The pay ballot shows that the UCU is stronger than ever

Record turnouts and consistent support for industrial action in the past two pay ballots is something to celebrate, says Jo McNeill 

February 25, 2019
Man putting vote in ballot box

Many are saying that the result of University and College Union’s equalities and pay ballot is a disappointing one. When framed within the 2017 anti-trade union legislation – which requires a 50 per cent  minimum turnout – it is. However, if we didn’t have to jump this turnout hurdle set by the Conservative Party then we would be celebrating this result and preparing to take industrial action.

Both Friday’s result (40.96 per cent) and the earlier ballot result in October 2018 (41.65 per cent) are the highest turnout results this union has ever had in a pay ballot and show a significant increase on past pay ballot turnouts, with 70 per cent consistently voting for strike action. 

This tells us that a large section of our membership is voting repeatedly to fight for fair pay and against the increase in casualisation, the gender pay gap and unreasonable workloads. 

Outside of anti-trade union legislation, this result demonstrates a very strong mandate for action.

At the higher education sector conference in November, members called on UCU to reposition the ballot to raise the profile of the equalities issues detailed in the claim. This didn’t happen effectively at the national level. At a local level many of us drove the narrative towards the hardships experienced by so many of our casualised members and that is where I believe the increase on past turnouts came from.

Voting members know how bad it is for our casualised members. There is no evidence of a split in effort between casualised and non-casualised workers, as some have claimed on Twitter. I believe that there are a number of reasons why members don’t vote in postal ballots. Workload is definitely a factor. Our members are completely overworked at all levels. There is an irony in the fact that members regularly tell us they can’t find ballot papers under their never-decreasing mounds of work or have missed emails among the ridiculous amounts that they receive.

Another factor affecting turnout is that UCU has had some woefully bad industrial action strategies in past pay disputes. As a result, many members disengage because they don’t think UCU can win on pay.

Given the current political climate, with many of our members extremely worried about Brexit and its impact on their lives in the UK, this result shows a level of resilience in our membership. The same members turned out twice with almost identical results.

What should we do now? We are seeing some employers open local discussions about pay. This is a very dangerous move. We need to push to ensure that we maintain national bargaining on pay in HE and we need to ensure casualisation, gender and black and ethnic minority pay gaps and workload have equal priority in the pay claim and in the narrative about future disputes. These important issues should not be peripheral.

In an ideal world, I would always champion aggregated ballots, but in the current climate we need to emulate further education and disaggregate the next pay ballot. We then need a strategy to take effective, sustained action in the branches where the 50 per cent threshold is met while re-balloting with increased support and resource from UCU in the branches who just miss it. This can work in waves until all branches can take action. 

We need victories to re-engage the disengaged over pay and it will take a lot of hard work to do that, but the alternative is unacceptable. Every trade union must be able to fight for fair pay and equality for its members. We have to find ways to beat the anti-trade union legislation. We need a general election and a Jeremy Corbyn-led government committed to scrapping the anti-TU legislation. In the meantime, we need to be tactical. We need to know our members, to understand why they are not voting and we need to organise and mobilise based on this knowledge.

I don’t believe that the pay ballot is an indication to employers that the UCU is in any way weaker now than we were during the Universities Superannuation Scheme dispute. Members are voting in ballots in record numbers. An indicative local ballot is a dispute about the research excellence framework where  the University of Liverpool recently recorded a 58 per cent turnout.

The sector can afford to give our members fair pay and employers can end casualisation – look at the recent Open University victories, where 4,000 casualised members were moved onto permanent contracts. Universities can close the gender and BAME pay gaps and they can give us reasonable workloads. UCU needs a more effective strategy, strong leadership and more resources to support activists.

Jo McNeill is president of the University of Liverpool UCU and national executive committee. 

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