Statement issued by the Communist Party’s Further and Higher Education Advisory, 15 May 2018.

UCU members voted to accept the revised offer by UUK and settle the current dispute, for now. It has been an epic dispute. Unprecedented levels of collective action were taken by UCU members. This action achieved a positive shift in the employers’ position. What has happened is a truce on terms that are more favourable to UCU than the employers wanted. The terms of the agreement are far from perfect but that is what happens in collective bargaining. Not only had the employers dramatically revised their opening position of complete shift to a defined contribution scheme and had agreed the defined benefit status-quo (for the moment) but USS and the state regulator also got out of the way to ensure they didn’t block a settlement. Not revolutions, but shifts in the balance of power brought about by united collective action can produce material gains for members.

The balance of power shifts

Some argue that the decision to ballot members represented a ‘sell out’ and a ‘stitch up’. The Communist Party’s view is that not balloting would have been a major tactical error; it would have been a gift to the employer’s propaganda machine which, up to that point, had been pretty hopeless. In many places staff and student support would have been strained. The dangers of membership support melting away would have grown.

Some argue that keeping the action on could have gained further shifts from the employers. Perhaps, but this was always a complex dispute, involving many different parties.

During the dispute the balance of power shifted to the union. Public, student, and political sympathy was with us because of the extreme nature of the employers’ proposals, the ongoing debacle of VCs acting in their self-interest and, of course, a huge outpouring of genuine anger and resolve from unprecedented numbers of UCU members.

The USS dispute became a cauldron in which all the simmering grievances that emerge from decades of neoliberal public service reform bubbled to the surface and were channelled into a stunning growth in union membership, unprecedented collective determination and action. Discussion and debate on picket lines and teach-outs was a notable characteristic of the dispute. Student solidarity was extraordinary with occupations, in support of the strikers, taking place in campuses across the country.

The bigger picture

Now is the time for a step back to examine the shift in the balance of forces in higher education, the growth of the union and the weaknesses of the employers that were exposed, and for thinking about how we build unity and take strategic action to obtain as much benefit as possible for members from UCU’s stronger position.

Questions were posed that cut to the root of the crisis in the higher education sector. What are universities for? Who is the university? Why should they be run as corporations by cliques of self-interested chief executives? How do we rebuild educational relationships that have been infected by the transformation of higher education into a commercial transaction? How can we take this collective action deeper into the workplace to challenge the shameful use of precarious workers and to rebuild academic jobs that are worth having? How can we put the public, the staff and the students in control of our universities?

All these issues were discussed on the hundreds of picket lines and in the teach-outs. While the depth of the universities’ attack on the pension scheme was critical in bringing many people into the action who might not have turned out for a pay claim, there is no doubt that for many more, including thousands of younger academics, it was also a sense that enough was enough. UCU became a vehicle for these aspirations during the strike and now it must work out how to be an effective vehicle in the post-strike environment.

There is work to be done

The real shift in the balance of power can be felt all over our campuses. University leaderships have lost their authority. No-one trusts their national representatives in UUK. No one respects the views emanating from vice-chancellors and no-one believes their warm words. Their public reputation has never been lower. University employers are short of friends and allies.

We need to build and maintain unity of purpose; listen to the membership and give strategic leadership that exploits our advantage. Now is the time for the union to:

  • turn the grievances expressed in the strike into strategies for building new workplace organisation;
  • train and organise the next generation of activists; and
  • develop strategies for effective collective action on workloads, casualisation, the gender pay gap, fragmentation of academic jobs and university governance.

Finally, we need to think about how we play our political role within the labour movement and shape the debate over the future policies of a revitalised Labour Party. The Communist Party will play its role in contributing to this discussion. Let it start now.