UCU: taking the struggle forward

Submitted by AWL on 4 March, 2020 - 10:46
UCU strikers

How to continue after Easter

By a UCU activist

As I write, negotiations with the employers are ongoing, and we’re told they’re “constructive”, but we have no further detail beyond that.

Greater transparency in these negotiations is essential; rank-and-file members of the union need the right to scrutinise and assess what the employer is putting on the table, and collectively decide how to respond.

Lively pickets are being organised in many places, but on the whole the pickets since 24 February seem smaller than the October-November 2019 strikes, and than the USS pension strikes in 2018. Some branches are strategically deciding not to picket every day, in some places because they’re conscious that workers can’t afford to live close to their institutions and travelling in to picket is a financial burden to people already losing money due to being on strike.

But ways need to be found around this, whether that’s via agreed picket duties allowing people to rotate, or using hardship funds to pay for travel expenses. Allowing pickets to dwindle, or become token presences, will suggest to the employer that the strike is weakening, and relieve pressure on them to offer a new settlement.

Most fundamentally, solid picketing on every strike day means maximising the possibility of persuading fellow workers, and students, not to cross, therefore maximising the disruption of the strike.

In the 2018 strike, the union leadership wanted to call off action to ballot on an extremely shoddy offer. A big factor in what stopped them was that lively and well-attended picket lines acted as spaces for collective discussion, and a strong rank-and-file pushback to the leadership’s strategy developed, which eventually forced them to change course and prevented the demobilisation of the strike at that point.

Without something similar now, it becomes much easier for the union leadership to construct an unsatisfactory exit strategy from the dispute. That’s not to suggest they’re consciously looking to engineer a sell out, but seeing the dispute through requires continual pressure from below, even on leaders whose hearts may be in the right place.

After the next set of strikes, things become more difficult. The Easter break, when many staff will take leave or be away from campus, will necessarily slow things down. Unions should look to organise local actions, such as meetings and demonstrations, to keep as many people mobilised as possible, but some loss of momentum is almost inevitable.

The question is, how can we ramp things back up and escalate after Easter, when we move into exam seasons, with schedules varying across different institutions?

The aim must be to disrupt exams. None of us will relish the impact this will have on our students, but the nature of the work we do means this is where we have most leverage. We must look to call action that will disrupt the exams themselves, and the period of marking afterwards.

The AUT, one of UCU’s predecessor unions, called a marking boycott in 2006. It was fairly effective, and would’ve been even more so if the union leadership hadn’t called it off prematurely. Since then, a precedent has been set whereby many institutions view boycotts as a form of strike, and will dock full pay. We have to be prepared for that, but not intimidated by it.

A national programme of selective and rolling strikes, with dates determined by input from local branches depending on what would be more disruptive in their particular institutions, targeting exam days themselves, with an ongoing marking boycott in between strike days, could be a next step.

That might seem like a de-escalation following two rounds of all-out national strikes, but if it was planned and executed effectively it could be an escalation in terms of the impact of the action.

For strikes on exam days to be effective would require solid pickets, as well attended as possible, that made a real effort to prevent students and other workers from crossing. Exams are often administered by non-academic staff who aren’t in UCU.

Appeals not to undermine the strike should be made to them, both directly via picket lines and via the local campus organisations of unions such as Unison, Unite, and GMB.

***

Regaining strike momentum

By a Cambridge UCU member

After the first two weeks of picketing in the UCU "Four Fights" dispute, the number of activists and people on the pickets has remained almost static.

Whilst we’re evidently not losing momentum, we’re not noticeably gaining it either. This is down by approximately a half compared with the 2018 USS pensions strike; somewhat disappointing for a union that grew during this period by over 16% nationally, and by more than 80% in Cambridge.

Whilst we haven’t seen a proportional increase in organisers, the strike has allowed members to lay better foundations for longer-term union building. A number of people have stepped up to help organise their departments and become active reps, and importantly in the case of some traditionally poorer unionised faculties, such as Neuroscience, Astronomy, and Physics.

Whilst building short-term strikes and long-term sustainable branches require different approaches, I’m optimistic that the strike has at the very least activated the union in parts of the university most in need.

Cambridge University remains one of just 5 out of 150-plus UCU branches in the UK that aren’t yet recognised by their employer. Having active departmental reps in every department and faculty will strengthen the case to change this, and should be a priority campaign locally irrespective of the outcome of this round of strikes.

There will soon be a long break between academic terms, and the strike ballot runs out in May. It isn’t clear that a re-ballot now would break the 50% threshold in as many institutions as it did in October, and a poor result would be a major gift to our opposition.

Time really is running out. Member morale is being tested, with many hoping for even a slight improvement in the current offer (rightly rejected by the negotiating team) that would halt our action.

This shouldn’t be an excuse for members to accept weak half-measures, but a call for action. If we were serious about winning, we could do this tomorrow.

With over 1600 members and well over 100 committed activists in Cambridge alone, staff occupations and direct action would force the hand of local management to intervene nationally. It wouldn’t take more than a handful of UCU branches to do this before the balance of forces shifted vastly in our favour.

This spells the need for both local organisers to call for heightened disruption, and for a national UCU rank and file network prepared to coordinate militant activists to take these steps in a joined-up manner.

***

The UCU's "four fights" are:

• pay
• workload
• equality
• casualisation

The main demands on pay are for an increase of Retail Price Index plus 3%, £10 per hour minimum for in-house staff, and Foundation Living Wage (£9 per hour outside London, £10.55 in London) for outside contractors.

On workload, a 35 hour week.

On equality, action to close the gender and ethnic pay gaps.

On casualisation, demands include: end zero-hours contracts; transfer hourly-paid staff to fractional contracts; take outsourced staff back in house; give postgraduate teaching assistants guaranteed hours and proper employee contracts.

