UCU split on plans to call ‘indefinite strike’ from February

Union leader Jo Grady distances herself from higher education committee decision as key pay negotiations begin

December 13, 2022
UCU rally
Source: Tom Williams

UK universities could be hit by an “indefinite strike” starting in February, but the general secretary of the University and College Union has refused to endorse the action.

Jo Grady has clashed with her own union’s higher education committee on the next steps in the long-running dispute over pay, working conditions and pensions, advocating for “blocks of action” across three months next year, instead of an all-out walkout.

Giving an update to members in a video posted on Twitter, Dr Grady said the higher education committee had decided on two courses of action in 2023, following on from the sector-wide strikes held in the autumn term.

“The first is a marking and assessment boycott and that is to begin in January. The second is in an all-out indefinite strike to begin in February,” she said.

Dr Grady told members that although she backed the boycott – and the union was in the process of serving notice to begin such an action – she did not support the idea of an indefinite strike.

She said that the union was likely to have to engage in “mass strike action well into 2023 and an all-out strike in February could not only split our membership at a time when we need unity but also play straight into the hands of an employer who wants to see us crash and burn, not build towards a victory”.

Dr Grady promised to set out an alternative strategy that would instead seek to “escalate the disputes with blocks of action in February, March and April” – something she saw as a better path to success.

She said that despite her reservations, the union was ready to call an indefinite strike, if this approach was backed by members. “If the whole union endorses this path then we will take it and throw everything at it,” she said.

The latest update from the union came as representatives – alongside colleagues from other higher education unions – sat down with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) in the first negotiating meeting of the new pay round.

Talks have been brought forward by several months to decide on a pay rise for the sector for 2023-24 in response to concerns about the rising cost of living, while UCU is also still pushing to reopen the 2022-23 negotiations as well.

Dr Grady’s stance is likely to frustrate those on the left of the union who have been lobbying for her to up the ante to put more pressure on the employers as the negotiations take place.

Previous attempts by the union’s leadership to go push back on decisions made by the higher education committee resulted in a motion of censure against Dr Grady narrowly failing to pass at last year’s congress.

Dr Grady’s update hinted at concerns over how long the union could sustain industrial action, as well as the limited resources at its disposal, in particular the fighting fund that helps compensate academics for lost pay.

Up to 35 institutions are already understood to have threatened staff with full pay deductions if they take part in actions such as a marking boycott, and such a hard-line approach could well dampen members’ enthusiasm for taking part.


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Reader's comments (5)

As a believer in the labour movement and long term UCU member I am absolute despair about their strategy and policy in recent years. I will not be taking part in indefinite action and am on the verge of resigning union membership. Such a shame at such an important time when we really need a union to look after our interests in a rational and realistic way.
I agree that Union strategy has been pretty ineffective although I have been somewhat impressed with their use of new media to bolster votes for strike action. I have never understood why UCU isn't aggressively pushing for students to receive compensation for lost teaching* pro rata. Not only would this completely change the game in terms of the potency of strike action (i.e. VCs would be on their knees immediately), it would also strengthen UCU's position with the public/students. Currently Unis make a profit when lecturers strike, which (given that snr management don't seem to care very much about students not getting taught and their staff getting poorer) isn't applying much pressure is it? (Genuinely interested in why this isn't the case if someone has any insight - are UCU worried about putting unis under because it would be TOO effective?)
I too am questioning UCU's approach at the moment. An assessment boycott is, for many of us, the same as an all out strike as some universities treat partial fulfilment of contract as no fulfilment of contract and stop all pay. This is not feasible for many people.
Under Jo Grady's leadership, UCU is late to the party of striking unions and too cautious. We should have striked in the first week of the semester (many branches still had a mandate from the previous ballot), and a marking boycott at least has an impact where the universities are hurt most, rather than drawn-out strikes once the semester is over and the marks are in. We will lose salary either way, so we may as well do it at a time when it hurts the other side.


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