An urgent appeal for democratic participation in our strike


March 6, 2020

The recent developments in the UCU “four fights” and USS strikes are a serious cause for concern for union members on strike.

After 9 days of strike action in over 70 universities and a further 5 set to take place next week, the union’s general secretary emailed the entire membership to celebrate advancing negotiations and announce the likelihood of a satisfactory deal between the union and employers. No useful details were given about the nature of such a deal or a likely timeline for its implementation.

Today, even more worryingly, the “four fights” union negotiators released a statement that entirely contradicted the GS’ claims. No deal is on the table, fundamental disagreements remain between ourselves and the employers, and the GS’ claims she is prepared to settle for a pay ‘increase’ of 3% (still below our 6% demand, as well as below inflation), which does not even include the Retail Price Index (RPI) adjustment demanded by the union.

Furthermore the negotiators express concerns at the GS’ indication that she would bypass the union’s membership once a deal is on the table, and take it to the Higher Education Committee instead.

It is difficult to understand what exactly is at play here but it is hard to shake the idea that a replay of two years ago is under way: a last minute deal, pushed through by the GS without the agreement, involvement, or participation of the membership as the end of the strike looms - as does the end of term.

It is too early - and far too unclear - to call for open resistance to a sell out of the strike, as we did successfully in 2018, but members should demand explanations from the leadership as soon as possible.

This lack of communication from the leadership to the members is one of the most concerning aspects of this strike. No clarity on progress, selection of negotiators, or decision made in the negotiations have been shared. It raises important questions about the running of the strike all together. Since we started taking industrial action we have been given no information about negotiations, about potential offers, or the intentions of employers.

This brings back memories of older strikes under the previous union leadership, in which the membership were treated as little more than cannon-fodder, expected to stand on picket lines, suffer through loss of pay, and wait for order from up high.

In such a situation it is incredibly hard for members to intervene in the strike. It is impossible for us to pass motions in favour or against current offers in union assemblies on the picket lines. It is also very difficult for us to prepare the ground for potentially necessary further action. Some branches have passed motions calling for a marking boycott in the summer. They are right to do so and others should follow suit. It is difficult however to spread these initiatives as effectively as possible when the future of our dispute is kept from us.

There has also been an insistence of respecting “confidentiality” of the negotiations. We cannot see any benefit to keeping these negotiations secret. As rank-and-file members we demand to know what our union and negotiators are arguing for in meetings about our four fights - as well as how the employers are responding.

Our strength comes from our collective action and ability to shut down the sector. The union should never accept to hold secret, confidential talks with employers. Negotiators should give regular updates to the entire membership so members can make democratic decisions on picket lines and participate in the direction of our action, while planning for next steps.

This would further allow negotiators and national leaders to take informed decisions based not on their personal opinions but on the actual mood on the ground, amongst those paying the price for our collective action.

We did not reject our previous GS’ underhand strategies in 2018 to accept a return to business as usual now. It is time to open our union to its members. Otherwise we will be back to protest outside the union’s offices.

We have to be in charge of our own industrial strategy and our elected leaders must take us seriously enough to involve us in their plans. As the Clyde Workers’ Committee once summed up:

“We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”


author

The University and College Worker

Bulletin written for, and by, University and College Workers