Reflections on the UCU Strike: Where Do We Go From Here?

strike
By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrad & Education Workers Co-Rep and Cambridge UCU activist. Photo by Andrew Perry.

On 14 April 2018, 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ to the offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK). Industrial action, including action short of a strike (ASOS), is now suspended. UUK’s offer aims to end the ongoing dispute over intended reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. As explained in a previous article, these changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, spelling the effective end to guaranteed pension benefits. In their offer, UUK proposed to establish a ‘Joint Expert Panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides’, to ‘deliver a report’ and ‘to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund’.

NCAFC advocated a ‘No’ vote in the ballot, finding that the proposal offered little in the way of concrete guarantees and noting how it could see UUK continuing to use the contested November valuation for the USS, despite the pension scheme’s ‘deficit’ being fabricated. On 13 March, UCU rejected a previous proposal drawn up by the union and UUK’s representatives during negotiations, after UCU members demonstrated outside the union’s national headquarters and local UCU branches called on the national leadership to turn down the deal: an outcry that trended online with the hashtag #NoCapitulation. Moreover, between the announcement of the new proposal on 23 March and the closing of the ballot on 14 April, many branches came out in opposition to the offer as it stood, preferring a deal with clearer and more reliable assurances. On social media, this position was often identified with the hashtag #ReviseAndResubmit, in humorous allusion to the peer review process for academic journals.

Whilst the 63.5% turnout for the ballot on the new proposal is not something to dismiss out of hand, the result comes as a disappointment for many strikers, as well as those who have stood in solidarity with them. I will lay out some major criticisms of the UCU leadership’s handling of the ballot and offer a few explanations for the ballot result. I will then make some critical observations about how the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted itself throughout the strike. I will end on what I hope will be a constructive and optimistic note on how we can build upon the gains of the strike, particularly the unprecedented energisation of UCU’s rank-and-file.

1. The UCU Leadership

One of the most significant problems with the ballot is the manner in which Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, presented the available options in her emails to the membership. More specifically, Hunt conflated the more hard-line ‘no detriment’ position with the less hard-line ‘revise and resubmit’ position, and then framed the ‘No’ option on the ballot as a mandate for ‘no detriment’. A significant number of UCU members favoured ‘revise and resubmit’, considered ‘no detriment’ unrealistic, and would have been willing to pursue further industrial action in pursuit of demands shaped by a ‘revise and resubmit’ position. As Hunt presented the ‘No’ option as a commitment to bargaining for ‘no detriment’, we can safely assume that many members who ordinarily would have rejected the offer instead accepted it. Moreover, whilst it is established practice for a union’s executive committee to make recommendations in such matters, it appears that the recommendations Hunt gave to members were hers alone.

Unfortunately, UCU’s national leadership has a long history of failing to pursue effective industrial action when needed. As we recognised when UCU called off its marking boycott during the 2014 pay dispute, when the national leadership clearly does not support further industrial action, members become demoralised and are left to believe that, if they do vote for further action, the action will be tokenistic and ineffective. With staff members losing significant pay on strike days, one can understand why the leadership’s visible lack of commitment to seeing the strike through to the end would have had a dissuading effect on UCU members. Indeed, one would be forgiven for a certain cynical suspicion that the ballot was called during the Easter break precisely because it would be a time of year when student support for the strike would be less visible on campus and when there would be no picket lines to generate feelings of solidarity.

In many respects, the contrast between the ballot on the one hand, and the wave of demonstrations, open letters, and branch resolutions for #NoCapitulation on the other hand, is instructive for the problems with an atomistic approach to democracy in a national organisation. When members are in a room with others who have shared their struggle, the fostered feeling of solidarity boosts confidence, and one can actively participate in a structured discussion that lays out and debates the available positions. When members have to vote as geographically separated individuals, that atmosphere of solidarity and accompanying confidence are lost. Moreover, in the context of the present dispute, those members who were not active during (and, presumably, less supportive of) the strike ended up receiving disproportionate guidance from the leadership’s communications.

