Where next for the universities dispute?

Submitted by Matthew on 12 February, 2014 - 11:36

After three one-day strikes — and three two-hour strikes by UCU members — the universities’ pay dispute looks no closer to resolution.

The employers are refusing to talk, and say they regard the 2013/14 round as settled with the imposition of a 1% rise.

The UCU leadership has not delivered the escalation strategy proposed back in September — which would have seen a marking boycott begin in time to hit first semester exams in a significant proportion of institutions.

Instead there have been two-hour strikes which, although not badly supported, have not caused the disruption necessary to move the employers.

The UCU’s Higher Education Committee is due to meet on 14 February to discuss the next steps, and many branches have submitted calls for quick escalation.

However, there are no easy answers about exactly what that should mean. The delay in moving to a marking boycott means we’ve missed the chance to hit January exams, and realistically that tactic will now have to wait until the summer exam season.

In the meantime the difficulty will be maintaining mobilisation of members until after Easter. Joint action with the NUT, which has called a one-day strike for 26 March, is an obvious option. Rolling strikes, hitting different departments in sequence, may also prove more fruitful than repeated one-day action.

There is also a question over the operation of the marking boycott tactic. It looks increasingly likely that — unlike in 2006 — some employers will immediately move to withhold full pay on the basis that refusing to mark is partial performance. Work needs to begin now to convince members of the need to have that fight. It’s also important to start thinking now how union members not directly involved in marking could be mobilised if the dispute moves in that direction.

For some branches, a strong mobilisation over the strikes to date will have strengthened their hand in local negotiations. There will be opportunities to build on that — alongside students — to fight for demands like the Living Wage on campus, against the use of zero-hours contracts, and against the increasing commercialisation of universities more generally.

Students should talk to their local trade union reps about how best to support this campaigning — and what they can do to build solidarity with the ongoing action.

Protests around extravagant pay hikes for top managers, organising initiatives for casualised workers, and debates around the future of the university are all good options.

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