UCU Politics and Strategy: What next?

A contribution to debate from

Adam Ozanne, University of Manchester

John Kelly, Birkbeck College

Dyfrig Jones, Bangor University

Within two years, UCU has gone from famous victory to painful and costly defeat. How has this happened, who is responsible, and how can the union – with little to show for 22 days of strikes and lost pay – recover from this setback and rebuild for the future?

In 2018, UCU was riding high. Fourteen days of strikes forced employers to abandon their plans to get rid of Defined Benefit USS pensions and agree to the creation of a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to settle technical arguments over the methodology used by USS to value the pension fund. In September that year, the Panel’s first report (JEP1) found that relatively modest increases in contributions – from 8% to 9.1% for employees and from 18% to 20.1% for employers – would be sufficient to maintain the existing level of benefits.

There can be little doubt that this was viewed by most members of UCU as a major win. In April 2018, 64% voted in an e-ballot with a record 64% turnout to suspend strikes and set up the JEP, a clear vindication of UCU’s criticisms of the USS Executive, whose valuation methodology exaggerated the size of the deficit, and of employers, who had been overly eager to get rid of DB and shift pensions’ risk on to members’ shoulders with a 100% Defined Contribution (DV) scheme.

Predictably, the USS Executive, especially its chief executive, Bill Galvin, resisted the JEP’s criticisms. They rejected the Panel’s suggestion that total contributions of 29.2% were sufficient and persuaded the USS trustee board that it was necessary to raise total contributions from October 2019 to 30.7%, 9.6% (up from 8.8%) for employees and 21.1% for employers. However, in a remarkable concession to the UCU negotiators, UUK not only accepted that DB should stay but also offered to increase employers’ contributions by an extra 0.5% so that the increase in employee contributions could be reduced to 9.1% in line with the JEP report.

This offer, made in August 2019, was a decisive turning point in the dispute. It is plausible to argue that if members had been offered a choice of accepting a 0.3 percentage point increase in pension contributions or striking to secure no increase at all, the majority of UCU members in pre-92 universities would have accepted this 9.1% offer. However, they were not asked. The negotiators who had delivered the JEP had, by August 2019, been replaced by a new, more belligerent team. This new negotiation team did not recommend the 9.1% offer because they felt they could not deviate from, or did not wish to deviate from, the “No Deficit/No Detriment” motions passed by UCU’s Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC).

Not only did UCU have a new team of negotiators, the membership of its Higher Education Committee (HEC) differed from the HEC which had led the union into the dispute in 2018. Members affiliated with UCU Left were now in the majority, and this would significantly influence the course of the industrial action. As this paper recounts, UCU Left has a history of blocking direct member consultation, and used its votes on the HEC to reject the 9.1% offer and press ahead with industrial action ballots.

Even at this point, events might have taken a different turn. The union’s new General Secretary, Jo Grady, suggested a gradual, escalating programme of strikes beginning with two days before Christmas followed by a gradual ratcheting up of strike days over a period of months, which would slowly increase pressure on employers and give time for negotiations with UUK and UCEA. This plan was rejected by the HEC, however, in favour of an intensive campaign beginning with eight days of strikes concluding on the 4th of December. Two days later, a Special HESC took place in Manchester, where Branch Delegates would agree the next steps in the dispute. While the Special HESC had been arranged months in advance, the deadline for submitting and amending motions fell during the industrial action itself, a period that also coincided with the final week of the General Election campaign. Members who had braved the bitter cold of late November were afforded a few days, at best, to respond to the motions proposed. Some well-organised branches may have been able to consult members during that first week of December, but many members were surprised to learn a week later that they were to be called out for a further 14 days of action to take place in February and March.

It is, of course, HEC that has the power to decide strike dates, and it had ample time to consult members properly, between early December and its meeting at the end of January. Yet when it came to setting those dates, it relied exclusively on the decision taken at the Special HESC. Moreover, despite the fact that the Special HESC had focused exclusively on the USS dispute in pre-92 universities, members in post-92 institutions who were not involved in this dispute found themselves bound by the hastily-made decision to commit to a further 14-days. This is because the HEC also decided to couple the USS and the “Four Fights” disputes, insisting that the USS and “Four Fights” strikes would not be called off unless employers agreed to both sets of demands. The union was negotiating with different employer bodies in the two disputes – UUK on USS and UCEA on pay, casualisation, workloads and inequalities – and since the latter involves four other trade unions and 147 universities while USS only involves UCU and the 68 pre-92 universities, this complexity made the search for winning strategies even more difficult. Compounding these problems were the warnings by the General Secretary that around half of the branches involved in the Four Fights dispute were either not supportive of the decision to call 14 more days of strikes or wished to be consulted further on the issue.

