The UCU dispute in higher education was called off on 2 May after a campaign of strike action over eight months.
In an e-ballot there was a 5:1 majority to settle on a 53% turnout.
The dispute, launched in October 2013, was to recover the 13% loss of pay experienced by University workers from 2008 through to 2012. But as the settlement provides no more than 1% for 2013/4 and another 2% for 2014/5, fails to keep up with inflation and will lead to further erosion of pay.
The 2014/5 2% settlement is above the 1% ceiling that the government want to maintain elsewhere in the public sector. But as 2% is not an adequate reflection of what was possible, it is not a strong incentive to other public sector workers to go into dispute.
Throughout the pay dispute there were hopes that the NUT would be renewing action. Whilst the NUT also took strike action in 2013, it was separate from the UCU.
The UCU left did call for joint action with the NUT whenever the NUT looked as though it was going to take action. But to our knowledge there was no attempt by activists in either the NUT or UCU to map out any joint action together. Ultimately it was the lack of any such plan that led to UCU members deciding to settle the dispute.
The Independent Broad Left (IBL), which currently carries a majority on the UCU’s Higher Executive Committee (HEC), refused to escalate the dispute after strike days in both October and December. It carries the majority of the blame for the failure.
Like strikes in many public sector services, it is hard for those in universities to hit economically or politically. The strikes got very poor media coverage. However the strikes did help mobilise other forces on campus against austerity, with students engaging in militant support action.
After Christmas the only actions were two ineffectual two hour strikes. A work-to-rule in operation did not really bite. Non-strike action is always more difficult to maintain when confidence is low.
The marking ban faced similar difficulties, especially after it had been pushed back from January to 6 May, reducing both the effectiveness and the numbers that could take part.
The UCU left had attempted to get the HEC of UCU to respond to any pay docking over the marking ban with a national strike, but failed. The ballot was therefore conducted with members fearful for their students, their union and themselves.
Given the clearly predictable result of a ballot where concern on the marking ban was prominent, it is surprising that the UCU left went along with it. It would have been far better to ballot solely on this year’s claim.
The left in the UCU, indeed in all of our unions, have to realise that if action is to be successful, it has to be escalated quickly and in concert with other unions.