Socialist Worker

Token strikes won’t win university battles

Issue No. 2780

UCU strikers on the march in 2020

UCU strikers on the march in 2020 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Workers at 59 ­universities across Britain have voted for strikes that are now set to ­happen before Christmas.

It’s a tribute to local ­activists that they delivered big votes for action.

Roddy Slorach, a worker at Imperial College London, told Socialist Worker, “The results are particularly remarkable for the ballot campaign that lasted just 17 days and took place at the start of term.

“This was a time many staff were returning to campus for the first time since the Covid‑19 outbreak.”


The votes are an expression of rising anger in the sector about long-term trends which have seen managements turn universities into profit centres with learning on the cheap.

Workers are fighting attacks such as an assault of pensions that would reduce the guaranteed retirement income of a typical worker by 35 percent.

They also want action to reverse years of discrimination, attacks on permanent contracts and falling pay.

UCU union members voted in two ballots, one over ­pensions, one over what is known as the four fights.

These are better pay, reduced ­workload, opposition to casualisation and a drive towards equality by closing the disability, gender and ethnic pay gaps.

Each university’s votes were counted separately. To ­overcome the hurdles of the anti-union laws, they had to both vote for action and have a turnout of at least 50 percent of eligible voters.

Overall, 54 branches reached this target over the four fights, 37 over pensions.

Some of these are ­duplicates so in total the union will allow 59 branches to strike over one or the other dispute.

In both ballots, there were big majorities for strikes and the overall turnout in both was just over 50 percent. But that doesn’t count under the law.

Strikes now need to start as soon as possible, and not just going through the motions.

In 2018, when a ­similar number of universities voted for pension strikes, the UCU called rapidly escalating action. It announced 14 strike days with two days one week followed by three-day, ­four-day and five-day walkouts in the following weeks.

In 2019-20 the union called eight days of strikes from 25 November to 4 December and then more action in the new year—22 days in all.

But UCU general secretary Jo Grady is recommending a wholly inadequate strategy to the union’s higher education committee which was due to meet on Friday of this week.

As the UCU Left ­organisation, which Socialist Worker supports, says, Grady is “proposing one day of strike in each dispute before Xmas.

“This is token action of the type that the previous general secretary was derided for.”

The UCU Left ­statement adds, “The threat of a ­maximum of two days’ action, with nothing more promised for the spring term, will not worry the employers.”


The lessons of the strikes over the last few years is that only militant, escalating action has a chance of success.

Short strikes and separating the disputes will be brushed aside by vice-chancellors and the Tories.

Grady’s plan will lead to delay, disillusion and defeat.

Every activist has to fight for escalating action this term and re-ballots of the branches who didn’t hit the threshold so that they can join the strikes in 2022.

Militant strikes can win ­support from students and other trade unionists.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.