Delegates to UCU conference recognised the enormous assault that lecturers are facing on their jobs and pay. They argued that these things are part of a wider attack on education and that every attack must be resisted.
The latest pay offer for university lecturers is a derisory £100 a year.
At the higher education sector conference, delegates passed a motion on national bargaining with an amendment to ballot members on the employers’ final pay offer. If members reject it, delegates called on the national executive to ballot for industrial action over pay in the autumn.
Gavin Reid from the national executive moved the motion. He said that it was a “nonsense” that the money wasn’t there to pay lecturers and that the union, “by moving pay to the bottom of the list, we’ve left ourselves with bad offers.
“We’ve backed away and called for further consultation. We need some clarity on direction from here.”
Many delegates agreed that the union needed a more robust and clear strategy to fight for decent pay. Sean Wallis from University College London said the union had “missed a trick” by seeing pay as a less important issue.
He pointed out that, particularly for younger lecturers and those on casual contracts, pay was a vital issue. “If you want to address those members, you have to address pay,” he said. To applause he added, “Let’s have what the vice-chancellors are having. If a 20 percent pay rise is affordable for them, it’s affordable for us.”
Some delegates questioned whether it was right to agree a timetable to ballot for action on pay. They framed this in terms of asking whether members wanted to fight on pay, whether they thought other issues were more important, or even whether they had “ballot fatigue”.
Some said that decisions over the timing of a ballot should be left in the hands of the higher education committee, not made by elected delegates.
Other lecturers argued against this. Mark Campbell from London Metropolitan University said that to ask whether jobs, pay or pensions was the most important issue was the wrong approach to take. “The most important thing is the defence of education,” he said. “And that means we have to resist all attacks. If we give ground on pay, it doesn’t help us to fight over jobs.
“We have to fight on all fronts – and we shouldn’t be scared of saying so.”
Liz Lawrence from the national executive committee said there was a problem with having a “neither peace nor war situation” where the union opposed below-inflation pay offers but didn’t take action over them.
“There’s no point rejecting an offer and then doing nothing,” she said. “National bargaining is not delivering – it’s time to take action.”
The amendment was overwhelmingly passed.
UCU delegates confirmed that the fight against job cuts is a central battle for the union. Many are involved in live disputes over jobs, while others have fought successful campaigns in the recent past.
Delegates to the higher education sector conference passed motions condemning the practice of using fixed-term contracts and “naming and shaming” institutions guilty of bad practice.
They also called on the union to “ballot for industrial action in the event of employers refusing to enter into meaningful negotiations” on avoiding redundancies.
Philip Inglesant from University College London told delegates, “My contract ends on Tuesday – I’m being made redundant.
“The culture is that it is accepted to employ people on fixed-term contracts. We should resist that.”
Some delegates argued that members wouldn’t fight over jobs and that it wasn’t “tactical” to do so. But many disagreed and described their successful battles over redundancies.
Megan from King’s College London told delegates, “Our campaign against redundancies made us the fastest-growing association in the country. It’s important to keep jobs in the spotlight nationally.
“Standing up and fighting builds the union.”
John Berry from the University of Hertfordshire said that when lecturers struck over pensions in March “they would’ve been on strike about anything given the opportunity”. He said workers were furious over a range of attacks they were facing.
“The obscenity of applying for your own job has become part and parcel of academic life,” he said. “It’s an axe hanging over our heads all the time. Our members want protection – and a national strategy.”
Delegates also passed a motion noting the destructive impact of “voluntary” redundancies. They instructed the higher education committee to “seek to protect members from the threats and pressures that can lead them to accept voluntary redundancy”.
SOME KEY VOTES
To back those engaged in disputes at Newcastle College, Barnsley College, Conel, Coleg Morgannwg, London Met and NW Kent College
To give full backing and support to any branch taking action against redundancies and cuts
To launch a national campaign and national protest in support of London Met
To support the one million climate jobs petition and march
To reaffirm opposition to nuclear power and demand that the government phases out nuclear power