A sectoral conference for University and College Union (UCU) members working in universities in the USS pension scheme, where workers struck in November and December, has voted for an escalation of the strike, passing a proposal to strike for two weeks from 20 February.
The Higher Education Committee of the union will now ratify that proposal.
That does leave a big gap between the end of the last strike and the next, but many universities have exams through January, so striking then wouldn’t have any impact on teaching. Negotiations are ongoing; the fact of a further planned strike will hopefully put pressure on those talks.
The general election may have an impact, although the Tories aren’t proposing any tuition fee increases or significant funding restructures as yet. Different institutions’ financial situations can vary significantly, so one thing to watch out for is the possibility that richer universities may make local offers, which could potentially divide the dispute.
UCU members have also been undertaking action short of strikes, which people have been working hard to make effective. There is some difficulty, however, in making such action impactful, especially outside of term time.
For non-academic workers, such as library workers and IT staff, it may be more effective, as there’s more of a collective workplace focus to their work outside of term time. UCU branches, which can sometimes be dominated by academics, need to ensure those workers are supported and empowered. And we need to reach out to workers in other grades in those sectors, who are likely to be in Unison or Unite, to support them in refusing to pick up additional workload created by UCU members taking action.
UCU also recently held a “democracy conference”, to vote on proposals from a democracy commission which has been deliberating for the past year. This arose out of the fallout from the 2018 USS dispute, where there was widespread rank-and-file anger at the role of the then General Secretary Sally Hunt, and the wider UCU bureaucracy, particularly the unelected staff.
While those events provided impetus, this was an opportunity to discuss proposals for a wider democratic transformation of the union, so it’s a little disappointing that the proposals focused quite narrowly on the role of the GS and the staff.
A proposal to reduce the GS’s term length from five years to three was defeated, but a proposal to limit consecutive terms to a maximum of three was passed.
Proposals to create deputy general secretary roles were defeated. Some of the thinking behind this was good; the idea was to create additional elected posts at the top of the union to prevent so much power being wielded at that level by unelected staffers.
But the DGS model also has drawbacks, as it risks creating a layer of senior national officers disconnected from the workplace and grassroots structures of the union.
There have been issues with the Unite branch which represents staff at UCU head office, which has argued that things like the right to recall officers would breach their employment rights.
One proposal that did relate to wider union democracy was the proposal to create a branch-based dispute committee for multi-institution disputes, with delegates from each branch involved. This didn’t achieve the required two-thirds majority, which is disappointing.
It was arguably not explained in the best way possible. Some activists are wary of giving too much power to branches, which some newer activists see as quite inaccessible and run by small cliques of activists.
The proposal needed to be clearer about explaining that it needed to be accompanied by efforts to transform branches and ensure they were sites for democratic participation, meaning anyone elected from them to a national dispute committee would be genuinely representative and accountable