What next for the UCU?

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The UCU Rising campaign over pay and conditions came to an end on 3 November 2023, when the ballot to take strike action failed to meet the turnout threshold of 50% as required by the Trade Unions Act 2016. Despite the fact that 68.32% of UCU members voted in favour of continuing strike action and only 31.68% voted against it, the ballot received 42.59% turnout, which is 7.41% less than the minimum turnout for the decision to take effect. The low turnout undoubtedly prevents UCU members from continuing the strike action, but what does this mean for the future of the UCU campaign? Is this the final chapter, or merely another step towards winning the four fights?

To adequately analyse the impact of ballot results on the future of the UCU, it is vital to explore the various causes of the low turnout. What are the reasons why the UCU members chose to stay at home instead of casting their vote into the ballot box? Is it a general lack of trust in the campaign’s organisation, or are there specific reasons?

As of the academic year 2022/2023, the UCU acquired a mandate for industrial action that would begin in November 2022 as part of the ‘UCU Rising’ campaign. There are two kinds of financial help available to UCU members taking part in the strike action: the national fighting fund and hardship funds supplied by individual UCU branches. 

Some UCU members may have lost faith in the continuous financial support.

Applications for the national fighting fund are quite simple; as long as the individual is a UCU member who pays their membership dues on time and participates in the strike action, they can get financial support for the days they are on strike. However, the assistance supplied is limited to meeting the most basic needs of striking members, which are frequently insufficient. UCU members can then apply for branch-specific hardship funds, which have a restricted budget and tend to prioritise members with the most pressing needs. The most immediate demands typically refer to low-paid workers on fractional contracts, as well as those who are disproportionately impacted by strike days. Striking members may get reimbursement for actual net loss due to strike action under normal circumstances, but because the budget is restricted, the rules may be enforced more firmly and those with urgent needs prioritised. As a result of these conditions, some UCU members may have lost faith in the continuous financial support, and they may have decided not to vote or to wait for the UCU to propose modifications to the financial support of members engaging in the industrial action.

Furthermore, following months of collective action, the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) officially ended on September 6th when 60% of UCU members voted in favour of ending the boycott. The MAB mandate had previously been due to expire on September 30, so the premature termination may have disappointed many UCU members. 

These challenges may require campaign reorganisation and the establishment of more defined goals

It is worth remembering that the UK higher education industrial action began in 2018, with two main issues at stake: issues concerning the Universities Superannuation Scheme (a UK pension scheme), and employment issues successfully expressed in the four fights campaign (equality, workload, pay, and casualisation). While the UCU ceased industrial action in April 2023 due to satisfaction with the pensions scheme negotiations, it persisted with the marking and assessment boycott regarding the Four Fights issue, which was subsequently ended in September 2023. Inadequate financial support for strike action members, as well as the early termination of the marking and assessment boycott, may have signalled to UCU members a lack of effective leadership and campaign direction, which may have contributed to the poor turnout on the recent ballot on continuing industrial action. On a positive note, this does not necessarily imply that UCU members have abandoned the Four Fights; rather, concerns such as pay inequality and excessive workload are more systematic and cannot be resolved through strike action or a boycott of marking and assessment. As a result, these challenges may require campaign reorganisation and the establishment of more defined goals. While the recent end of the industrial action benefited students, it is unlikely to be the end of the UCU’s campaign for the rights of their members.

Image: Thomas Tomlinson

2 thoughts on “What next for the UCU?

  • I suspect the lower turnout is primarily driven by the knowledge that, because of the threshold, if you want to vote ‘no’ then the most effective voting mechanism is not to vote.

    Reply
  • You’re not wrong in suspecting that prematurely ending the previous dispute & lack of fighting fund support are factors driving the failure in the new ballot. But the issue is not ending the dispute on Sep 7 vs Sep 30; it’s senior leadership deciding that it could not go beyond Sep 30 (by not renewing the mandate, against the clear wishes of members). Once it was confirmed the MAB was ending on Sep 30, most members decided we may as well end it ASAP. But members clearly wanted to extend the mandate beyond September (as expressed in clear votes at Congress in May and at a branch delegates’ meeting where 98% voted to extend the mandate). Balloting again a month later after refusing to ballot, thus conceding an exhausting campaign with a loss, was a strategyless decision.

    On the fighting fund support – members also voted to remove caps on this at Congress in May but this too has been ignored by the current leadership.

    Reply

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