The decision by the Higher Education Committee (HEC) of the University and College Union (UCU) to postpone balloting over jobs and pay was a serious error.
Instead of a ballot, the union now finds itself with an internal row about the decision, no timetable for action, and the prospect of rearguard local actions over redundancies.
The anger felt by activists across Britain at the decision is understandable.
But the union remains in dispute with the employers, and a majority of members have consistently expressed a desire to take action over jobs and pay when consulted this year.
Strikes remain a strong possibility if the democratic processes of the union’s constitution are upheld.
Some are putting a partisan, negative spin on the results of a survey conducted by UCU during the university vacation.
Yet this controversial canvass showed – before any materials outlining union policy on jobs and pay had been circulated – that a majority of members saw jobs, pensions and pay as the central issues facing the union, and was prepared to take action over each issue.
This is a distraction from the union’s principal concern – the attacks of the government and employers, and the resulting job losses, course closures and university rationalisations and amalgamations. Successful resistance to them requires industrial action.
Jobs, pay and pensions are linked issues – counterposing one against another is a mistake. Action against job losses and the continuing erosion of pay is necessary if the union’s commitment to defend pensions is to mean anything.
The TUC conference has illustrated growing awareness across the labour movement of the need to stand up to government cuts.
UCU has a responsibility in this situation to stand by those members who face cuts now, and to demonstrate that the movement’s defiance of attacks on the public sector can be translated into effective and timely action.
Activists are mobilising in defence of democracy within UCU, and seeking a recall HE Sector Conference to restate the union’s willingness to organise a national fight.
This debate must be conducted patiently and without rancour. Many of those who want to postpone a ballot only do so because they are unconvinced that action is possible. Such doubts are familiar to those who took action locally this year, when pessimism was swept aside by the willingness of members to fight.
Those opposed to immediate action are making serious strategic and tactical mistakes, but they also want the best for members. There must be a determined but respectful argument with them about the way forward. Whether UCU opts for immediate action or postponement, it will need maximum unity in the fight ahead.
UCU members have the chance to mount a powerful defence of education – we should seize it now.
UCU Left AGM, Saturday 9 October, 11- 4pm, University of London Union (ULU), Malet Street, London