A generous reading of the situation is that HEC, controlled as it now was by a UCU Left majority, failed to realise the depth of support for strikes was lower than in 2018. A more critical analysis might argue that the HEC actively sought to minimise member voice when consulting on the second phase of the dispute, handing responsibility to the December Special HESC that took place while many members were still recovering from eight days on the picket line, and refusing to consult those branches who were striking for the Four Fights but not USS. They also did not recognise the full implications due to these developments occurring at the exact moment when the broader political landscape was crumbling beneath UCU’s feet, with the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in the general election. Most damning of all for a trade union entering industrial action, HEC never identified an exit strategy or fallback position other than securing total victory on all five issues

The result is that, two years after the great 2018 USS victory, the story could not be more different. Despite 22 days of strikes, USS members are worse off than they would have been if UUK’s August 2019 equal-to-JEP1 offer had been accepted. On the Four Fights, the recently “improved” offer from UCEA adds nothing on pay (not even the additional 0.2% floated by UCEA in negotiations in July that would have raised the 2019 headline pay increase from 1.8% to 2%, equal to the June CPI inflation rate) and little of significance to the commitments to address casualisation, workloads and equality made in January before the final 14 days of strikes.

Even without the Covid-19 crisis, which hit soon after the last of the 14 strike days, the combination of high strike costs and poor outcomes means many members will think twice before taking national strike action again any time soon. And, since employers know this, the union is massively weakened as a result.

UCU needs to face up to this reality, take stock and consider “What Next?” This paper is an attempt to contribute to the discussion as follows:

  1. We compare strike ballot results and try to identify why the appetite of UCU members for industrial action declined between 2018 and 2019/20.
  2. We contrast the political attitudes of those on the “far” left who see strike action as a means of generating class consciousness, with those on the mainstream left who favour a more gradualist approach and see strikes as a means for improving terms and conditions of employment.
  3. We argue that the union needs to think politically and more strategically and show greater willingness to consult with members if it is to achieve its long-term aims.
  4. We review the current situation following two Branch Delegate Meetings on May 26th, HEC meetings on May 27thand June 8th and the 3:2 rejection of the employers’ Four Fights offer in the membership ballot that closed on 29thJuly.

We hope that this assessment of the political forces in play – both within and outwith UCU – will help the union develop a new strategy that commands the support and participation of all members, not just committed activists.

Comparison of statutory ballot results

First, we need to recognise that, despite UCU Left’s claims that the USS strikes had “transformed” UCU, it was apparent in October 2019 that support for strikes had diminished since 2018. Then, 51% of all pre-1992 members voted for strikes over USS – a majority that gave the union a powerful mandate for action employers could not easily dismiss as the voice of a noisy minority. The 2019 ballots, however, delivered significantly lower votes: in the USS dispute, 42% of members voted for strike action, and in the Four Fights dispute, 36% of members voted for action.

A senior official of another trade union, whose identity we cannot reveal but whose union is no slouch when it comes to striking, has told us that they would not have called a strike on the basis of the 2019 results as the union leadership believes strikes are only effective when supported by the kind of majority obtained by UCU in 2018.

Moreover, turnouts fell in 54 out of 64 pre-1992 branches despite a set of factors which should have raised turnout: the increased effort on Get The Vote Out (GVTO) campaigning, the new General Secretary, the influx of new members since 2018, and the general notion that UCU has now been transformed into a member-led activist union. There is also little evidence that the 2018 strikes in pre-1992 universities kindled an infectious optimism in post-1992 branches, where only 12 out of 85 were able to take part in the November-December 8-day strikes.

Nor did the January 2020 reballots of 37 branches that had fallen just short of the 50% threshold in October alter the situation massively: just 16 institutions exceeded the threshold whilst 21 branches failed to do so for the second time.  While three-quarters of pre-1992 universities were able to go on strike for 14 days in 2020, this was significantly less than the 63 out of 67 in 2018. Even more worryingly, only one-quarter of the 85 post-1992 branches were able to join them. The union is still not within sight of being able to take effective industrial action across the whole of the post-92 sector and even in the pre-92 universities there was less of an appetite for action than in 2018.

