By Sophie Squire
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University workers must confront union leaders’ surrender

You don't build unions by withdrawing from struggle
Issue 2801
UCU union members on strike hold a banner reading 'End the gender pay gap'

Equal pay—one of the university ‘four fights’ (Picture: Guy Smallman)

University workers reacted furiously this week to their union general secretary’s plan to abandon their long-running battles against management and the Tories. The UCU union’s Jo Grady has set out a programme of retreat that halts the fight over pay, casualisation, workload and equalities—known as the four fights—for at least a year. And it effectively drops any plan to fight the 35 percent cuts to the USS pension scheme.

It’s camouflaged with radical talk about building up union strength and readying for future battles. But it’s an old myth that you can fundamentally strengthen unions by postponing struggle rather than engaging in it. 

As a UCU Left statement says, “The general secretary says this is a war. But you don’t win wars by telling the enemy you are too weak to fight, and would they mind if we came back in a year.”

Grady’s surrender came on the day inflation rose to 9 percent a year. And the day after ballot results showed 40 universities have a mandate to launch strikes and exam boycotts in the coming term. The four fights ballots saw 75 percent of those voting back action. However, they are counted university by university and not all passed the turnout threshold under the Tory anti-union laws.

 Far from being a sign of weakness as Grady’s position suggests, this is a more emphatic vote than last November when 70 percent voted in favour. And the USS ballot saw an 80 percent vote for strikes. 

Peta, a UCU union member from Liverpool university, told Socialist Worker that more universities would have met the threshold if the ballots voting period had been longer. “I think we were set up to fail by those at the top of the union as members were given just three weeks to vote,” said Peta.

In the report Grady writes that “higher membership density” and more “participation” will mean that workers can win against their employers. 

But Peta hit back at this and said, “Grady has argued that there aren’t enough of us to fight back. The message is to spend a year recruiting, and then we can see where we are. But this is a recipe for doing nothing. The reality is that it is action and strikes that build the union. People join unions that fight back and win.” 

And there is proof of this. Pre-92 university UCU branches grew by 50 percent ahead of strikes in 2018. 

Peta also added that the victory at Liverpool university last year has important lessons. Workers held solid strikes and a marking boycott to stop 47 members of staff from being made compulsorily redundant. 

“We kept striking until the redundancies were down to zero. We didn’t wait long between each round of strikes. We had mass meetings and regular members’ meetings. This is how we win” she added. 

Over 130 members of the union joined an open meeting organised by the UCU solidarity movement on Thursday to discuss the future of the dispute. Donna from Royal Holloway university told the meeting, “Our branch missed out on the threshold by five votes. It was extremely frustrating. But the most frustrating thing is the extremely poor leadership and inconsistent messaging coming from the top of the union. 

Ewan from KCL said, “We need a participatory union and a much more effective strike strategy.” 

Roddy from Imperial College added, “The strategy our members have voted for has been ignored repeatedly by the leadership.” Sean, from UCL, said that Grady’s plan effectively allows employers to “wait the dispute out.” 

It’s an outrage that Grady has pushed her ideas just as the union is set to meet to decide strategy. There are special conferences next week for the four fights dispute and one on USS the week after. The members must decide the way forward.

Several people at the UCU Solidarity meeting called for Grady to resign. Winning the disputes will take escalating strikes and a hard-hitting exam boycott. These will need the backing of the whole union. And that means confronting Grady and her surrender document. 

As the UCU Left statement says, “In our strikes and ballots, members learned to trust each other, not the official union machine. We are the union, and we need to fight for the future of our sector.”

  • UCU Left meeting Tue 19 April, 6pm. Details here UCU Left statement here
  • Read Jane McAlevey’s organising model: is it a rank and file strategy? here

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