UCU goes ahead with ballots on cross-sector strike action

Switch to aggregated voting means staff at 149 UK universities could walk out if union gets majority turnout and support

July 1, 2022
Cardiff, Wales - November 2019 Sign attached to a tree near an official picket line outside Cardiff University. It marks industrial action by members of the Universities and College Union.
Source: iStock

The University and College Union has confirmed that it will move ahead with plans to ballot staff this summer over further strike action in the long-running disputes over pensions, pay and working conditions.

For the first time in these disputes, the ballots will be aggregated, meaning that if the nationwide turnout exceeds 50 per cent and there is majority support for a “yes” vote, walkouts will happen at institutions across the UK.

A total of 80,000 union members at 149 universities will be balloted, with strike action pencilled in for November, and further votes are planned for industrial action running into spring 2023.

The decision – announced after a meeting of the union’s higher education committee – follows a vote at the union’s congress last month to hold fresh ballots. UCU general secretary Jo Grady had come under increasing pressure from some parts of the union to confirm these ballots, with the UCU Left group claiming that she wanted to pause the disputes to give members a chance to regroup.

Staff at dozens of campuses have already walked out for 13 days this year over cuts to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the 2021-22 pay offer, and broader concerns over workload, casualisation and inequality.

The switch to aggregated ballots – mandated by a congress motion – is significant, with UCU’s use of university-by-university balloting having been a key factor in the union’s disputes seemingly running out of steam during the academic year.

UCU only managed to get up to 68 branches out on strike this year, out of 152 that were polled, because many failed to hit the 50 per cent turnout threshold that is legally required in most of the UK, even if significant majorities of those who did vote backed walking out.

However, after the latest round of ballots, the number of institutions with a strike mandate shrank to 39, seen as a sign of members’ fatigue in disputes, which now stretch back over several years, and concern over the impact on students whose education has already been badly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The union decided not to go ahead with the latest round of strikes “in response to overwhelming feedback from branches” and, while 44 branches secured a mandate to take part in a marking boycott, only 19 decided to go ahead with it and several more then struck local deals with management to end the action.

With most universities affected by the boycott threatening to dock the full pay of participating staff, this led to concerns that a small number of members were bearing the brunt of what remained national disputes.

Switching to aggregated ballots is a perhaps a riskier strategy, since failing to hit the turnout threshold nationally would mean no action could take place. In the most recent pensions strike ballot, aggregated turnout was 49.9 per cent, while the figure for the latest pay and working conditions vote was 46.3 per cent.

But the potential disruption if the threshold is passed would be far greater and union leaders will be hoping to capitalise on broader concerns – and industrial action in other sectors – over the cost-of-living crisis, plus members’ frustration over USS modelling which indicates that the fund’s deficit – the reason why pensions were slashed – may be much smaller than previously estimated.

Dr Grady said that universities could “more than afford to meet the demands of staff who are struggling in the midst of devastating cost-of-living crisis”.

“Time is running out and we hope vice-chancellors finally see sense and address the long-standing concerns of staff. If they don’t, mass disruption will be entirely their fault,” she said.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), said that institutions “will be dismayed and disappointed that UCU threatens to make yet another attempt at industrial action”.

He said that rising costs were “joint concerns for employees and employers”, but highlighted Ucea’s latest pay offer of a 3 per cent increase for 2022-23, rising to up to 9 per cent for the lowest paid.

“All HE institutions will remain fully focused on protecting students and mitigating any further UCU attempts at disruption,” Mr Jethwa said.


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