A national ballot for strike action over university lecturers’ pay has fallen short of the Tory-set threshold, despite UCU members smashing the same barrier earlier this year. Why the change in mood?
Despite a strong effort from grassroots activists to get the vote out, the University and Colleges Union (UCU) ballot for strike action over stagnant pay failed to meet the required 50% threshold at the vast majority of universities.
This is a disappointing result. The blame rests squarely with the union leadership, whose wrecking behaviour during the UCU’s historic pensions’ strike earlier this year has dented members’ confidence.
When the results were announced, UCU head office admitted to “frustration”. But they tried to soften the blow by pointing out that, “if you aggregate the results, it’s the best turnout for a pay ballot in the union’s history.” Given some very generous maths, that might be true.
The union leaders also made a great song and dance about how “unfair” current trade union policy is, given the high threshold for legal strike action.
Of course, we agree. But we should also be honest.
The UCU smashed the draconian threshold set by Tory anti-trade union laws only a few months ago. But this time it was a different story.
By way of comparison, 64 percent of UCU members at Bristol, 60 percent at Goldsmiths, and 57 at Warwick participated in the ballot in January. The respective turnouts at these universities was 45, 46 and 36 this time around.
And whereas last time, most branches were upwards of 90 percent in favour of action, this time the average was closer to 50 percent, showing a notable drop-off in enthusiasm.
Certainly, this outcome should not be taken as proof that university workers are content with over a decade of pay cuts (while university managers enjoy ballooning pay packets and bonuses – not to mention writing off “corporate events” at London strip clubs as “expenses”).
Neither is this an endorsement of marketisation, which has laden students with punishing debts (wreaking havoc on their mental health) and stuck 60 percent of the academic workforce on precarious contracts.
There were multiple factors to explain this outcome. But the main thing is that the radical energy academics demonstrated on the pension strike has been largely deflated. UCU members are disillusioned and disorientated over the result of that impressive struggle.
The final pensions dispute deal has been revealed as stitch-up, which merely kicked negotiations down the road, giving management room to breathe. Our unelected negotiators have so far achieved a “modest” pension cut, and have left the door open to ending our defined benefit scheme, potentially denying thousands of lecturers security in their old age. Defending this scheme was the purpose of the strike to begin with.
No confidence in the leadership
It is hardly surprising that many UCU members have lost confidence in our leadership, given their actions and behaviour during the last strike. For example, when they tried to go over the heads of members to impose a toxic deal, cooked up with the university bosses, more than once. Or when they sabotaged the union’s 2018 conference, doing everything from walking out, to slandering members, to calling industrial action against their own union in order to protect their own positions.
How can UCU members be expected to trust such leaders not to lead us up the garden path again, costing us time, energy and wages?
The problem here is not the willingness of ordinary university workers to fight, but that this potential is being squandered by a leadership that refuses to be held accountable. Responsibility for this ballot result lies at the top..
Students and workers: unite and fight!
The anger over marketisation of higher education (HE) has not vanished. There will be eruptions in future. University workers demonstrated earlier this year that we have the strength to brave cold weather and calumny in defence of our interests. And we will do so again.
Cleaners and support staff are now showing the way forward, with many successful in-house campaigns, organised in cooperation with students, taking off at universities all over the country. Together, we have the power to bring the entire HE sector to a stand-still. Unified with the rest of the working class in a general strike, we could deal a fatal blow to this enfeebled Tory government.
The task now is to replace those at the top of our union with a fighting leadership; to trust in our own forces and fight as part of the organised working class for an education system free of exploitation; and, ultimately, to struggle for a socialist society.
Anti-union laws and the need for fighting leadership
By Stan Laight, Sheffield Marxists
This week the UCU published the results of their ballot for industrial action regarding pay negotiations. Out of the 147 universities balloted, only seven achieved the necessary 50% turnout threshold required to take action. This is despite almost 90% of UCU higher education (HE) branches seeing a majority of returned ballots voting in favour of industrial action.
Scales weighed against the workers
The reasons for this defeat are: firstly, the Tory (anti-)Trade Union Act; and secondly, the woeful UCU leadership. Here, in Sheffield, UCU members have fortunately been able to overcome these hurdles to assert their democratic right to strike. But this has not been the case across the country.
The draconian Trade Union Act introduced by the Tories was intended to “provide a £100 million boost to UK economy over 10 years” and save “1.5 million working hours a year” from industrial action. The Act was a classic manoeuvre by the capitalist class to consolidate their dominance during times of economic crisis.
It has prevented numerous trade unions from carrying out industrial action despite achieving majorities in favour of industrial action. This effort by the Tories to bolster their political position is an attempt to bring up the drawbridge as the crisis of capitalism deepens and the working class begins to mobilise across the labour movement on a scale not seen for decades.
For a fighting union leadership
Just as responsible, the UCU leadership has clearly shown itself incapable of standing up for their members. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, has failed to galvanise union members on the back of the crystallising solidarity between workers and students seen during the pensions dispute earlier this year.
This will come as no surprise to UCU members after the farce at the union’s congress back in May. Unelected senior officials and staff members walked out to prevent motions being heard from delegates calling for the union leadership to go and for a democratic review. The undemocratic trade union officials were clearly unwilling to face criticism from the members that they are paid – but not elected – to represent.
In Sheffield, Unison – which represents support stuff in HE – are still holding their ballot on industrial action. Students have been campaigning with Unison members to get the vote out.
In spite of the UCU leadership, student-worker solidarity is gaining significant momentum in Sheffield. We plan on sending a strong message to our new vice-chancellor, Prof Koen Lamberts, that his track record of privatisation of education and stifling industrial action will not be tolerated on our campus.
Topple the Tories!
Nationally, our role as Marxist students is to bring students and workers together in solidarity in the face of privatisation, casualisation and anti-trade union laws in our universities and schools. It is vital that the struggle for workers’ rights and students’ fight for free education are linked and organised in tandem.
Despite the UCU result, the pressure is building on university management and trade union leaders. This is true not just of the education sector, but across all sectors of industry also. We need to put in place a fighting union leadership; remove the Blairite stench lingering in the Parliamentary Labour Party; and topple the Tories.
If a general election is not called, then we must call for a general strike of workers and students to bring down this rotten government. Kick out the Tories! Kick out capitalism!