The UCU dispute was called off on May 2nd after a campaign of strike actions over 8 months and an e-ballot where there was a 5:1 majority to settle on a 53% turnout.
The dispute originally launched on October, 2013 was to recover the 13% loss of pay experienced by university workers from 2008 through to 2012. The settlement provides no more than 1% for 2013/4 and another 2% for 2014/5. In other words, in both years the pay deal fails to keep up with inflation and will lead to further erosion of pay.
Whilst the 2014/5 2% settlement may be above the 1% ceiling that the government has threatened to maintain elsewhere in the public sector, after the industrial action carried out and considering the aims of the dispute, 2% is neither an adequate reflection of what was possible nor a strong incentive to other public sector workers to go into dispute.
To its credit the UCU had continued strikes whilst every other education unions backed off through 2012 and 2103 on the pension issue. Throughout the pay dispute there were hopes that the NUT would be renewing action, either with or without the NASUWT, after having called it off in Jan 2012. When the NUT eventually did again take strike action in October 2013, it was separate from the UCU.
The UCU-left did call for joint action with the NUT whenever the NUT looked as though it was going to take action. But to our knowledge there was no attempt by activists in either the NUT or UCU to map out any joint action together. Ultimately it was the lack of any such plan that was to lead to UCU members deciding to settle the dispute.
The Independent Broad Left (IBL), which currently carries a majority on the UCU’s Higher Exec Committee (HEC), refused to escalate the dispute after strike days in both October and December. It carries the majority of the blame for the failure to win.
Like strikes in many public sector services, it is hard for strikes to hit universities economically or politically. The strikes got very poor media coverage. What the strikes did do, to a limited degree, was help mobilise other forces on campus against austerity, with students engaging in militant support action in many universities such as UCL, Sussex, Birmingham etc. What it could have done, and should have done more, is attempt to encourage other workers in the public sector to come out as well. Under the restrictions of existing anti-union law, such action would have had to have been in pursuit of their own disputes. But there is no shortage of unresolved disputes in the public sector that could have been brought forward alongside that of the UCU.
It is difficult to maintain morale in a dispute over such a long period of time. Especially when it is against belligerent employers backed by an even more belligerent government, whilst other unions are being defeated or more generally refusing to fight.
After Xmas the only actions were 2 ineffectual 2hr strikes. A work-to-rule in operation did not really bite despite the fact that the hours worked by lecturers in the sector are generally far in excess of their contractual ones. Non-strike action is always more difficult to maintain when confidence is low.
The marking ban faced similar difficulties, especially after it had been pushed back from January to May 6th, reducing both the effectiveness of the ban and the numbers that could take part. It was widely feared that the ban would be generally ineffective merely alienating a minority of students and allowing the employers (UCEA) to dock all the pay of those taking part.
The UCU-left had attempted to get the HEC of UCU to respond to any pay docking with a national strike. But they had failed to win that. The ballot was therefore conducted with members fearful for their students, their union and themselves of a collapsing marking ban.
Given the clearly predictable result of a ballot where concern on the marking ban was prominent, it is surprising that the UCU-left went along with it. It would have been far better to recognise that the union had been run into a blind alley for effective action this academic year and ballot solely on this year’s claim.
It is difficult to understand how the UCU-left could not have envisaged the outcome of the ballot which now incapacitates the union from taking action on pay and probably much else until after the General Election.
The extent of the ‘Yes’ vote is now being used to question the ability of the UCU-left to understand either the concerns of their members or its ability to propose practical lines of battle. UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt, released a university-by-university breakdown of voting figures with the probable intention of embarrassing the UCU-left. The figures show that even in the branches where the UCU-left is dominant with vigorous campaigning for a ‘No’ vote, nowhere was there a majority to continue the dispute. With many UCU-left strongholds only getting around 20%.
The left in the UCU, indeed in all of our unions, have to realise that if action is to be successful, it has to be escalated quickly and in concert with other unions. The law, of course, creates many obstacles to this but as was shown with the Nov 2011 joint action on pensions it is possible.
UCU-left activists need also to realise that is not ‘defeatism’ to adjust their strategy in response to the concerns of members. As Trotsky put it when talking about the incautious use of the General Strike slogan in France in 1934:
“Agitation is not only the means of communicating to the masses this or that slogan, calling the masses to action, etc. … agitation is also a means of lending an ear to the masses, of sounding out its moods and thoughts, and reaching this or another decision in accordance with the results. Only the Stalinists have transformed agitation into a noisy monologue. For the Marxists, the Leninists, agitation is always a dialogue with the masses.”