The UCU union has delayed a planned reballot of workers for strikes due to the coronavirus crisis.
The move comes as more universities end face to face teaching to try and stop the spread of the virus.
But it should not be used to walk away from the disputes.
The current wave of action has seen 14 days of strikes in 74 universities. UCU members ended a five-day strike last week, and walkouts continued in a handful of institutions this week.
The union is in dispute over pay, equality, contracts, workload and pensions.
Workers have been debating what their next steps should be. “I think we will need to look at an exam boycott,” said Ian, who has been picketing every day of the strike at Oxford university.
“That would put pressure on them because they don’t like being sued by students.”
Oxford UCU committee members John said the mood there is growing for a marking
boycott. “Some people see it as an individual response,” he told Socialist Worker.
“But when I first started here, we had a marking boycott that brought medical sciences to a standstill.
“Two out of 12 workers did the boycott, but the rest refused to cover our work. So it was very effective.”
For Eli, another picket, more strikes will he needed if the bosses refuse to back down. “We’re going to have to go out on strike again,” she told Socialist Worker.
Reballots for action were set to start on Tuesday, but the union postponed these. One motion passed at the union’s higher education committee said they would begin on 29 April, another no later than the end of June.
Meanwhile, action short of a strike is ongoing.
The impact of the coronavirus on universities will clearly shape workers’ tactics.
But the strikes have been a huge success, and they should fight to make sure the union does not walk away from a chance of a victory.
At Oxford, the union branch has grown by around 40 members since the strikes started.
“It is tiring being on strike for 14 days,” said Eli. “But it would be utterly demoralising to lose all this pay for nothing.”
John agreed. “We had a committee meeting and there seems to be a strong mood for the reballot,” he said. “People are worn out after four weeks of strikes, but there’s no sense that they want to stop.”
And workers should resist any attempts to make their conditions worse as the coronavirus crisis grows. Some university bosses have suggested workers produce online lectures so students can study at home.
Striker Marion told Socialist Worker, “We are still engaging in action short of a strike and that means not doing extra work.
“This should include producing any online materials.”
There is still a danger that the union leadership would be willing to settle for a deal that falls far short of what workers are fighting for. In an email to workers last week, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said, “Our negotiators have tabled proposals that fall short of our original demands but which we believe could represent an acceptable resolution to our disputes.”
Yet these proposals would see workers get a much lower pay deal than they are striking for, plus pay more into their pension scheme.
The union should be fighting for more. And it should keep fighting on all of the issues, not playing any off against the others.
As one Oxford striker put it, “When we struck in 2018 over pensions, a lot of people on strike were on fixed term contracts or had just finished their PhDs. I was one of them.
“We struck to protect the pensions of others, and we said we wanted professors to strike over casual contracts too. That’s what has happened.”
He added that it is a “clever tactic” to run two disputes together. “We met the turnout threshold in one ballot but not the other,” he explained. “But calling people out over both means we can always join the strikes.”
Grady’s email to members said, “We are willing to temporarily refrain from escalating our disputes in light of this pandemic—but we will not abandon them.”
Workers will have to stay organised to hold her to this.