Fighting In Separate Corners: Disaggregation and the 2021–22 UCU Four Fights Disputes

On 9 September 2021 my union called a special conference. Delegates voted to ballot for industrial action in our two disputes: over the USS pension cuts, and over the ‘Four Fights’ campaign. You can see what delegates proposed and passed right here, with respect to balloting in the Four Fights dispute. Motion 9 (Brighton, Grand Parade & Moulsecoomb) was one of only three motions to stipulate how this ballot should be conducted: via dis-aggregation. The others were motions 3 and 13. What this means is that every union branch must pass the 50% turn-out threshold on their own in order to take strike action, but the overall turnout can be lower than 50% and action will still happen. This method of balloting means that some strikes, somewhere, will almost certainly happen, but a large strike everywhere is much less likely. It’s just math.

The instruction was quite clear, and I want you to bear that in mind. The union’s higher education committee (HEC) then met and they voted to do exactly what conference told them to. Ballots would open on October 18.

Fast forward now to today, and to the repeated litany of stab-in-the-back complaints that “union leadership” have slow-rolled, sabotaged, or in some way spiked our disputes this year. Many of these complaints revolve around the union’s most prominent leader, the General Secretary, who in April sent a communication to all union members suggesting a different strategy in any next round of disputes. Precarious members, junior and senior colleagues, staff whose jobs are under threat all across the sector, people whose pensions have been cut virtually in half, all are frankly baffled and angry, and they do not know who to blame. But they look at the past year worth of action, and what they see is: nothing. There were no national gains this year, our employer association, UCEA, did not even bother to meet with our national negotiators for several months in the spring of 2022 and when they did first meet, did not bother to even make an offer. The USS pension scheme went ahead and slashed benefits by a stupendous amount. Employers and pension fund managers took one look at the union’s dispute actions, shrugged their shoulders, and then continued on with a series of huge redundancy programmes, cuts, reorganisations, and risky capital projects. You might be asking yourself, why were Vice Chancellors so unbothered?

As it was asked to do by delegates, UCU set up a disaggregated ballot in October for the Four Fights. Out of 146 institutions, 58 managed to pass the 50% threshold. So from the start of this dispute, slightly more than one third of all branches could take action. One third. Ironically, the national turnout rate was 51%. Without even trying to, we could have secured a mandate to take unified action at every institution in the UK. Instead, from the beginning of the fall dispute, employers simply took that number (one-third) and repeated it, insinuating that clearly the desire to strike was not all that strong across the sector (it was: 70% of those who voted did so to strike, and 85% for ASOS). UCU balloted branches again in December and January, and another 9 joined the action, bringing our total to 67 out of 146. By April we had balloted again in order to extend the mandate to take action, and this time, only 39 branches could take action.

Right now, a handful of branches remain engaged in a marking boycott. Slightly over 41 had a mandate to participate, slightly more than 20 branches decided to do so. Since then several branches have cut local deals with their management and have exited the boycott, and this pattern looks set to continue through the summer.

In my view, all of the events of this year’s industrial disputes stem from the fateful decision, made in summer 2021, to conduct disaggregated ballots. Those seeking to blame the union’s inability to breach employer intransigence on “the leadership” always conveniently forget to mention that at no point does the leadership get to decide how we ballot in our disputes. We do, or rather, branch delegates we send to represent us choose at conferences like the one held in September 2021. UCU is quite genuinely “member-led” in this sense: we choose how to conduct our disputes.

So this brings us to the central question: why did we disaggregate our ballots? I have outlined exactly how it occurred, but what philosophy of industrial action sits underneath this decision, what arguments are made in its defence? Firstly, those in favour of disaggregation generally point out the risk of balloting any other way: if we fail to pass the 50% threshold nationally, that’s it. Secondly, the argument runs that unions “build via action”, so if you wish to build up to a larger strike, you need to keep taking any action you can, you need to keep “escalating”. Proponents point to the restrictive 2016 Trade Union Act, and it is true that if your mission is to “beat” that legislation, disaggregation stands a better chance of doing so. But so far, I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that industrial action in higher education, no matter its size or scope, will always lead to greater membership density or a higher collective willingness to act. Size seems to clearly matter when it comes to both winning industrial disputes and building the union. Thirdly, proponents of disaggregation argue that it is a tactical choice: cause maximal but geographically narrowed disruption where you know you can, rather than risking no disruption at all.

I have reservations about all three of these arguments, but it is the third position which seems to me untenable now in an education sector visibly on fire; shedding jobs and subjects and whole sections of universities like pink slips are going out of style. In this environment, trying to lean on localised sources of strength is frankly conservative, it is a risk-avoidance strategy, not a radical one; it aims at a narrower defence of a smaller number of working conditions, it cedes the field of national bargaining immediately, and only ever puts local employers on notice, not employers as a whole.

It is my view that we are all at risk, so we all need to take a risk, together. There is no job going in higher education right now that is truly safe. I am not a member of this union to secure some good conditions for some workers, I am here to secure consistent, good, and secure working conditions for all the workers in my industry, via collective bargaining. I accordingly want my collective to be as large as possible, so my bargain will be as good as it can be.

I hope this explanation of this year’s industrial disputes helps us to see clearly. I hope next year we are all balloted together, that we beat one threshold and leave behind the constraints of our institutions, which branches are strong and which weak, and other invidious comparisons that only serve to reproduce the ranking and sorting we all claim to despise. If we win I hope we go out together. I do not think we can afford another year stuck in our separate corners trying to fight.

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David Hitchcock

David Hitchcock

Historian of poverty, utopia, and colonialism. Author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 and co-editor of the Routledge History of Poverty.