A crucial week for the university strikes

With negotiations reportedly going well, but the current wave of strikes ending alongside the climate strikes on Friday, rs21 members explain why this is a crucial week and explore some of the debates among strikers.

Crowd with giant 'strike' lettering
Photo: Edinburgh, Pete Cannell

University and College Union (UCU) members at 74 institutions across Britain continue their strike all this week (check local variations) over casualisation, pay inequality, workload, pay and pensions, while members of the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) will be striking for two days. The outcomes will also affect staff in Unison and Unite, who failed to pass the hurdles in the anti-union legislation to join the strike. Quality education needs staff who feel valued and secure rather than stressed and have the time to do the job properly. By fighting for decent treatment for university staff, strikers are fighting for quality education.

The outcome of this dispute will have wider implications too. It is the first major national strike since the general election, so could play a part in breaking or reinforcing the demoralising impact of Labour’s defeat. The context for the strike is the wider drive to commodify and marketise education with fees for students, a narrow and short-term focus on ‘employability’, a competitive measurement of teaching and research, and management aping their greedy and socially destructive private sector counterparts. Similar issues threaten every branch of our public services.

The strike has seen lots of members, students and supporters actively involved in picketing, protesting, running teach-outs and building solidarity and participation has held up well despite atrocious weather. Employers were shocked that so many universities managed to exceed the anti-union turnout thresholds, and shocked again at the level of participation in the strikes. Participation and militancy forced the employers to negotiate, including on issues they had previously said were not on the table.

UCU’s negotiating teams are elected at the union’s Congress and their composition reflects the shift in the union’s internal politics since the 2018 dispute. At that time members rose up in a #NoCapitulation revolt against attempts to bypass branches and accept a shoddy deal. Both key negotiators and Jo Grady, now UCU General Secretary, were part of that revolt. Both are saying that there have been significant shifts from the employers’ side in negotiations, including on casualisation. This is particularly important because staff on casual contracts have played a disproportionate role in the strike – it would be a disaster for the future of unionisation in higher education if a settlement didn’t improve their situation significantly.

Debate amongst members is intensifying as the current wave of strikes nears its end. Most striking institutions would need to re-ballot in order to continue action, and there is no guarantee that all would pass the turnout threshold again, though recruitment of strikers (and resignations from a few scabs) help. Inevitably, members want to discuss the progress of negotiations and what the next steps should be if no acceptable offer is forthcoming. This is the context for differences emerging within the union – how these are resolved will be critical to the success of the dispute.

On Thursday 5 March General Secretary Jo Grady wrote to members with a generally encouraging update on negotiations which has nonetheless drawn several criticisms.

UCU Left members on the ‘4 fights’ negotiating team published a response expressing concern that Grady’s update had not been discussed, let alone agreed, with the negotiators. This wasn’t just an issue of process, they were also unhappy with the content. In particular, they questioned Jo Grady proposing to recommend an offer which had not been made. It is worth teasing out why this is a problem. It is common practice for negotiators to say things like ‘we could recommend the offer if it included A, B and C’, as a way of extracting concessions in exchange for the recommendation, particularly at a late stage in negotiations. What is problematic here is for the General Secretary to make such a statement separately from the negotiating team. Effectively, it undermines the ability of the negotiating team to play that card themselves – particularly if they were going to ask for more in exchange for their recommendation. Just as much as putting pressure on the employer, it puts pressure on the union’s elected negotiators. The negotiators also gave the useful reminder that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ – until any offer is formally made, there is the risk of institutions not standing behind concessions that their negotiators indicated they could make, perhaps using the coronavirus outbreak as a pretext.

A broader set of criticisms came from Notes from Below (NfB), who asked ‘Is a sell-out underway?’ The article makes valid points about the importance of democracy and the problems caused by secrecy in a dispute if members are to be motivated, involved and in control. rs21 members advocate a rank and file approach to trade unionism. Employers like negotiations to be conducted in secret for four main reasons. Firstly, secrecy increases the power imbalance between the parties. Employers are extremely hierarchical, with key decisions taken by individuals or small groups. Their negotiators can consult the people they represent without going public. It is the members who take key decisions on the union side, so secrecy makes equivalent consultation impossible. The less clear union negotiators are about members’ views, the more pressure on them to err on the side of caution and avoid overplaying a hand they are uncertain of. Secrecy makes union negotiators less effective. Secondly, secrecy breeds distrust and division within union ranks, when unity in action is needed to successfully prosecute the dispute. Thirdly, secrecy disempowers members, reducing motivation, commitment and participation. Fourthly, secrecy shifts power towards the top of the union, to officers employed by the union and to reps with high levels of facility time (time off work to carry out union duties). Officers act as intermediaries between workers and employers rather than being one or the other and they cannot be relied on to consistently pursue workers’ interests.

