Unionists consider deploying boycott in pay battle

As strike force falters, some UCU members and industrial relations experts think escalation is needed

February 13, 2014

Academics will have to threaten a marking boycott if they are to win any concessions on pay, unionists and industrial relations experts have suggested.

The next steps in the continuing dispute over this year’s 1 per cent pay offer will be decided by the University and College Union’s higher education committee on 14 February after a sixth walk-out took place on 10 February.

However, there are signs that support for the strikes is waning, with reports of far lower turnouts on picket lines than there were in strikes at the end of 2013.

“If we are honest, it is not going that well,” said one UCU branch leader at a thinly attended rally in central London on 6 February. “We are just about getting enough people for a picket line to make it respectable, but no more than that,” he added.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at the rally, several union activists called for the UCU to escalate the strike action with longer strikes and a marking boycott.

“I’m not confident that universities are currently serious about dealing with us on pay, so we need to show more determination,” said Steve Freeman, a branch committee member at London South Bank University.

Sean Wallis, secretary of University College London’s UCU branch and a member of the national higher education committee, also felt that the three two-hour strikes held since the start of this year had been ineffective.

“They can make people feel good because you get a lot of people to take part in them, but they have limited industrial impact,” he said.

However, Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, insisted in a statement that the short strikes had caused “considerable disruption, as even the employers acknowledge”.

“What has made things worse for students is the aggressive approach of some institutions who, in attempting to effectively lock staff out, have increased disruption for students still further,” she added.

Roger Seifert, professor of industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton, meanwhile advised the UCU to “play its final card” and announce a marking boycott for the summer.

“Calling off the strike is not great because people will say we have lost all this money for nothing, but if you carry on you wither on the vine,” Professor Seifert said.

The threat of a marking boycott would represent an “escalation at no cost to members” and is likely to attract significant attention from university management, students and the media.

“The thing about an exam boycott is that you never know who is going to take part, which makes it very effective,” he added.

Universities might also be able to settle the dispute by offering an improved pay deal for 2014-15, citing an improved financial outlook, which might allow them and unions to escape without losing face, Professor Seifert said.

However, Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford, said such a scenario was unlikely.

“It might be a way to escape if employers were under obvious pressure, but I’m not sure I detect many signs of them buckling right now,” Professor Gall said. Giving up on any pay demands for 2013-14 would also be difficult given the influence of UCU Left, making it “a hard sell within the UCU”, he added.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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