UCU members vote to call off marking boycott – what does this mean?

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  • UCU trade union members vote to accept pay offer from employers and cancel marking boycott
  • Negotiations to continue on equality-related pay demands
  • Concessions won but outcome represents a defeat – we must learn the lessons

UCU members have, by a large majority, voted to accept the employers’ offer of a 1% pay increase this year and 2% next year, with a small additional boost for the lowest-paid that will put some onto the Living Wage – but not all. The planned marking boycott will therefore be called off and there will be no further negotiation or action over the national pay scale until 2015-16. Unison and Unite are consulting their members on the offer, but it is difficult to see how an effective campaign could continue now that the UCU has pulled out.

Talks will continue on other components of the pay claim, including the gender pay gap, disability leave arrangements and conditions for hourly-paid and other casualised workers. The next scheduled negotiations between the trade unions and the University & College Employers’ Association will be on 20 May – we should keep up the campaign on these important demands. The fact that industrial action has come off the table makes protest, direct action and press even more important for advancing these causes, and NCAFC hopes to be able to coordinate action with the trade unions in the next few weeks (watch this space!).

The deal that UCU members voted to accept does represent a concession – an improvement on the employers’ previous “final offer”, forced from them by industrial action. It’s potentially especially important that in going to 2%, the government’s attempt to limit public sector pay increases to 1% has failed – hopefully other trade unions will be able to capitalise on this.

However, it’s important that we are honest – this was a serious defeat for students and workers, and activists and officers in student unions and trade union must resist the temptation to dress it up as anything else. The original mantra of the campaign was “catch up and keep up” – a pay offer that would reverse the brutal real-term pay cuts (now approaching 15%) inflicted by years of below-inflation deals, and then keep pace with inflation over the coming years. Instead, workers have ended up with another two years of pay cuts. 1% is well below inflation this year and it is very likely that 2% will be below inflation next year. So the deal resolves neither the injustice of the pay cuts, nor their impact on students’ education. The employers have – absurdly – tried to cover this up by citing low estimates of inflation that omit housing costs! Perhaps they expect workers to sleep under their desks and lab benches (although as the pressure on workloads increases, this may seem less and less like a joke).

Some UCU members will have voted have because they genuinely felt that this was a reasonable deal. In some cases this will be out of a well-meaning reluctance to demand more when others are suffering – i.e. that employers and the government are successfully using austerity rhetoric of “we’re all in it together” to guilt-trip us, playing us off against one another. Others will have taken university senior managers’ claims that the money wasn’t there at face value.

However, anecdotally, many workers voted to accept and cancel the boycott despite believing that the offer on the table was terrible. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Some will have been simply unwilling to disrupt students’ assessment. Many will have felt that the union was not in a position to pull off an effective boycott, or that it was the wrong tactic. Others will have felt isolated and intimidated in the face of the employers’ aggressive and belligerent threats of 100% pay deductions – this cannot have been helped by the UCU leadership’s failure to commit to a concrete contingency plan, such as giving notice that any 100% deductions would be met with a sector-wide strike in defence of victimised staff.

Finally, many have developed a weary scepticism of their union leadership. The UCU has not had a significant national victory in some time. As in many of this country’s major unions, workers are used to voting for industrial action in national campaigns, and then seeing their leaders march them out on one-day strikes and then back to work with little to show for it. Negotiations aren’t accountable, or even visible to members – national reps and full-time union staffers hold private talks with employers then emerge with a “final offer” and all but instruct members to give up hope of securing anything further. There is a sense that union leaders are “going through the motions” – calling tokenistic strikes as protests, without a serious strategy or commitment to going the distance and extracting real wins from employers. In the meantime workers lose a day’s pay and picket lines get thinner with each successive dispute – until, as here, workers are no longer willing to trust their union to lead them into industrial action. That sense was exacerbated for many workers in this dispute in the spring, when UCU leaders postponed the planned marking boycott in favour of a series of two-hour strikes, a strategy on which members had not been consulted and about which many were extremely sceptical.

Our trade unions need an injection of democracy – workers need to have meaningful strategic control throughout disputes and negotiations, not just ballots at the start and end. And we need to re-assert the principle that industrial action is not merely a protest, a way to make discontent heard, but a weapon of coercion and resistance in the class struggle between workers and employers.

Going forward, activists (both students and workers) need to do everything we can to keep up the fight for workers’ pay and conditions. During the Fair Pay campaign, we have all worked to build up solidarity, links and communication between trade unions and students, student unions and activist groups. Those should be maintained and put to use as we turn towards local campaigns, as well as keeping up support in the negotiations on the remaining components of the pay campaign. Local campaigns – such as for the Living Wage at University of the Arts London, to defend leave, sick pay and workload limits at Lambeth College, and against course cuts at the University of Salford – can offer more potential for workers to be empowered, for union branches to be developed and strengthened, and for students to offer meaningful, effective practical solidarity – so get talking to your campus unions! And join us on 14 June to discuss these issues at Class[room] Struggle, a conference hosted by NCAFC about workers’ struggles on campuses.

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