Higher education staff will be asked to commit to longer and more frequent strikes in future pay disputes after militant elements within the University and College Union won a series of policy victories.
Under a strategy set by delegates at this year’s UCU congress, held in Manchester on 29 and 30 May, staff will be asked to “move towards two-day and three-day rolling regional strikes” and “escalating sector-wide strikes” as the union seeks to negotiate an improved pay deal.
Academics will also be asked to implement marking boycotts in the spring term “so as to maximise our capacity to respond to draconian pay stoppages”, according to another motion passed by congress, the union’s main policymaking body.
The adoption of a bolder course of strike action was the result of a show of force by more radical union members unhappy with the UCU’s handling of this year’s pay dispute.
That action came to an end last month after 84 per cent of members who voted in a ballot accepted a 2 per cent pay increase in 2014-15 just before a planned marking boycott was set to begin.
However, many delegates claimed that the decision to undertake a series of two-hour strikes instead of starting a marking boycott in January had been a fatal blow to any hopes of improving on the 1 per cent rise that employers had offered.
In a move that exposed the union’s internal divisions, delegates voted to censure the UCU’s higher education committee – the body that led the industrial dispute – saying that it had “mishandled” the action.
The motion also criticised the committee for overturning the will of last year’s congress by retreating from a full-blown marking boycott in January.
“We had a well thought-out plan, and members were expecting a marking boycott in January, but were left in limbo until April,” said Lesley McGorrigan, a University of Leeds delegate and member of the UCU Left group.
Paul Blackledge, from Leeds Metropolitan University, called the decision to de-escalate “disastrous”, saying the UCU “needed a leadership that would get tough”.
Even the union’s new president, Liz Lawrence from Sheffield Hallam University, who chaired the higher education committee during negotiations, voted to rebuke the committee’s approach to the pay dispute.
Dr Lawrence, who will lead the UCU for the next two years, said that she was frustrated by the pay negotiations. “Could we have achieved more with a different strategy – the answer is probably ‘yes’,” she told Times Higher Education.
A painful shift
However, Michael MacNeil, the UCU’s head of bargaining, refused to apologise for the strategy. He said that a marking boycott at the beginning of the year would have failed because many universities did not have exams in early spring and therefore could not participate in any action. “We shifted tactics not without controversy nor without pain…but the combination of these tactics and the threat of a marking boycott got employers to move [their offer],” he said.
The official rebuke of the UCU’s elected higher education committee was criticised by some delegates, who were concerned that it exposed the union’s weaknesses.
Harriet Bradley, from the University of the West of England, said that the infighting had left her “annoyed and ashamed”. It was “disappointing”, she said, to see “a union tearing itself apart – as the Left always does”.
Joanna de Groot, from the University of York, was elected vice-president (higher education). She too expressed disappointment with those who pushed through the censure motion and called for an early boycott. “Their view is not one held by the majority of the membership,” Dr de Groot said.
Characterising many delegates’ views as “out of touch”, she said that a vast majority of members had voted to accept the pay deal and did not want to have a marking boycott.
“It’s a slightly patronising assumption that we do not know what the membership is thinking about this – they gave us a very clear steer on it,” she said.