The results of these statutory ballots are borne out by data on participation in the strikes from employers and our own and others’ observation of picket lines. UCEA reported that 29% of UCU members in striking branches participated in November-December and that the impact of strikes in February-March was lower, while the University of Manchester (which hosts UCU’s second largest branch with over 2000 members) claimed the number of members who joined the strikes for at least one day went down from 739 in November-December to 326 February-March. Such employer stats must, of course, be taken with a large pinch of salt, but there is little doubt about the trajectory. It remains true that across the UK and locally in branches, the union has learnt how to mobilise and do industrial action exceptionally well in recent years. Nevertheless, despite many vibrant picket lines, strike meetings, teach-outs and imaginative leaflets, overall membership support in Feb-March 2020 was probably less than in Nov-Dec 2019 and both were less than in 2018.

The choices facing members in 2018 and 2019/20

Why was this? When pre-1992 members were asked if they would go on strike over USS in 2018, the issue was crystal clear: employers wanted to close down the Defined Benefit (DB) part of the scheme and replace it with an inferior Defined Contribution (DC) scheme. The union narrative was able to focus on the costly and unnecessary destruction of the DB scheme and frame the situation as a simple binary choice facing members, one that elicited widespread sympathy, from students, politicians of all persuasions and the mainstream media.

In 2019 and 2020, the choice before members was not so black-and-white. The Four Fights Dispute sought reductions in the gender pay gap, workloads and casualization as well as an increase in basic pay. This was a huge agenda around which to negotiate and begged the question whether a more focused campaign would have produced better results. Moreover it remained unclear throughout the dispute precisely what set of outcomes would constitute a win. Were we looking for substantive reductions in, say, the percentage of employees on fixed term contracts? Or were we more focused on procedures to reduce the incidence of such contracts and if so what would they look like and what kind of language would define a win? The principles underpinning the Four Fights are vitally important to the future of the HE sector, but the Four Fights narrative was frustratingly vague, and the strike’s aims often nebulous.

In the case of pensions, USS members did not go on strike again to save DB: that battle was won in 2018. Rather, they were called to go out on strike for 22 days in order to avoid having to pay higher contributions for the current level of DB benefits – which even at the current 9.6% are comparable to and often lower than the rates paid by TPS colleagues in post-1992 universities, colleges and schools, and public sector workers in other pension schemes.

What is more, in August last year, pre-1992 employers offered to increase their USS contributions by a further 0.5% on condition that UCU abandon the statutory ballot due to open on 9th September. This offer, if accepted, would have reduced members’ contributions for the next two years from 9.6% to 9.1%, the level suggested by JEP1.

At this point, UCU’s negotiators and HEC could have decided it was better to bank UUK’s equal-to-JEP1 9.1% offer, cancel the statutory strike ballot, and set up an e-ballot to ascertain whether or not members thought the offer was acceptable, as they did for the UUK offer to set up JEP in April 2018. However, instead, on September 6th, HEC rejected the 9.1% offer in favour of continuing with the statutory ballot.

It is always difficult for HEC or any other representative body to anticipate what members would think of a pretty-darn-good-but-not-what-we-were-hoping-for offer, and make a decision on their behalf. Nevertheless, members of USS can quickly compute how much the decision to continue with the statutory ballot rather than run an e-consultation will have cost them: potentially, 0.5% less in pay between Oct 2019 and Oct 2021, at a time when we are also complaining about below-inflation pay increases. For the roughly 40,000 UCU pre-1992 members earning on an average salary of, let’s say £30,000 (which is much lower than the average academic pay of £49k according to the FT, to allow for the free membership of PhD students who teach), that is a total loss of around £12 million over two years!

After the initial 8 day strike in November and December and the general election result, which brought an anti-trade union Tory party back into power with a substantial, 80 seat majority, employers clearly looked at the numbers striking, weighed up the new balance of power between employers and UCU, and decided that, unlike in 2018, they could see off UCU without putting more money on the table. UUK did not repeat the equal-to-JEP1 offer it had made to USS members in pre-1992 universities in August 2019 and UCEA did not return to the extra 0.2% on pay its negotiators had floated in July. It became obvious that negotiations were leading nowhere in March 2020, as the final 22nd strike day approached, when one of UCU’s USS negotiators, who had rejected the equal-to-JEP1 9.1% offer in September, was plaintively reduced to calling on members via Twitter, “Over to you”.