Nevertheless, I urge student and trade union activists not to assume the worst of those UCU members who voted to accept the deal. Apart from the leadership’s handling of the ballot and general lack of effective leadership, there are numerous understandable reasons why members would choose not to continue striking. With classes finishing for the year, the most disruptive part of the industrial action would have been the marking boycott. Since this would affect students’ reception of marks much more directly than cancelled lectures, one can sympathise with staff members’ fear of ‘hurting’ their students or losing student support by continuing the action, even if a victory for the strike would actually have helped students in the long run by resisting a systematic attack on learning conditions. Likewise, one can understand why the prospect of standing on a picket line when the campus is less busy would be quite bleak for many strikers. Once we have more data on the number of UCU branches that came out against both the rejected and the accepted deals, along with a breakdown of the ballots cast, we can better account for why members voted as they did.

2. The NUS

In a previous opinion piece, I criticised the NUS leadership for demonstrating no support for the strike beyond than a lacklustre joint statement (itself released more than a week after UCU’s industrial action ballot result), despite it being the clear policy of NUS’ National Executive Council to provide much more concrete assistance. That was at the start of February. Individual NUS officers might have made supportive gestures and commentary during the strike period, but as an institution, the NUS remained conspicuously absent. This means that the 26 campus occupations and other surges of campus activism in solidarity with UCU materialised in spite of the NUS rather than because of it.

NCAFC assisted many of these occupations by helping coordinate them online, and – in some instances – by sending members to boost numbers and expertise. This resulted in approximately 40 activists from 13 different campuses across the UK meeting in London to share their experience and draft a joint solidarity statement, with further cross-campus connections being drawn now. Similarly, NCAFC administered both the popular ‘Students Support the UCU Pensions Strike’ Facebook group, which allowed activists to share materials, and the @Occupation_hub twitter account, which kept abreast of direct action in support of the strike. Still, all this is no substitute for the material support of a national union tasked with fighting for our interests as students. In other words, if there was any moment at which the NUS should have lived up to its name, it was at the height of campus activism in solidarity with UCU. The NUS could have officially sent representatives to the occupations and committed itself to defending student protesters from victimisation, especially those on visas who take an especially high risk when participating in direct action, but they did nothing.

The NUS thus finds itself in a curious state of double removal. It is removed from the mass political drive for free education that has seen expression in the Corbyn surge and in Labour’s significant gains in the 2017 General Election. Likewise, it is removed from the fertile layer of grassroots campus activism that made the recent wave of occupations possible. As of the 2018 NUS National Conference elections, the NUS leadership is split evenly between the left and the right, but the right still holds the presidency. However, if the experience of the UCU strike has taught us anything, it is that any attempt to rebuild the student movement must amount to something far wider and bolder than putting left-wingers in office.

3. What Next for UCU?

Even though our current position is intensely dissatisfying, we have made genuine gains through our activism. UCU membership has increased by the thousands and seen unprecedented energisation at the grassroots level. Now we must ask how we rank-and-file activists can prepare for the (almost inevitable) next round in the dispute should the talks with UUK fail and, more pointedly, how we can transform the union itself. I wholly understand the temptation for left-wing members simply to jump ship from UCU. As it stands, UCU has all the trappings of a bureaucratised union disconnected from its more militant base and the UCU Left faction, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), serves as little more than an electoral machine. For these same reasons, I understand suggestions to ‘dual card’ with smaller, more dynamic unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

While all available options should considered carefully, I do wish to stress that there are significant advantages to a large, national union, not least in respect of collective bargaining. Since university employers in the sector have to deal with industry-wide unions such as UCU, it is harder to drive down wages on individual campuses and make the sector even more closely resemble a market than it does already. Moreover, one should bear in mind that the character of unions can change dramatically. Many of the large national unions now infamous for bureaucracy, such as the GMB, grew out of the ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s, which replaced the older ‘craft union’ models. This shift from craft unionism to new unionism meant an upsurge in militancy and the bringing together of different workers in the same industry to fight for collective gains rather than to defend the special interests of a uniquely skilled ‘labour aristocracy’. Conversely and more recently, rank-and-file activists transformed the traditionally conservative and bureaucratic Chicago Teachers Union into an energised, combative body. As such, we should not be overly dismissive of what we could achieve within UCU, building upon the kind of grassroots revolt we saw with the #NoCapitulation surge.
In short, whether one chooses to start a new union or to reform an existing union, there are no shortcuts to effective workplace organising. For now, we must keep engaging with UCU’s activist base and ensure that its newly tapped potential does not dissipate. With new rank-and-file networks emerging in the wake of the ballot result, a glimmer of hope appears in the darkness. It is a hope that springs from a single, potent realisation: we are the union.