for NEC elections is always shameful: understandably so perhaps when national bargaining work actually did work. We cannot afford to not participate in these elections any longer however: if change is going to happen in UCU, and it badly needs to, it will mean paying more attention.