The Four Fights dispute also ended with little improvement on the offer made in January to establish a national framework agreement on casualisation, workload and equality issues, and no more money for pay. It has been suggested by some of the UCU pay negotiators – a majority of whom are UCU Left members and/or supported the UCL Left strategy – that UCEA had indicated they were about to make an improved offer in March but backtracked as the Covid-19 pandemic began to loom over the horizon. Perhaps this is true, but (a) the strikes ended on 13th March, ten days before the UK lockdown was announced on the 23rd, and (b) why would UCEA, a more battle-hardened negotiator than UUK, make concessions so late on when they could see support for the strikes was dwindling? Such reports seem more like a rewriting of history by UCU Left, to excuse and distract attention away from their responsibility for a strategy that clearly failed: we were on the point of making a breakthrough but were robbed by Covid.

Far left and mainstream left

What lessons should we draw from the above? As always, the answer depends partly on personal political beliefs and worldview.

For those on the far left, strikes are certainly a means for improving term and conditions of employment but they are also part of a strategy to build revolutionary class consciousness through repeated and ongoing strike action. Despite frequent calls by UCU Left for “member-led democracy”, their representatives on HEC have often been reluctant to consult with ordinary members, presumably because they cannot trust them to return the (in their view) right, militant answer. Hence they opposed putting to a membership vote UUK’s offer to set up the JEP in 2018; after winning control of HEC in 2019 they declined to put UUK’s equal-to-JEP1 9.1% offer to members last September; and most recently they voted in May against putting UCEA’s Four Fights offer to members. UCU Left were not interested in banking what many others thought was a very good offer; nor did it have any other exit strategy from the dispute that could have involved trading off improvements in some areas against others (the normal position of any experienced negotiator). Their ‘strategy’ appeared to be holding out for complete victory on all five issues (Four Fights plus pensions). Indeed, for UCU Left, the very notion of an exit strategy appears anathema: there is no “exit” from a dispute, only victory.

Thinking politically and strategically

To achieve good outcomes around casualization, workloads, equality, pay and pensions we have to be clear that on the whole the recent industrial action was a failure and learn lessons from it. In particular, the leadership of the union needs to think more politically and strategically; those members of the 2019/20 HEC who survived the spring 2020 election need to acknowledge the desperately poor outcomes of the dispute, and accept some responsibility for those outcomes. Every member, new and old, must be willing to analyse what went wrong, and how we can re-build from here. Thinking politically requires that we assess how much leverage the union has, taking into account the broader political context. Far too little attention has been paid to the changing balance of power between HE employers and UCU and the implications of the 2019 general election. This must change. The political circumstances in 2019/20 were very different from those in 2018. Members’ appetites for industrial action began at a lower level in 2019 for a variety of possible reasons: the costs of the previous action still weighed heavily on some colleagues; the ‘narrative’ around the dispute was unclear; and decisions about the demands, tactics and strategy often seemed remote from members. Support for action may have waned further over 22 days of protracted striking during which it was no longer so easy to portray UCU as the DB-defending underdog and employers as the intransigent party. This in turn meant the strong and widespread support and sympathy we received from students, politicians and the media the union in 2018 was not repeated to anything like the same extent in 2019/20.

In addition, employers were more united than in 2018, no doubt bolstered by the knowledge that they would secure strong support from a Tory government with a large parliamentary majority that would be keen to see off trade unions – and for whom UCU is an easier target than doctors, nurses and teachers. This was quite different from 2018 – less than a year after Theresa May’s humiliation in the 2017 general election and with a government and Tory party wracked by Brexit infighting. They may also have learned lessons from the disunity that resulted in their 2018 defeat and worked hard to ensure a united front.

In this changed political landscape, asking members to go on strike for 22 days was asking a great deal, especially for those on low pay and fixed-term contracts. The decline in numbers noted above indicates that many who had supported the 2018 strikes enthusiastically did the calculations, asked themselves whether the long-term gains in pensions, increased pay, and improved conditions justified the short-term costs, lost enthusiasm and voted with their feet, either not striking at all or striking for only some of the industrial action days.

How can UCU now recover and rebuild members’ confidence and trust in the union? We believe the union needs to think more strategically, in three ways.

