Since the end of the last academic year, UCU members have been carrying out a marking and assessment boycott (MAB).
This has proven the power we hold as staff to disrupt and shut down universities. Our boycott threatened the bosses so much that they had to resort to brutal pay deductions – of up to 100% in some cases – to try and force members to back down.
Union members have shown tremendous determination. And students have offered incredible solidarity.
Unfortunately, however, the boycott has now been called off, following an ‘e-consultation’ of members that saw 60% vote to suspend this action.
Rank-and-file members can hardly be blamed for this outcome. It is the wrecking behaviour of the leadership that has brought us to this point.
Hoping that the MAB would be enough on its own to finally win the dispute, for example, general secretary Jo Grady and her cheerleaders in the UCU Commons faction betrayed the union’s democratically-agreed plan to coordinate strikes and reballot over summer.
The leadership’s fear of escalation, combined with incompetence, has unfortunately left us in a situation where our mandate for action will run out on 30 September. A reballot has been announced, but the details of this are still in the pipeline. So when our mandate will be renewed remains a mystery.
Just for good measure, the union has announced further strike days from 25-29 September, before our mandate expires at the end of the month. Without a sustained programme of action, however, this once again feels symbolic.
Members who sacrificed everything to participate in the MAB will now be forced to return and re-mark with nothing to show for their efforts. And rubbing salt in the wound, we will lose additional pay for tokenistic strike days.
Staff had rallied together during the MAB. Earlier this year, despite a treadmill of e-ballots from UCU HQ aimed at pushing members to give up the fight, 82% of branch delegates at a national meeting voted to battle on.
This meant starting the MAB, to struggle over pay and conditions, even in the face of punitive salary deductions.
The union leadership, however, not only failed to offer a real plan, but repeatedly refused to enact the decisions that rank-and-file members agreed on.
In April, for example, a Special Higher Education conference was called by rank-and-file members, in order to put together a plan for the MAB. Delegates voted to set up national strike committees to bring branches together, and also for rolling coordinated strike action to face down draconian pay deductions.
Yet no committees were formed, and no coordinated strikes took place. Instead, Grady allowed our national action to be fractured into 150 pieces by abandoning local branches, and leaving them to piece together their own defence against deductions.
This betrayal was later repeated on a higher level, when Grady and the right wing majority of the HEC directly went against the mandate of motion HE19, passed at the Higher Education Sector Conference in May. This resolution clearly called for a “long reballot over summer, [with] industrial action at start of term”.
Instead, the reballot has been kicked down the road again and again – yesterday’s announcement simply being the latest example. All the while, our leadership has held out hopes of ‘good faith’ from the UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association), crossing their fingers that the dispute could be wrapped up before the end of the summer.
At the time of writing, we still have no word of when the reballot will start. As such, given the time frame, we are now in a situation where these delays mean that there will be a gap in our mandate for action. By not respecting democracy, Grady has now led the dispute over a cliff.
UCU members have fought these disputes like lions, with ingenuity, determination, and solidarity.
Unfortunately, however, the general secretary’s leadership – or lack thereof – has resulted in a mess of bureaucratic shenanigans, dictatorial arrogance, and plain incompetence.
This December will mark a year since Jo Grady campaigned against the plans by the previous elected HEC to call for indefinite strike action to shut down universities. Instead, fearing a direct confrontation with the bosses, she and her supporters in UCU Commons pushed for a marking assessment boycott as a silver bullet.
On the other side, the UCEA bosses’ union have shown decisively that they are willing to do whatever is necessary to break members’ resolve, and to break the UCU.
With respect to the MAB, in leaked WhatsApp messages, the chair of the UCEA spoke of wanting to ensure “pain all along the way”. This message was decisively followed with over half of universities inflicting vicious pay deductions on any staff member taking part in the boycott.
The employers have learned that Grady is nothing but bluffs. When push comes to shove, she will do their work for them, and pour cold water on the dispute. This is exactly what happened when deductions hit.
Now, every member who has taken action is being actively betrayed by our leadership. The union’s leaders are giving the appearance of fighting on. But the plan so far feels more like shadow-boxing, and less like a strategy for delivering a knock-out blow.
After marching our troops up the hill, Grady has since shrugged her shoulders and led us in a disorderly manner back down again – all without any clue provided as to where we’re going!
With that said, when the reballot is sent out, IMT comrades in the UCU will support and campaign for a Yes vote, to give us the option to take action. Time on picket lines this month must be used to build for this.
Due to our leadership’s failures, there will be a pause in our action. But the bosses will make no pause in their attacks. We must therefore renew our mandate for action as soon as possible, and rally together to take decisive action.
This means actually shutting down campuses across the country, as the MAB has done. However instead of isolating individual members and branches, we need coordinated action that unites us together.
Finally, all of this has shown once again the crucial importance of leadership. No matter how determined rank-and-file members are, how many sacrifices we make, with a timid, reformist leadership – unwilling and unable to wage a militant and determined struggle – failure will always be guaranteed.IMT comrades are actively building up our forces on campuses across the country, in order to forge the militant and revolutionary leadership that university workers deserve.