***

Students back the strikes

By Maisie Sanders

Thirteen students at Stirling University who were suspended for taking part in last term’s occupation in support of the strike by university staff union have won their first victory – they will not now be made homeless!

They had been told that their suspension would mean losing their accommodation. The win is a result of pressure being put on the University by supporters.

On 26 February Edinburgh students occupied in support of the strikes and adding a further demand to “end the hostile environment on campus affecting international staff and students”. A campaign of misinformation, including by the Tab newspaper, sought to undermine the occupation, claiming students were being blocked from using the occupied building as study space.

In fact the occupation aimed only to disrupt classes, to strengthen the strike. The Tab is on the wrong side in this dispute.
Students across the country must help step up the pressure and demand the right to protest.

Another form of attack on student organising is cuts to student union budgets. Sussex Uni student union have been told their budget will be cut by 5-10% despite growing student numbers.

The UCU branch at Goldsmiths (University of London) is now officially in dispute with management over proposed 15% cuts, including possible redundancies, and restructuring which will take decision-making away from academic departments. This is being pushed through under the ridiculously named “Evolving Goldsmiths” plan.

The Student Union, which has been actively supporting the UCU strike, has said it will take action alongside campus unions.

Although everywhere across the country student solidarity groups are beginning to develop – holding open planning meetings, encouraging students to attend pickets, organising direct action, helping put on teach-outs - this will need to quickly grow and strengthen.

Immediately those groups have vital work to help convince students not to cross picket lines, to build rallies, and to help strengthen this stage of the UCU’s dispute. In the longer run they will need to organise to oppose future cuts, attacks on democratic rights, redundancies, future casualisation and the restructuring of higher education.

Cambridge students are now occupying the Old Schools management building. Student Strike Solidarity is calling for students to escalate solidarity actions with occupations and blockades of management offices and to help make the picket lines huge as negotiations take place on the UCU's Four Fights.

Student Strike Solidarity is planning a national meet-up to discuss the ongoing battles. Send a direct message to SSS via Facebook to find out more.

***

A case for a rank-and-file network

By Camila Bassi

My perspective and participation in the national dispute over pay deflation, casualisation, excessive workloads, and the gender and BAME pay gaps has very much been shaped by our local industrial dispute at Sheffield Hallam university over workload intensification and stress.

Without a doubt, what pushed our branch over the legal threshold in the national dispute was the 84.4% mandate in the local dispute – a dispute that has built up over a long time. Through the lens of the local struggle, our members have easily drawn the connections and seen the holistic picture: linking rising workloads and unpaid work, pay inequality and deflation, and runaway levels of precarious employment, to a university sector ravaged by market forces - and said, “we’ve been the shock absorbers for a broken system, no more!”

Our local dispute has been directed by our well-attended branch meetings, our democratic sovereign body. Our branch committee of elected officers and reps has run the day-to-day of the dispute and formed our strike committee for the first eight days of action. We made this strike committee open to all members in the run up to these 14 days of action.

The organic development and participation of a collective of student activists called Hallam Students Support the Strike has added a critical dimension and point of leverage to our struggle: organising impressive solidarity action on the picket lines and through social media, and gaining us important national media coverage.

At present, we are putting the latest offer from management to members. While it's not what we asked for, our negotiators suggest that it's as close to a maximum of what the employer will actually offer right now. What we have learnt is that every time the employer has said they cannot offer more, and we have run and won an indicative ballot for action, run and won a legal ballot for action, taken strike action, taken further strike action, each and every time, the employer has moved. Class organisation and struggle works.

Every time a local member has faced bullying management during this dispute, once they have told us, as a branch we have had their back. With no exceptions, management have backed down. What's more, we've grown our branch to record numbers.

At the rank and file level, we have never been as confident and organised as we are now. This dispute has brought to the fore new faces, new energy, new confidence. We recognise now that part of the reason we have ended up in a crisis situation of workload intensification – apart from, most decisively, the forces of sector-wide marketisation – is that we as staff and union members have sleepwalked into it. Our silence has been effective complicity.

If the latest offer from management is accepted by our members, we recognise this moment as the beginning of a genuine, rank-and-file struggle. We are planning to expand the number and activity of Health and Safety Reps, using Health and Safety legislation as a point of education, agitation, organisation and leverage; carrying out regular stress surveys, for instance, publicising the findings, applying pressure on management, further growing the union.

Before this industrial dispute, we had members who have never been on strike before and members disillusioned by previous national strike action called for odd days and hours in months like June when we are no longer teaching. What this local dispute has taught all of us is, if we organise properly, from the rank-and-file, we move forward, we gain. We’re taking that lesson forward now.

Our experience locally demonstrates the critical need for a national rank-and-file network. The 2018 USS pensions dispute developed forms of such a network, but specific to the pre-92 sector. What we need doesn’t preclude what already works and exists.

The formal, bureaucratic structures of the union itself should open up and extend towards the grassroots to enable a rank-and-file network across the pre- and post-92 HE sector and FE sector. Not only to horizontally share lessons in class organisation, but also to understand how the local vertically connects with what is happening nationally.

For my branch, the disconnect is vast. We have no national negotiators in our branch, unlike our UCU comrades up the road, and have been relying on a daily basis on social media and hearsay to decipher what might be happening nationally. Demanding a rank-and-file network goes hand-in-hand with democratically opening the national union.

Practically, that would mean the live-streaming of national negotiations, which would promote accountability and democratic steer from local branches, and provide a clear sense on the ground of why we are or should be on the picket lines.

• Camila Bassi is UCU branch chair at Sheffield Hallam university, writing here in a personal capacity.

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