First, we need to focus on the big picture as well as arguments about the technical details of pension scheme valuations etc. There has sometimes been a tendency to believe that once the intellectual argument over, for example, USS’s Test 1 has been won, the battle is over, but this can neglect political realities and fail to shift the position of your opponents. Understanding technical arguments is important, but we saw in 2018 how the fight switched quickly and dramatically from the details of the USS valuation to the purely political; and UCU won because it had more popular support and more muscle. In 2018, the employers also helped by making a huge mistake at the outset in threatening DB pensions: their belligerence helped us frame our narrative around the idea of pension scheme destruction. In 2020, however, the big picture was different, partly because it lacked such a clear focus but also perhaps because it was an offensive dispute – we were making demands of the employers, not they of us – and offensive disputes are always harder to mobilize around.

Second, thinking long term. Given the changed political circumstances and individual members’ calculations of the relative costs, how likely is it that more strikes – over USS, Four Fights, Covid-19 cuts, anything – will succeed in 2020/21? Is there a better approach to achieving our long-term aims? The coming global recession and USS valuation are going to be extraordinarily difficult. We also need to look beyond 2020/21 and think “very” long term, i.e. beyond the next USS valuation, or even the next decade. It took AUT sixteen years hard argument and campaigning to persuade employers to set up a sector-wide final salary pension scheme that lasted forty years. We need that kind of stamina, and to see the current situation from a similar perspective, not as one big battle over USS/Four Fights that will settle everything forever but as a (perhaps) two-decade long campaign.

Third, we should not lose sight of the fact that historically trade unions have achieved most when building upon significant but incremental gains, year after year. Those who favour this gradualist approach may be more willing to bank offers from employers – such as the equal-to-JEP1 9.1% offer or the additional 0.2% floated by UCEA last summer, or the far from ideal Four Fights offer on casualisation, equality and workloads offered by UCEA in May – even though they fall short of the union’s initial demands, seeing partial gains as part of a long-term process whereby success breeds success, building confidence in UCU and fortifying member solidarity; whereas expecting too much sacrifice from members risks defeat, disillusionment and declining confidence.

Those on the far left portray this kind of gradualist strategy as defeatism, betrayal of members and a failure to recognise and tackle the root cause of problems, demanding that the only real solution to the pay and pensions crisis is to abolish capitalism and the marketisation of education. Those on the mainstream left may be more sympathetic to a more gradual approach.

Resolving differences – consulting members

There will always be differences of opinion regarding politics and strategy. However, such differences can be resolved by properly involving members in key decisions about whether to go on strike or accept less-than-hoped-for-offers.

Using a range of methods, including e-balloting, to involve as many members as possible in decision-making (rather than delegating power to activists with the time and willingness to attend meetings) is of central importance as well as being increasingly easy today with online survey packages. Unless we do this, UCU will not only struggle to retain support; it will also see members quitting as they tire of being called upon to sacrifice themselves for causes from which they are increasingly alienated and disengaged.

However, despite oft-repeated claims to be for a “member-led union”, UCU Left members, locally within branches and in NEC and HEC meetings, are putting forward more and more arguments to justify making decisions about strikes, offers etc. in delegate meetings instead of consulting all UCU members, for example by using online surveys.

They argue, for example, that complex issues cannot be turned into simple binary Yes/No, Accept/Reject, Strike/Don’t strike questions in ballots and that only by attending meetings and hearing debates can members really understand the issues surrounding accepting or rejecting offers, going on strike etc.  They also have a strong preference for decisions being made only by the most active members; the views of passive members who join the union mainly for insurance reasons and do not participate in strikes, picket lines etc. should be discounted. For example, Jo McNeill, a leading UCU Left member and unsuccessful candidate in General Secretary and Vice-President elections, argued on Twitter after the HEC meeting on May 26th that members who “attend meetings, vote in ballots, strike, stand on picket lines and have been in the frontline of these fights” should decide whether or not UUK and UCEA offers should be accepted or rejected, not the “wider, inactive membership”.

All of these arguments have something to be said for them: surveys are tricky to do well, especially when lacking full information and under time pressure; it is good to debate and thrash out complicated and difficult choices together in meetings; and trade union committee members who put a lot of work into supporting their members can find a lack of participation frustrating (the University of Manchester AUT committee once passed a tongue-in-cheek motion of no confidence in the branch members!).

