Although the action is yet to be announced, the next round of the university and college union (UCU) dispute appears set for the second half of February.
Where strike ballots exist, they are either related to action defending the USS pension scheme, or over casualisation, pay, workloads and equalities (the “four fights”), however in most universities live ballots exist for both disputes simultaneously. A further 37 branches are currently being re-balloted, which alongside the live 98, would significantly enhance the strike’s impact, which in November and December saw thousands of UCU members take action over 8 consecutive days.
Support from UCU members to escalate the next round of action is building. In December, at a special Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC), UCU branch delegates from across the UK met specifically to discuss future action over the USS aspect of the dispute. This conference backed a motion supporting a further 14-day walkout in February and March spaced over four weeks, split into 2, 3, 4, and then 5 day periods.
Although the HESC has no technical authority to decide on the length and timings of any strikes, there appears to be a majority in favour of this position on the body that does (the HEC).
There has been a debate more widely amongst the union membership about whether the two separate disputes should be de-coupled, with proponents offering little more than technocratic reasons (e.g. the disputes may end at different times, or that they’re being negotiated between different bodies). None of these should convince us though, given what these strikes are about more fundamentally — an attack on the basic rights of workers in universities, a drive to marketise and privatise the higher education sector.
Without a long-term stable pension, university workers are being forced out of the sector through fear of poverty in retirement – and without a decent wage or a stable contract, there is little more convincing them to stay. Higher Education institutions have been using both of these battering rams to smash working conditions for decades; ignoring how these are rooted in the same attack would break the solidarity built between those involved in these struggles which have so far been taken together.
Basic class solidarity means it is our duty to fight the oppressive structures – that embed gender pay gaps, strip us of our pensions, and force us to work longer, with less, for less — all with equal force.
Cambridge branch met recently to discuss the above, unanimously supporting a position consistent with the HESC conference motion, and that all escalated action on USS should be taken simultaneously with the Four Fights. An additional statement submitted by myself passed in part; with the branch making clear that the transparency of the negotiations must be improved, supporting the need for daily reports from the negotiators, but rejecting the notion that such negotiating meetings should be live-streamed.
Although local members were rightly eager to build our next strike, we must also make sure we can hold our negotiators to account as our actions intensify — we don’t want to repeat the same de-escalation episode that we suffered in 2018.
Setback on testing
The indicative ballot run by the Lewisham (south London) district of the National Education Union (NEU) to boycott high stakes testing in primary schools closed on 20 January.
The result was an 87.7% vote to boycott, which is the highest “yes” vote in the recent campaign for a boycott. But, disappointingly, the turnout was only 25.5%. This means that we will not be able to progress to the formal ballot.
The fight to boycott this toxic testing system will now have to go back to the national conference of the union in early April. We hope to get that conference to discuss a motion from Lewisham District calling for a new national indicative ballot — and to amend the motion, in light of Lewisham’s latest result, with proposals to ensure that the leadership of the union cannot squander a promising national indicative ballot result, as it did last year. We aim to open up the possibility of a formal ballot with the widest disaggregation (to open the way to boycotts in areas meeting the legal thresholds even if the overall national result falls short).
The turnout in this latest ballot was disappointing. It obviously reflects the lack of confidence among trade unionists across the board and the passivity and conservatism of the national leadership of the NEU, which has chosen to not lead this campaign.
That school workers had to go through another indicative ballot, having successfully beaten the anti-union thresholds on the exact same issue in June’s indicative ballot, did not help either.
There were also a myriad of secondary factors: the total lack of support from either the national union or London region to build turnout; that we had to do the ballot in the first two weeks of term; that the ballot emails came from an unknown company, on the day after the District expected them to arrive, and then often went in to members’ “junk mail”.
Lewisham NEU activists have begun discussing how we build the union locally to ensure we can deliver successful ballots despite and in the face of indifference from the bureaucracy.
We also will continue to seek ways to push the leadership and change the leadership so that the union responds to potential fights not timidly but by building members’ confidence and belief that they can win.
Despite our disappointment, we know we were right to fight and push this as far as we could. We may have lost this battle, but we haven’t lost the war.
CWU says reballot soon
Postal workers’ union CWU plans to reballot its members in Royal Mail, after a previous ballot was injuncted by the High Court.
A message to members from the union’s postal Deputy General Secretary Tony Pullinger on 17 January said, “We will now re-ballot our members — this dispute is far from resolved.”
Despite the apparent immediacy of Pullinger’s message, no firm plans for the ballot have since been announced.
The dispute centres on Royal Mail’s plan to restructure parcel deliveries into a separate company, creating the possibility the less profitable letter delivery arm will be run down, leading to job cuts. Workers are also demanding Royal Mail honour a previous agreement to reduce the working week.
The previous ballot returned a 97% majority for industrial action on a 76% turnout.
SWR guards vote to continue strikes
Guards on South Western Railway (SWR) have voted for the sixth consecutive time to continue strikes in their battle to resist the imposition of Driver Only Operation (DOO).
The guards, who are members of the RMT union, voted by an 82% majority to continue strikes, and by a 92% majority for action short of strikes, on a 56% turnout.
They previously struck for the entirety of December, the longest single strike in British railway history. The Transport Secretary Grant Schapps has recently commented that SWR was “not sustainable in the long term”, but the government has so far held back from taking the franchise over.
It is an open secret that Department for Transport interference led to SWR bosses pulling out of a deal that would’ve settled the DOO dispute, and for which strikes planned in September had been called off. While public ownership is clearly preferable to the franchise remaining in private hands, there is little doubt that, should SWR be taken over by the government, the DfT would prove a determinedly anti-union employer.
Guards’ reps will now discuss naming further action. A continuation of sustained strikes will let both SWR bosses, and their potential Tory ministerial replacements, know that the workers remain determined, whoever controls the franchise, to see their fight to defend the role of the guard through to the end.
Security guards defy police attacks
Outsourced security guards at St. George’s University in south London struck again on 27 and 28 January, in defiance of continued attempts by the Metropolitan Police, in direct collusion with bosses, to break up picket lines.
During a previous set of strikes, from 13 January, police arrived at the picket line carrying letters from St. George’s demanding that the picket be moved. When United Voices of the World (UVW) union lawyer Franck Magennis enquired about the legal basis for the demand, he was arrested.
Although Magennis was later released without charge, police returned to the picket line the following day, insisting the picket was causing a “nuisance” on NHS property (the university is linked to a hospital).
A UVW statement said: “ongoing campaign of repression by the Metropolitan Police and management at both St George’s University London (SGUL) and St. George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust who have repeatedly sought to criminalise lawful trade union activity by misinterpreting Section 119 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, something which on 13 January led to SGUL management being roundly condemned after it resulted in the unlawful arrest and false imprisonment of Franck Magennis Head of Legal at United Voices of the World (UVW), on secondment to the union from Garden Court Chambers.
“The level of police repression increased [on 27 January] as workers and trade union officials were not only threatened with mass arrest under Section 119 but threatened with arrest prior to picketing and whilst also being off site. These harsh tactics have increasingly drawn condemnation from other trade unions, community groups, Constituency Labour Parties and individuals.”
The security guards are employed by outsourcing company Noonan, and are striking to win improved sick pay and pension arrangements, and, ultimately, direct employment. Further strikes are planned for 10-13 and 24-28 February.