Don't separate, escalate!

Ahead of the Higher Education Committee meeting on 30 January, branches have been asked to consult with members about how best to take the pensions and pay & equalities fights forward. There have been some discussions about the logic of fighting on two fronts simultaneously and whether the disputes should be “decoupled”. We offer three contributions below as a way of stimulating further debate and, crucially, to focus members’ minds on what action is needed to secure the concessions we deserve from the employers on all fronts. We also reproduce two motions – one written by ‘four fights’ negotiators and one by Andrew Chitty of Sussex UCU – that could be the basis of a discussion at your next branch meeting.

Rhian Elinor (Exeter UCU)

I’m really concerned about the number of messages I’ve been receiving from colleagues in reballoting branches who are concerned about discussions of decoupling equalities and pension disputes. This is really dangerous.

I was initially sceptical about balloting for both together. But in the course of the disputes I’ve seen why it’s essential.

We got over the line on anti-casualisation this time – after crushing disappointments for casualised staff like me from the last few ballots – precisely because of the momentum from fighting two disputes at once.

I can’t explain, as an hourly paid staff member who is struggling with casualised conditions exacerbating physical and mental health, quite what it meant to feel colleagues were willing to stand with us, as we had on #ussstrike.And it was a long time coming. 

Standing on the picket line with colleagues striking on all of the issues also helped with branch awareness and understanding, fostering solidarity between generations of workers.

I’m now really worried to see colleagues – often speaking from positions of relative employment security – advocating to undermine this solidarity. I’m not even sure what the strategy would be.

Separate strike dates for both is being mooted. This would be disastrous. It would mean casualised workers in USS branches hit hardest, and would increase feeling that some senior colleagues willing to strike over pensions but not working conditions of colleagues.

Also, it would undermine post-92 colleagues striking over conditions but not pensions. The whole point of a union is we stand together or we fall. An injury to one is an injury to all, and we don’t pick and choose what constitutes injury based on what affects us personally.

And now we’re in a peculiar position where we are reballoting branches at a point when powerful sections of the union are actively undermining this. It’s disappointing and frustrating. We need to be supporting the reballot, not throwing those branches under the bus.

We’re at the sharp end of the working conditions the disputes are supposed to combat. Please don’t abandon us now. We didn’t abandon you in 2018.


Graham Kirkwood (Newcastle UCU)

The current negotiations in both disputes really do seem to lack any sense of urgency from the employers. They exhibit a lack of concern that students have already lost eight days from their studies and are about to lose a further 14 days if the next wave of strikes go ahead. This is looking increasingly likely given the snail’s pace the employers are moving at.

As was the case in other striking universities in December last year, we had a bigger turnout on strike days here at Newcastle University than in the previous strike wave back in February and March 2018. There has been a bigger call on our local strike fund this time round due to the greater involvement of casualised and precarious staff. There is no mood here to uncouple the two disputes, our strength is in going forward together.

We have been using this time to plan the next round of action. Colleagues are currently being surveyed on what they thought went well in December and what we could do to improve. We are firming up and expanding our layer of branch representatives across the university and fine tuning our action plan leading up to the strike days.

Although we had sufficient numbers out on strike in December to carry the dispute, it is a fact that there are still too many UCU members who work through the strike. This weakens the action and isolates them from the dispute. When the dates are announced we need to get out in a similar way to getting the vote out to get the strike out. Going round floor to floor, department to department talking to people and arguing for maximum involvement for a speedy resolution. In addition colleagues have been going over to help at our neighbouring Northumbria University UCU branch to assist with their re-ballot. The two universities out on strike together will make a significant impact on this city.


Jo McNeill (Liverpool UCU)

I have been a little surprised to see the narrative emerging from some UCU members around decoupling the two disputes. 

The idea to run the four fights and USS disputes together was brought to HEC by Lancaster UCU. When moving the motion Julie Hearn, a HEC Rep from Lancaster, spoke of how members would benefit from running both disputes together and the added strength it would give negotiators in each legally distinct dispute. I voted for this motion. I was aware of how branches had struggled to meet the Tory turnout threshold in previous pay/equalities disputes to the major detriment of our most vulnerable members. I voted for this strategy because we had to do something differently and this worked. We saw record turnout in the pay/equalities ballot.

Members told us how they felt this made sense to ballot and to take action on both disputes at the same time. This strategy builds solidarity: a fundamental trade union principle! 

Yet now we have a group of people seemingly doing all they can to publicly undermine this strategy with an aim to decouple the two disputes. Their reasons for this appear to be ill informed.

For example, I’ve seen questions like ‘what if one dispute resolves earlier than the other?’ If this is the case, and it may be, then we consult members on their opinion on the offer made. If they agree to accept, then we close down that legally distinct dispute. The other dispute continues. This isn’t new. Many branches have run two disputes, usually a national and a local one.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s quite a simple industrial strategy. Some branches have both disputes running simultaneously; others just have the four fights. If the USS dispute resolves first, then all the big Russell group branches stay out with all the smaller branches.

If the four fights resolves first then we have all the bigger USS branches still out.

This adds pressure, provides solidarity, and gives additional strength to negotiators (which I’m one of). We have some branches re-balloting right now and it will be great to have them join us. But the main factor right now is the decision HEC make on the next round of action. 

USS branches had a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) to debate this and carried a motion from Liverpool recommending 14 days. There hasn’t been a four fights SHESC so we (the ‘four fights’ negotiators) are recommending these branches move a model motion we’ve written in advance of the next HEC Jan 30th.


Draft motion (prepared by ‘four fights’ negotiators)

This branch acknowledges the need to fight back against increasing casualisation, damaging workloads, antiquated gender and race pay gaps and a decade long erosion of our pay.

This branch notes the decision from HEC to coordinate ballot distribution and strike days for the Four Fights and USS disputes.  This strategy allowed for UCU’s most successful ballot turnout results on pay ever and led to eight days of impactful strike action which is empowering our national negotiators.

This branch recognises the need to increase pressure at this point and that in order to win we have to move towards escalating our industrial strategy.

This branch supports this existing strategy towards our two ongoing disputes in HE, and believes that strike action in pursuit of the Four Fights should continue to escalate simultaneously with action over USS, beginning with the 14 days endorsed by HESC in December 2019.


Draft motion: The need for consultation (Andrew Chitty, Sussex UCU)

This branch notes:

1. The Special HE Sector Conference on the USS dispute in December voted for 14 more days of action over USS in February and March and another round of ballots over USS in February to April.

2. There has been no equivalent opportunity for branches to have their say about further action in the pay and conditions dispute.

3. This especially risks disenfranchising branches, including post-92 branches, that have voted for industrial action in the pay and conditions dispute but are outside the USS dispute, when the HEC meets on 30th January to consider calling further action in both disputes.

This branch resolves:

a. To call on the HEC on 30th January to urgently arrange a formal consultation of all branches holding a mandate for industrial action in the pay and conditions dispute on how to take that dispute forward, if possible culminating in a national branch delegates meeting, before HEC makes a decision on this question at its next meeting.

b. The consultation should lay out at least two options, offering different degrees and timescales of escalation.


National Activists’ Meeting, 11am, Saturday 25 January in central London (called by Goldsmiths UCU, Imperial UCU, Queen Mary UCU and UCL UCU; organised by London Region UCU. Details here.

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