A brief update. As anticipated in Part II, UCU’s higher education committee voted to suspend the industrial action over pensions until 15 January and enter into negotiations with employers, despite opposition from UCU Left members. Having voted down UCU Left amendments to their negotiating position, the HEC has authorised its representatives to pursue an outcome that implicitly accepts much of the employers’ agenda and envisages sacrificing the 75% of USS members on a final salary pension for a weakly improved career-average scheme for all. It now appears that these proposals were initially discussed at a USS conference with branch delegates in October, but no mandate was given then to pursue the far-reaching changes envisaged, and attendees were actively instructed not to discuss the proposals within their branches. This only confirms my earlier impression that the individuals running UCU have no respect for internal union democracy. They wanted to keep their proposals quiet, hoping that they could simply march UCU members up to the top of the hill and back down again, then unveil their negotiating position and cut a deal privately with UUK. This is backroom dealing at its very worst.
It is also more obvious than ever that these individuals have absolutely no clue about political strategy or power. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt wrote to members immediately after the action was suspended, asking them to sign a petition “in order to clearly demonstrate to vice-chancellors and principals the strength of feeling among staff about USS”. Recall that 78% of UCU members have voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike in the autumn ballot. Does that not already “clearly demonstrate” the “strength of feeling”? What on earth could possibly be added by a petition? Moreover, a strike ballot is an assertion of power: do as we demand, or we will harm your interests. A petition is just that: a plaintive request made to the powerful, containing no inherent assertion of power or leverage, which the powerful are entirely at liberty to disregard at will. The tragedy of UCU is that it is a trade union led by people who do not understand what trade unions are for. Sally Hunt thinks the height of labour activism is signing an online petition asking employers please not to be so mean, and posting photos of them handing in the petition to a blog.
I am also more convinced than ever that this leadership is out of kilter with the membership, despite the latter’s general passivity. The ballot result aside, a recent THE survey recorded the views of 4,000 staff, including on pensions. A full 48% of respondents disagree that USS needs to be reformed at all to make it sustainable, with only 24% of academics agreeing. This suggests that university staff are much more militant than their union leaders: a plurality resist any change at all, let alone the hara kiri being suggested by Hunt and colleagues. Even the minority of staff supporting USS reform might not consent to UCU’s feeble counter-proposals.
Those opposed to all this are still trying to rally branches to call a special HE Sector Conference to thrash out a proper strategy and a decent negotiating position. This internal struggle is now openly displayed in the pages of the THE. As of today, half of the required twenty branches had passed the requisite motions (Open University, Kings, UCL, Goldsmiths, Queen Mary, SOAS, Manchester Met, Liverpool, Salford and St Andrews). Whether this rearguard action can succeed remains to be seen.