On 4-5 November the University and College Union (UCU) announced that two national ballots have shown a strong mandate for resuming strikes by our members over issues that have long plagued Higher Education.
The first ballot was over new proposed cuts to the USS pensions scheme (covering “pre-1992” universities). During the middle of the pandemic, a USS pension revaluation significantly under-valued its worth and has resulted in the scheme’s management demanding raised contributions from its members. Research by the union suggests that the average USS member has already lost £240,000 due to changes made between 2011-19: these new proposals would leave staff in an even poorer position.
The strike ballot to reverse these proposals saw 35 UCU branches beat the 50% turnout threshold with positive “yes” votes for striking. With the two Northern Ireland universities, 37 universities have mandates for strike. 22 missing the threshold polled between 40-50%, and the overall turnout was a solid 53%.
The second strike ballot was over the “Four Fights” issues: equality, workload, pay and casualisation, affecting all UK universities. Four Fights demands include an immediate salary uplift of £2,500 for all pay points, a reduction in weekly hours to 35, and further action to close the gender pay gap. This ballot saw 54 branches pass the threshold with “yes” votes for strikes, a further 39 with turnouts over 40%, and an overall turnout of 50.6%.
There are now around 60 branches that can take strike action on at least one of these disputes. The overall turnout figures were high. On an “aggregated” ballot all the UCU branch involved in these two disputes would have now had live strike mandate (146 for Four Fights, and 69 for USS).
Nevertheless, the call from our members remains strong: we want to take coordinated action at dozens of university campuses across the country, and we’re ready to do so now.
Yet, the General Secretary of our union (Jo Grady) has urged us to wait before taking any sustained action, and instead hold two one-day strikes over the next month.
In the case of the USS dispute, Grady has argued to hold off sustained action to allow the branches who got 40-50% turnouts to re-ballot, and in the case of Four Fights, Grady has urged us re-ballot on an aggregated basis — that is, re-ballot all 146 branches again, to try and get them all live strike ballots. Whilst that would be historic in our sector, this tactic suppresses the clear mandate members have made to take action this term, and use up more activist time on “get out the vote” activities (and for a ballot in which first time round we topped the turnout threshold only by 0.6%).
Fortunately, the General Secretary doesn’t get to make this decision: this will be voted on at the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) on 12 November. In the run-up to then, University and College Union (UCU) branches across the UK will be meeting.
Higher education activists in Workers’ Liberty will be using these meetings to call on branches that didn’t meet either of these thresholds to be allowed to re-ballot immediately, and for all branches with live ballots to commence action this term and avoid re-balloting on an aggregated basis.
• More: University disputes: how to win"