The pay fight in higher education was a key debate at the UCU union’s annual congress in Liverpool last week. UCU members in universities held a two-day national strike last month for a pay rise and an end to pay inequality.
Delegates in the union’s higher education sector conference backed a plan to begin a setting, marking and assessment boycott in the autumn. The union will hold “rolling strikes” to support this action.
The conference also supported a plan for branches to choose a summer date to strike. But delegates rejected a plan to hold a national strike in August.
Some worried that this may have less impact as universities are quieter. But the vote also reflected anger towards union officials.
Many delegates wanted more say in the union’s strategy and felt the leadership has imposed a plan with little consultation.
Speaking after the debate Canterbury delegate Connie Nolan told Socialist Worker, “There was a lot of discussion as different universities have different rhythms to the academic year.
“But I feel invigorated after hearing others’ ideas on activities to hold on strike days.”
Sue Blackwell from the University of Birmingham added that the leadership was “a bit rattled” after being overturned.
Delegates want to keep up momentum in the dispute. Many said summer strikes can have an impact.
Jo McNeil from the North West spoke to a meeting of activists organised by UCU regions on Tuesday evening. She said bosses were so worried about the prospect of summer strikes that they had contacted lawyers. “We’ve got them on the back foot,” she said. “I hope we can coordinate with the other big unions.”
Delegates passed a motion calling on the leadership to “accept its responsibility to implement national policy in response to punitive pay docking“.
The union has policy of calling national action if bosses dock 100 percent pay for action short of a strike.
UCU members said the dispute is part of a bigger battle – and that the wider political context is motivating people to fight.
Karen Evans is on the UCU branch committee at Liverpool university. She told Socialist Worker, “People want the strikes to have a political impact. They feel this dispute is bigger than about pay.”
The NUT teachers’ union is balloting members across England for strikes over the impact of Tory education policies. The ballot ends on 22 June and the union plans to strike in early July.
A majority of the conference, 100 to 52, voted in favour of debating an emergency motion on calling a strike alongside the NUT. But the leadership said it would need a two thirds majority to get onto the agenda.
However, UCU branches could plan their local summer strike to coincide with the NUT. And the union could coordinate action with the NUT on a national level in the autumn.
Louise Regan from the NUT’s national executive committee spoke at a UCU Left meeting on defending education on Wednesday evening. She told over 100 UCU members, “We really want you out with us”.
Last month’s strike showed the potential to build a bigger campaign.
Richard Bradbury is a UCU member at the Open University and joined picket lines at Exeter university. “Exeter had the biggest picket lines I’ve seen in years,” he told Socialist Worker.
“There were new union members there and students. People from the NUT came down. People have the sense that this is part of a bigger fight over education.”
Mark Abel, a UCU rep at Brighton university, said the branch used the strike to build the union. “A load of casualised staff joined the union in the run-up to the strike,” said Mark.
“We held a levy to help them take part in the walkout, because the money they lose has a bigger impact.”
Xanthe is a casualised worker at Leicester university. “We had a better turnout than in recent years,” she said. “There were lots of new faces. I think people felt the strike was a vibrant way of starting a campaign.”
Xanthe said there are big debates about the dispute “because people are taking it seriously”. “They want more than symbolic gestures,” she added. “They want to win.”
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