Nevertheless, all three arguments are fundamentally flawed. Why is it acceptable to put such binary questions – accept/reject an offer, strike or not – to a show of hands in a meeting but not via an e-survey (perhaps after a meeting and discussion)?  The argument that hearing a debate in a meeting is necessary to understand the issues underestimates the cognitive powers and ability of UCU members who, by definition, are one of the most educated constituencies anywhere. Many members to whom we spoke during the strikes were not inactive and isolated but frequently talked to all sorts of people about pensions – in workgroups, departmental meetings, social media etc. The fact that they didn’t go to union meetings or picket lines doesn’t equate to ignorance or passivity. And the preference for active member hegemony reveals UCU Left’s (or at least its SWP/Socialist Party leadership’s) disdainful Animal Farm view of most UCU members: all members are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Perhaps the main reason UCU Left tries to block member consultation is that, while they always applaud growth in numbers and claim this is evidence of a radicalised workforce, they also know there are significant differences in attitudes between the activist base of any branch and the wider membership, a claim corroborated repeatedly by over fifty years of industrial relations research. And these differences in attitude can lead to extraordinary claims. For example, when branches were asked to consult members in February, it was reported by the UCU Left President of the University of Manchester branch that 85-90% of its members supported 14 more days of strikes on the USS and Four Fights disputes and for strikes to continue until both UUK and UCEA conceded, a claim based on votes in meetings attended by less than 2% of the branch membership.

The situation today

The Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown and urgent need for staff and students everywhere to adapt to working and learning from home have distracted attention from the USS and Four Fights disputes and given cover to the failure of the union’s UCU Left inspired strategy. Indeed, the first signs of the usual betrayal-by-the-leadership accusations are emerging with UCU Left website and Twitter attacks on the General Secretary and UCU officials, while a motion passed by NEC called on UCU to launch a UK-wide campaign for a massive government bail-out of the HE sector funded by, amongst other things, the cancellation of Trident (https://twitter.com/mikeotsuka/status/1257707095471898629).

This and the balance between far left and mainstream left members on the union’s NEC may be changing following the early 2020 union elections, in which UCU Left lost a number of places to a loose network of UCU Agenda, many of whom had played leading roles in the 2018 USS campaign, independents, and a new Grady4GS slate associated with the union’s new General Secretary, Jo Grady, and USS Briefs, which she co-founded.

This has already had an impact.  On May 27th, the last HEC meeting wholly dominated by UCU Left ignored the results of member consultations and two Branch Delegates’ Meetings the day before which voted by overwhelming majorities against re-balloting members on industrial action over the USS and Four Fights disputes – hugely ironic for a faction that boasts of being in favour of a “member-led” union. This meant a previous HEC decision to reballot by the end of June, was not discussed and still stood. Another HEC meeting, with the newly elected HEC members, was therefore called on June 8th that aligned UCU policy with the clearly expressed wishes of members as expressed through the delegates’ meetings.

It is not clear yet what future direction the incoming HEC will take. Although UCU Left has lost outright control, it remains to be seen how those elected from the JoGrady4GS/USS Briefs slate will vote when it comes to the next rounds in the fights over USS, pay and conditions, and now Covid-19. Last year, those who had declared themselves to be USS Briefs candidates in their 2019 election statements voted with UCU Left to reject UUK’s 9.1% offer on USS; in favour of 22 days of strikes; and to make the USS and Four Fights disputes dependent on each other. However, there are indications of a growing realisation that the UCU Left escalation strategy they supported was, largely, a failure.

For example, two of the new Grady4GS NEC members published an article in Tribune in May – https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/05/learning-the-lessons-from-the-ucu-strikes – which shares many of the thoughts in this piece. For example, it described UCEA’s May offer as “underwhelming” and said, “What the union needs to do now is pause, take stock, and think seriously about why the strike did not work and what needs to be done to improve on its disappointing results in future.”  Also, rather surprisingly for an article entitled, “Lessons from the UCU strikes”, there is not a single mention of USS in the Tribune piece. USS Briefs backed UCU Left’s strategy over USS throughout the dispute and owning up to its failure and their role in it is perhaps too painful to contemplate. However, the main difference between these pieces is that the Tribune authors also do not mention the role played, and responsibility of, UCU Left and the SWP and Socialist Party members who lead the faction, preferring to ascribe responsibility for failure of the strikes to “organisational and strategic weaknesses that can be found elsewhere on the British Left” and the Higher Education Committee generally, which seems a bit unfair to those on HEC who argued against the strategy.

