University and College Union: Pensions, pay and conditions dispute reach a crucial stage

UCU strikers at the University of Nottingham, 27 February 2018, photo Gary Freeman

Bea Gardner, UCU Southampton branch executive (personal capacity)

As we go to press, a crucial meeting of the University and College Union (UCU) higher education committee is set to take place to decide the future strategy in the ongoing disputes over pensions, pay and conditions.

Before Christmas, 60 institutions, including approximately 42,000 members, took eight consecutive days of strike action and have been participating in action short of strike since then.

On 30 January the union’s higher education committee will meet and decide how many further days of action to call and whether or not to continue the current strategy of combining the two disputes. Any further action will be bolstered by the anticipated addition of up to 36 other institutions when their ballots close on 28 January.

The committee will likely announce 14 days of further action across four weeks in the ‘USS’ pension dispute, as mandated at the higher education special conference in December. However, uncertainty surrounds the strategy for the ‘four fights’ dispute over pay, workload, casualisation and unequal pay, because there is no special conference mandate.

Combining the disputes so far has maximised impact by bringing the institutions in the USS scheme out with those only balloted for the pay dispute.

As a result of the action, negotiations have resumed but confidentiality agreements have prevented negotiators from spelling out concretely what progress is being made.

Some within the union have seized this opportunity to attempt to demoralise members, undermining the dispute and even calling for a ‘pause’. It is therefore vital that the left organise at all levels to defend the strike mandate and arm the rank and file with the strategy and confidence needed to win.

This means fighting to keep the disputes combined and continuing to push on all aspects of the disputes, including pay. So far, employers have refused to budge from their current below-inflation pay offer of 1.6%. Management claims it is unaffordable to increase pay, but university income, surpluses and reserves have all increased. A victory on pay is the most concrete way of ensuring university management concedes to improving staff conditions and our share of the income.

Like the 2018 strike, members must be willing to reject an inadequate offer. In 2018 the potential sell-out of the pension dispute was halted by members on the ground. One way of preparing members for this is by electing local strike committees to lead the next round of action.

It also means electing candidates for the national executive committee who are actively building the rank-and-file network.

Whatever the outcome of the higher education committee meeting, the task will be to arm the rank -and-file activists with the confidence and strategy to win on the two higher education disputes, as a starting point for a fightback across both further and higher education destroyed by decades of marketisation and austerity.