UCU postpones reballots, but has strike fatigue set in already?

Some members increasingly wary after 22 days of walkouts already this year, but many remain determined to win concessions from employers on pay and pensions

March 17, 2020
Source: Getty

The UK’s biggest higher education union has had to pause its campaign to persuade members to sign up to further industrial action owing to the coronavirus outbreak, but when it does restart it must contend with mounting fatigue among university staff after walkouts stretched to more than four weeks already this academic year.

Fourteen days of strikes at 74 institutions over pensions, pay and conditions ended without resolution on 13 March, and those were preceded by an eight-day walkout before Christmas. University and College Union (UCU) members were set to continue action short of a strike – working strictly to contract – and were scheduled to be reballoted for further industrial action from 17 March onwards as the previous mandate at many institutions is due to expire.

However, in a letter to members, Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said that because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the union’s higher education committee (HEC) had decided to postpone the ballots.

She said the union was prioritising staff and student safety “with an urgency that has been sorely missing in much of the sector”.

“Coronavirus represents an extraordinary test of a university system that was already failing staff and students. Staff trust and goodwill have never been lower. The decision taken by HEC offers employers a period of time in which they can change direction,” she said. “We won’t escalate our disputes during the pandemic – but we won’t abandon them either.”

Staff at 69 institutions will participate in the new ballot, which Dr Grady said would resume no later than June this year.

The prospect of further strikes has elicited a mixed reaction among union members, who have been through 22 days of walkouts already this academic year and a 14-day pensions strike in 2018-19. Several told Times Higher Education that they had not downed tools for the full 14 days this time because of financial pressures.

Alex Douglas, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of St Andrews, who has resigned from the union over its handling of the strikes, said it had been a mistake to fight on so many fronts. “The problem is that the issues are in contention with each other. With pay demands and pension demands, institutions only have so much money,” he said.

The UCU should “make a credible analysis of genuinely affordable demands on the universities and ask their members what issues they would like to prioritise [because] they can’t satisfy them all”, said Dr Douglas, who added that after two rounds of strikes there was “an awful lot of fatigue”.

However, other members remained committed to further action.

Michael Carley, president of the University of Bath’s UCU branch, said “although there is no point in pretending that, after 22 days of strikes plus 14 last year, anyone is gung-ho for more, there is a sense that the days were a sunk cost. Members want to see something come of the effort they have put in.”

However, he added that campus closures and moves to online teaching prompted by the coronavirus outbreak could have “a serious impact” on how effective any future industrial action would be.

Jo McNeill, president of the University of Liverpool’s UCU branch, said members would “not stop fighting until we get the resolutions we need”. Members were “extremely angered” by employers, who have “dragged their feet instead of resolving these important disputes”, she said. Already, she added, members had been volunteering from the picket lines to get the vote out and mobilise.

If the UCU can win a widespread mandate for more action – which is hard to predict given that many branches were either just under or just over the 50 per cent turnout threshold required for walkouts last time – the exact actions that the union will take are not yet clear.

Recent elections saw the make-up of the HEC, which decides policy on strikes, swing from being dominated by a UCU Left faction committed to strike action to being more evenly balanced.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UCU battles strike fatigue as it seeks mandate for more action

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