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Universities to-and-fro shows the value of pressure from below

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Pressure from union members can ensure the planned UCU strikes happen, and more are won in future
Issue 2845
UCU members protest outside union headquarters

UCU union members protesting in London against calling off their planned strikes  (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Hundreds of thousands of trade unionists are gearing up for strikes next Wednesday. But at the same time, several unions have called off action for talks or are recommending deals that are well below inflation. Both of these features are aspects of the present situation, and both require organisation at the base to achieve victories.

A clear case is the UCU university workers’ union. Its leaders called off a series of strikes on the basis of empty ­promises and threats. At recent talks the Ucea ­employers’ organisation announced that it was not moving from its pay offer of 8 percent over two years, a massive cut once inflation is taken into account.

Bosses also made only a number of vague promises to negotiate over non-pay issues such as workload, equality and contracts. This was accompanied by the threat that the employers would walk out of negotiations if the unions would not suspend strikes for two weeks. The resolve of the union officials collapsed in the face of this intimidation, and they all agreed.

Having trapped the unions into demobilising their members, Ucea wrote to all of the unions to say it was now imposing its final offer, and terminating all negotiations on it. But despite the best efforts of its general secretary Jo Grady, the UCU union was, on Tuesday, still poised to strike for several days over the next fortnight.

After a vote on the higher education ­committee, the union announced it would add 15 March to its previous strike ­programme on Thursday 16, Friday 17, Monday 20, Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 22 March. It will take further pressure from below to make sure these strikes happen, to implement a marking and assessment boycott, push to win indefinite action and to win a reballot to open the way to further strikes.

The UCU Left organisation, which Socialist Worker supports, said, “This struggle against pay and ­pension cuts, against spiralling workloads and casual contracts, and for equality in the sector can be won, and it can be won this year. It cannot be won, however, by a leadership that focuses on the negotiating table at the expense of members.”

Grady should be censured or hit with a motion of no confidence. Over 20 UCU higher education branches have already voted to requisition a special conference to discuss—and seize hold of—the future of the dispute. The UCU can return to the frontline of the action or it can be part of a stampede towards sell-outs.

The key question is to ­understand both the potential for success and the dangers of the ­present situation, and to fight for rank and file control and united, escalating action.

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