If UCU Left’s far left leaders find they no longer control NEC, FEC and HEC, we predict (based on past performance) that their next gambit, having already failed to get what they want from ad hoc Branch Delegates Meetings, will be to press for special meetings of Congress and FE and HE Sector Conferences, since they can generally get relatively more of their supporters to such meetings and so dominate the votes – especially as they have repeatedly blocked efforts to introduce electronic voting which would save hours of time counting hand-held card votes, assist delegates with disabilities and, by providing a level of privacy when voting, reduce opportunities for putting pressure on delegates. These large conferences are a vital part of the union’s democratic structures and must of course be annual events but it is vital that delegate conferences are representative of the union as a whole with delegates from every branch and every shade of opinion.

Whatever next?

The latest indication of the appetite for industrial action among HE members is the recent consultative e-ballot on the Four Fights dispute, which rejected UCEA’s May offer by 61% to 39%. UCU Left immediately claimed this was a mandate for more industrial action, but the turnout, at just 30%, suggests otherwise since it means only 19% of all members have expressed a willingness to fight on. Consultative e-ballots are not the same as statutory strike ballots. Nevertheless, the proportion of affected members supporting action has declined from over 50% in 2018 to around 40% in 2019 and under 20% today.

Commenting on the e-ballot, the General Secretary’s email to members of August 3rd (https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10927/Future-of-our-Four-Fights-dispute-after-members-reject-UCEA-offer) suggests some rethinking is taking place, perhaps in the way suggested here, saying that “22 days of strike action didn’t produce the results members want or deserve. If we fail to be honest about this, we risk making the same mistakes again.”  In this piece, Jo Grady notes problems with disaggregated ballots, the difficulty post-92 branches had in beating the 50% threshold and how unity is harmed when only half the membership is in branches that can take part in collective action. She also notes the importance of timing ballots and action when it suits us, not employers; the need to creatively explore forms of action beyond strikes focused on teaching and “teaching-adjacent activities”; and the overwhelming importance of union democracy and consulting members before sending delegates to union conferences. Given the probability of falling below the 50% threshold, an aggregate ballot is high risk. Nevertheless, this is the type of strategic and political thinking the union so badly needs.

The 2019 general election has scuppered the prospect of a left Labour government, while the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and imminent global recession mean the FE and HE sectors are facing existential crises. In this new political landscape, UCU needs an industrial strategy that distinguishes between negotiating positions passed by FE and HE Sector Conferences and what is realistically achievable, not just a strategy for industrial action. In both FE and HE sectors but HE especially (which has tended to capture most of the union’s resources), UCU cannot continue to pursue a strike-and-strike again strategy: the forms of industrial action need to be tailored to fit the membership’s willingness to act, the balance of power and the economic and political terrain on which we are fighting. For if we, as a union, commit ourselves to a strategy of permanent escalation, and fail again as we have with the 2019/20 USS and Four Fights dispute, where will that leave UCU?

This does not mean never going on strike but rather that industrial action should be organised, tactically and strategically, to make gains for our members not as an “activity” for the sake of developing class consciousness. And it means consulting with all members not just committed activists before key decisions are made – i.e. a genuine member-led union, not an “active member-led union” as some SWP members have begun saying.

These are the key differences between traditional trade union militancy and the revolutionary approach of the far left that see strikes as a mechanism for building class consciousness and revolutionary political organization.

Putting an offer, for example, from UUK that falls short of No Detriment to pre-1992 USS members is not a failure or betrayal, and similarly for non-derisory pay offers from UCEA or FE college employers.

On the contrary, it is the only meaningful democratic path.

8th September 2020

Adam Ozanne is a member of the NEC; he was on the USS Advisory Committee and UCU’s Superannuation Working Group from 2017-19 and chaired the latter from June-Sept 2020, and has also been Secretary, President and Vice-President of the UCU branch at the University of Manchester where he is a Senior Lecturer in the Economics Department.

Dyfrig Jones is the UCU Branch President at Bangor University, where he is a Senior Lecturer in Film.

John Kelly is a recently retired Professor of Industrial Relations and was UCU President at Birkbeck, University of London, 2012 – 2020