In this special online issue of The University Worker, we want to update on the petition so far, as well as discuss some developments in the dispute.

On the 9th of December, Jo Grady, the general secretary of UCU, emailed the membership with an update on negotiations. Shortly after, the negotiators released their own statement. There are some stark and important differences in how this has been presented by the general secretary to the membership. The image below shows the original negotiator’s statement, with changes and editions in red from the general secretary:

The general secretary’s account clearly softens the line from negotiators. It removes the figures for RPI and CPI, returning to the classic UCU position of demanding “better” with either no red lines or concrete ambitions for the campaign. More worryingly, the general secretary removes the lines about not agreeing to stand down action.

There is also a section added on USS pensions - going back to the idea that a better valuation will solve the dispute. We’ve been here before, when arguments about the Joint Expert Panel and new valuations were pushed, instead of taking more action.

Despite the social media campaigning, it is starting to feel a lot like previous disputes in UCU. Members are not being informed about decisions - while officials and staff are choosing what to do from head office. It was not that long ago that we had a mass petition of 10,000 signatures overturning a bad deal and protests outside the UCU offices. We reported on this at the time - and there are important lessons we can learn for today.

The general secretary then released a video today (13th of December) in which she explained a series developments in the ucuRISING campaign. She announced that she will be giving NEC reports directly to members, as:

Due to decisions taken by the NEC, I no longer provide an in-person update to them. Hopefully you know me well enough by now to realise this lack of accountability, well, it doesn’t sit well with me.

As the video continues (for almost 5 minutes), the general secretary explained how she feels that the HEC had made the wrong decision in the dispute. The HEC has agreed two actions for 2023, the first being a marking and assessment boycott that will start in January. The second is an indefinite strike starting in February. As she continues:

I believe the marking and assessment boycott decision is consistent with debates that we had as members and branches in November this year … I do not believe an all out strike beginning in February is consistent with the debates that were held in November of this year.”

Despite this, UCU head office are preparing to serve notice for this to employers. However, there is also a long discussion of why action may no longer be possible.

We do not know what has happened behind closed doors meetings. Unlike many other unions, UCU claims that decisions on action need to be confidential. These bureaucratic manoeuvrings are not about building members power, but are increasingly centralising power around the general secretary.

A democratic decision to take action in the HEC cannot be overruled by the general secretary, regardless of an individual’s reading of the debates in November. The union bureaucracy pushing back the announcement of the action by almost two months has also poured cold water and confusion on the dispute, just as momentum was starting to build.

The UCU Commons faction has been rallying around the general secretary, particularly with attacks on those who have called for indefinite action. We can’t say for sure whether one of the responses to our petition came from them, UCU head office, or elsewhere, but it is worth reproducing here:

This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Another attempt by the idiot faction within the union to derail any progress that we might make in this dispute. Seriously, why don’t you just leave the union, and give the rest of us some peace and quiet.”

First off, those of us who write for The University Worker are not part of any faction. We are part of the rank-and-file of the union. For those of us who want to take the employer to task - not only on pay and pensions, but also on workload, casualisation, and equality - we want the opposite of peace and quiet. The union has only ever made progress when we have taken industrial action. Pulling back from that is a surefire route to defeat.

Whilst The University Worker has argued that the strike mandates of other education unions offer an opportunity to make political demands on the state, we are also clear that we cannot waste this historic national strike mandate that UCU holds. We can’t wait for other unions in the sector to catch up whilst in the meantime languishing in stasis, deploying tired tactics that haven’t worked. Instead we should be leading the way, clearing the path for them to join.

Unity is important, but so is effective action. The General Secretary suggests that indefinite action cannot take the wider membership forward together. It is unclear what forums held in November are referred to that do not reflect the debate for indefinite action. Our elected HEC has made a decision and our democratic structures should be the reflection of the membership. It also has to be said: if our General Secretary truly cared about unity within our membership, they would not announce and denounce a democratically-decided strategy in the same video, nor use these vital two months leading up to February to try and overturn that very strategy.

Even if say, 20-30% of members won’t take democratically decided indefinite action, the other 70-80% of the union cannot and should not be held back from taking the effective action to escalate this dispute for fear of scabs. After all, the general secretary was elected on a much lower vote. Bold, strong and decisive action that aims to cause the most disruption possible is the only escalation path left. We have the ability to take effective action, so let’s take it!

Clearly, we are reaching a breaking point in this dispute. After today’s video, the employers are already smirking at us. If we choose to back down now from indefinite action, they’ll be rolling on the floor with laughter. We need to keep putting pressure on the UCU bureaucracy to call the action that was voted for. This means signing the petition, talking to other members, and voting on branch motions where still possible.



The University Worker

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