By Alex Callinicos
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UCU union officials challenge workers’ democracy

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UCU union leaders called off strikes, but this isn't in workers' interests
Issue 2844
UCU union members protested against officials last wek

Workers protest against officials outside the UCU union HQ as the higher education committee met last Friday

The thread running through the present strike wave is that the trade union leaders aren’t prepared to take the action needed to win. This is so widespread it can’t be put down to the peculiarities of one union or the idiosyncrasies of another leader. It reflects something structural—the existence of a layer of full-time trade union officials whose role lies in mediating between workers and the bosses who exploit them.

The problem of this trade union bureaucracy is most visible in my own University and College Union (UCU). Its members working in universities have been involved in a succession of national strikes that started in 2018. At stake is the transformation of universities into profit‑seeking businesses run by highly paid managers. This has involved dismantling the relatively generous USS pensions system in the universities established before 1992. It also included a sharp cut in academics’ real pay, and increasing reliance on super-exploited and precarious staff.

Five years ago, then UCU general secretary Sally Hunt tried to sell out the initial pensions strike. This provoked a huge rank and file rebellion under the hashtag #NoCapitulation that prevented the complete destruction of the USS pension regime.

The present general secretary Jo Grady was elected in 2019 on the back of this rebellion. Sadly, however, she has proved to be, if anything, even worse than Hunt. It would be a mistake to explain this failure in personal terms. Ideology has played a part. Grady leads a faction that regards itself as radical but rejects focusing on strikes. But more fundamental is the profound pessimism about the possibility of winning all-out action common to the entire trade-union bureaucracy.

No doubt with her re-election in mind, Grady launched the “UCU Rising” campaign for national industrial action around the cost of living, pensions, casualisation, workloads and pay inequality. This captured the enthusiasm of UCU members increasingly embittered with their callous employers and was overwhelmingly endorsed in a national ballot last October. And then, everything stalled. The Higher Education Committee (HEC)—the elected national executive for universities—decided on a programme of action including indefinite strikes.

But Grady and her key allies in the full-time bureaucracy did not announce this decision for five weeks. When she finally did, it was to denounce the decision on a video broadcast to all members just an hour before a negotiating meeting with employers. The HEC compromised on 18 days of strikes this term. But in mid‑February Grady announced a two-week “pause” in these strikes for talks with the employers mediated by Acas.

She has no constitutional right to stop industrial action. Last week it emerged that Grady had agreed not to call any additional strike days during the pause. This means, because of the legal requirement of two weeks’ notice of industrial action, that there could be no additional strikes for a month. This is particularly contested because the HEC has voted for an extra strike day on 15 March, and this will now be fought over in the union. 

In exchange for Grady’s retreat the employers supposedly promised they wouldn’t impose their derisory pay offer—a 15 percent cut in real terms—during the pause. But they did it anyway at the end of last week, giving the lie to Grady’s triumphalist rhetoric that the UCU is on the verge of success.

The employers in effect expressed their contempt for a craven and incompetent union leadership. Only determined and sustained strike action will extract real concessions from them. The danger isn’t just that all this shilly-shallying demoralises UCU members, who have made considerable sacrifices in taking strike action over more than five years. By ignoring or sabotaging the decisions of elected bodies, Grady and her cabal are corrupting UCU’s highly democratic culture.

They need to be held to account. But, more urgently, control of the dispute needs to be wrested away from them. Branches are demanding a special Higher Education Sector Conference. This needs to set up a National Strike Committee of elected branch delegates to mount action that can break the will of the university bosses.

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