The University and College Union (UCU) has announced three days of national strikes to be held on November 24, 25 and 30. The union says ‘university vice-chancellors have made no improved offers’ since last month’s vote by 70,000 staff at 150 universities to strike over attacks on pay, working conditions and pensions.
The Higher Education (HE) strike ballot, announced on October 24, returned an overwhelming mandate. In the ballot on wages and working conditions, 81.1% voted yes out of a turnout of 57.8%. In the vote on pensions – a long-running dispute dating back five years – the yes vote was even higher at 84.9%, out of a turnout of 60.2%.
The UCU responded by delaying another week as the “UCU Higher Education Committee [HEC] meets on Thursday November 3 to decide on the next steps the union will take to pressure employers into serious bargaining. There he agreed in principle to call only a token three-day strike this quarter.
A day before the meeting, the union leadership under General Secretary Jo Grady decided to dismiss any prospect of an immediate strike with a 12-page document titled “UCU Rising – Winning the Conflict”.
In the foreword, Grady wrote, “To win a conflict of this magnitude, striking can only be part of the strategy and not part of everything.”
It was a continuation of the UCU’s sabotage of the struggle of higher education workers. By delaying the ballot well before the fall term, union bureaucracy has prevented workers from standing alongside more than 100,000 railway, post and BT workers this summer and fall.
In the weeks following the UCU election result, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) and Communications Workers Union (CWU) unions stepped up their efforts to end the struggles of their members. The RMT ended the strikes to start ‘intensive negotiations’ with employers’ organization the Rail Delivery Group, and the white-collar union TSSA also ended the action. The CWU called off a two-day strike and signed a joint statement with Royal Mail pledging to ‘de-escalate tension’ and ‘restore calm to the workplace’.
The ‘UCU Rising’ document outlines the union’s corporatist strategy, closely modeled on that of Sharon Graham’s Unite union general secretary, who orders workers to call on corporate shareholders to ‘do the right thing’. One dispute after another has been sold to below-inflation pay deals on this basis.
As an alternative to industrial action, the UCU states in the section of the document entitled “Leverage”, that “we will prepare and commission research papers on the background, income, private interests and conflicts of interest of every senior involved in our sector – politicians, vice-chancellors, bosses, employers, entrepreneurs and more.We will use these papers to apply maximum exposure and pressure wherever we can.
The sections on the media and ‘political and external engagement’ make clear the appeal of the union bureaucracy to Labor and Conservative MPs and to media bitterly hostile to the working class. “Before advocacy, there needs to be a dedicated program of engagement and influencing with politicians, student unions, and other outside organizations,” he says. UCU ‘will engage the Universities All Party Parliamentary Caucus and Education Select Committee’; will “meet with the Shadow Pensions team”, “work with local MPs” and “request an intervention from the Shadow Secretary of State”.
The document boasts: “We have already lined up a mass of pledges from supportive politicians to produce social media content, videos and attend our picket lines”, the aim of which is to offer a shrinking group of Labor the chance to shore up what remains of their “leftist” photo. These MPs belong to a party so right-wing that its party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has banned his constituents from picketing.
Grady is a leading figure in the Enough is Enough campaign. Led by RMT leader Mick Lynch, it is a political fraud in the service of the Labor Party and the Trades Union Congress. The UCU document states: “We will work with the Enough is Enough campaign to ensure that our picket lines have the greatest support from the public and the movement at large.” This is even as the main unions behind the campaign – the RMT and the CWU – have spent the last week calling off all possible strikes to start talks without preconditions with the bosses of the railways and the Royal Mail.
Proponents of the UCU bureaucracy say limiting strikes is the “democratic will of our members”, based on a union-led online survey completed by around 4,000 members. Of these, 59.1% supported Grady’s proposal for “any action called in November [to] be limited in its extent.
Yet more than 30,700 workers voted yes in the national strike ballot. The low-profile survey of a small self-selecting subset is a transparent attempt to justify suppressing mass sentiment for genuine struggle.
At UCU’s higher education committee, Grady doubled down on his opposition to a serious industrial action campaign. She said the union, “for the very first time, has a strategy that is not just about strike action. We will use a wide range of tactics to take employers to a place they have never been before. This is despite the fact that with the resounding vote, “we have the opportunity to call for UK-wide action…we have information about the intention of our sister campus unions” and “we know the strike dates for other unions”.
Grady even ruled out a ratings and review boycott until next year, saying, “It would be unwise of us to make such a huge decision with a shared mandate,” because votes from his survey and delegate meetings sections were “divided”.
Nor does the nominal opposition within the union bureaucracy to Grady’s faction offer a program for a victorious struggle. The UCU left, politically led by the Socialist Workers Party, wrote before the plans were announced at the higher education conference, “Delegates [from branches] agreed that the November action would be limited, but they didn’t say it should be symbolic. Grady’s three days split the difference between the “limited” five days demanded by the left-wing UCU and the “token” two days advocated by the other major faction UCU Commons.
Another ruse is UCU’s stated goal of winning student support for higher education workers. Its document commits, “we will seek to agree a joint student/staff statement with NUS [National Union of Students]“, organizing” solidarity for our strike “.
There is a solid basis for solidarity action. Many students already work alongside their studies and also face exploitative conditions and low wages. They are massively affected by the soaring cost of living, exacerbated by exorbitant college tuition and rents. Their education is undermined by slash and burn raids on higher education staff. Many higher education workers have already gone on strike largely out of concern for the future of university education.
But the NUS, where students know of its existence, is viewed with contempt for its decades-long role in demobilizing struggles against education cuts and rising tuition fees. He will play the same police role today in conjunction with the UCU, just calling for a “national day of joint student and UCU action in defense of our sector to be held in November”.
The fight against HE must be taken out of the hands of the UCU bureaucracy which has already lost thousands of workers in wages and pensions – further pension cuts of up to 35% were imposed in April. Workers can take control and expand the conflict by forming rank-and-file committees in their universities, which must reach out to other sections of the working class seeing their standard of living and future crushed by the cost crisis. life.
We urge university workers to contact the Socialist Equality Party to discuss the way forward in this fight.