At the highpoints of struggle, workers have done away with secrecy in negotiations. When workers occupied the Gdansk shipyard in the heyday of Solidarnosc, negotiations were broadcast over the shipyard tannoy. Crowds of workers outside could be heard cheering or booing as talks progressed – making their power felt in the room. Open negotiations have been growing in popularity in recent years, promoted by Labor Notes and figures including Jane McAlevey, but they are still rare in Britain. McAlevey’s negotiations involve hundreds of people at a time, with all members expected to attend at least once. Many trade unionists resist the idea. Some wrongly believe that there are legal reasons for secrecy. Others think being able to be sneaky and underhand in negotiations is more beneficial than greater openness. Far more don’t believe their employer would ever agree to open bargaining. McAlevey’s response to such objections is that if you can’t force your employer to the table on your terms, you can’t force them to make major concessions and you need to focus on organising so that you can. This is why NfB’s demand to open negotiations now feels like propaganda, coming when everyone is aware that the approaching end of the planned strikes is weakening workers’ position. The power of workers in relation to the union bureaucracy is an echo of their power in relation to the employers. But they are right that the more open UCU leaders are with members the better.

Other aspects of the NfB article are more problematic. They don’t seem to recognise the shift in the union since 2018 or the extent of members’ democratic participation. Many campuses are seeing frequent strike meetings, often discussing reports from negotiators or people who have spoken with them. They misquote Grady to blame her for the retreat on pay to 3% rather than RPI+3% when her update makes clear she is reporting the negotiators’ stance. The retreat on pay had been widely trailed in members’ meetings which saw casualisation as the issue the union should give the least ground on and which accepted that the strike had not been strong enough to win all demands without any compromises. NfB claims there is no clarity on the selection of negotiators – who were elected by UCU Congress.

The negotiators’ update explains the process the Higher Education Committee (HEC) have agreed for dealing with any offer:

  1. First, negotiators would discuss it as a package and consider whether or not to recommend it for consultation as the best that could be achieved through negotiations. If it were not ready to go out, we would go straight back to the employers to negotiate further.
  2. Once it was sent out, members would see the offer, consult over and debate it in branch meetings or strike meetings, and elect delegates to a UK-wide meeting of branch reps.
  3. At that meeting, branch representatives would debate the offer at a UK-wide level, and vote on it (in a weighted vote) to decide whether to recommend to HEC as to whether or not to put it out to members.
  4. HEC would then take a vote on whether or not that offer should be sent out for a consultative ballot for members to vote on. HEC’s decision will be based on the recommendations of branch reps from the delegates meeting.

This is a world away from the undemocratic shambles of 2018. NfB claims that 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’. The negotiators don’t say this and what Grady actually said was that if an offer matched her expectations she would ‘recommend that our higher education committee (HEC) should consult members on whether to accept it’, which says nothing at all about whether she intends to try to bypass other stages in the agreed process and certainly doesn’t suggest she intends to bypass members.

It is right for members and activists to keep an actively watchful eye on General Secretaries and lay negotiators alike, and to press for the maximum possible openness, democracy and participation. But the ability of the rank and file to do this depends on self-confidence and participation which are undermined by misinformation.

If we want to bring the dispute to a swift and successful conclusion, the pickets and protests this week will be key to preventing employers believing that they can ride out the current strikes and that workers have lost momentum for further action. Discussions about further action should be happening on every campus. It is good that members are discussing options such as marking boycotts, but we need to be wary of seeing Action Short Of Strike (ASOS) as a substitute for a renewed strike mandate. ASOS can often be individualised, won’t have more impact than strikes, and many institutions are likely to try to deduct 100% of pay.

Solidarity can help swell the numbers this week, provide much-needed financial support, and add pressure through student occupations, letters of protest, political avenues etc. Whether the strike has won by then or not we should be pushing for maximum participation in Friday’s youth climate strike. Important in its own right, the lively events provide the best platform for if action has to continue, or for workers to strike for the climate on International Workers Day, 1 May 2020.

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