UCU strike vote represents another defeat for the Tories’ anti-union laws

UCU members on strike in Lambeth, 2015

In only the second major test of the new thresholds of the Tory Trade Union Act 2016, 40,000 UCU members have voted (on average) with a 58% turnout for striking by 88% on the issue of defending their pensions in the ‘old’ pre-1992 universities.

Among the members in the 68 institutions balloted, 61 branches of the union voted for action with a greater than 50% turnout. The way the ballot was won by the old fashioned means – hard and constant work to get members to vote and vote ‘Yes’. Plus the specific issue helped, for it was about voting to take action to stop the theft of a lot of money from members’ pension pots and not about striking for a mere 1% more on pay. This represents another defeat for the Tories and shows that unions can adapt to and triumph over hostile laws.

Prior to the statutory ballot on industrial action, the UCU had road tested its approach by holding a consultative ballot. In it, 87% voted on a 56% turnout to have a statutory ballot on strike action. The campaign strategy behind both the consultative and statutory ballots has been called ‘Get The Vote Out’ (GTVO).

It has run both centrally and locally, and has been motivated by the belief that the union is in a ‘do or die’ situation as the union realises that it could become a ‘busted flush’ not just on pensions but also on other matters if at a national level if it cannot attained the 50% turnout threshold of the Tory Trade Union Act.

The number of generic emails received from the general secretary must have been at least a dozen since the statutory ballot opened and there were targeted emails and branch meetings. So in one way nothing new was done but the level of seriousness and steadfastness inculcated into members on the issue (where it was a not a case of striking for 1% more but more look how much you stand to lose) plus the critical need to meet or surpass the threshold was what was new and different.

Now this battle has been won, there is the question of what happens next, for the UCU still has to mount effective industrial action in order to make the employers back down. Not long after the ballot result was announced, the union gave notice of 14 days of escalating strikes in the 61 universities beginning on or around 22 February if the on-going talks fail to bring about a satisfactory outcome.

The action will start with a two-day strike, rising incrementally to a five-day strike over a four week period. This indicates a move to take more extensive action that has been the case in the past where infrequent one-day strikes were the common currency. But it remains to be seen whether the action will be hard hitting. Simply taking action is not enough for much in university life (like lectures) can be rescheduled without too much effort.

But if areas like finance, examinations and admissions are targeted then the level of disruption could become significant and allow the union to exert both economic (affecting the employers’ revenue streams) and political (concerned parents and students putting pressure on the government) leverage over the employers. Of course, the UCU hopes that with its strong strike mandate the employers, Universities UK, will compromise in the talks this week. However, it is more than likely that the employers will be willing to test whether the UCU can deliver effective action.

* The author is a UCU member and voted ‘Yes’ in the ballot but members at the University of Bradford did not pass the 50% turnout threshold in their ballot. Like colleagues in the other six branches that did not pass the turnout threshold, they are to be reballoted later so that they may join the action of their fellow members.

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