TL;DR: (Dis)Aggregation in UCU Balloting

Reading time <6 minutes. 927 words.

Due to regressive union-busting laws, ballots for industrial action have a number of onerous conditions. For example, the fact that we need to do postal ballots through one specific company is a huge expense and challenge.

One condition strongly affects ‘Get the Vote Out‘ (GTVO) strategy: the 50% turnout requirement. No action (however lopsided the Yes vote) can be authorised without 50% of the eligible membership returning a ballot.

This, especially when combined with the specific postal vote requirement, is a huge challenge and has absolutely no legitimacy. It is, however, the law.

Local vs National

The 50% turnout threshold applies to the ‘unit’ which will be authorised to take action. There are two units in UCU which we typically consider:

  1. Individual branches
  2. The union as a whole

For local disputes, for example against restructure-induced redundancies at your organisation, only the individual branch matters. The dispute is between that branch and that employer.

For national disputes, bargaining over USS or Pay or the Four Fights, the dispute is still between a branch and a given employer, but the employer has delegated actual direct negotiating power to an employer organisation, typically UUK (Universities UK, for pensions) and UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association, for pay and so on). We don’t work for those organisations, so we put pressure on them through our employers. In general, we need to put pressure on as many member employers as we can so that they will in aggregate instruct UUK or UCEA to negotiate with us on our employers’ behalf.

The upside is that a win against UUK/UCEA is a win for all (covered by those orgs). The downside is that a loss is a loss for all.


‘Aggregating’ or ‘disaggregating’ refer to the unit where we apply the 50% threshold requirement and thus where we get authorisation to strike from:

  1. Aggregated ballots mean that we need to get 50%+1 votes across all eligible members in all branches. If we get that (+ majority Yes), then all branches can act.
  2. Disaggregated ballots means that each branch needs to get 50%+1 votes of its eligible members. If they get that (+ majority Yes) then they can act.

If either unit fails to meet a threshold, you can reballot. That’s expensive.

Strategic Landscape

(Dis)aggregation is a hotly contested topic in UCU. (Full disclosure: I tend to be pro-aggregation.) There’s also a long tail of interesting considerations. Here I will only outline what I think are the central ones:

Upside outcomeEveryone can act; it’s a big show of strength.Someone can act; we always show some strength; can build over time; can approximate aggregated if enough branches make it.
Downside outcomeNo one can act (w/o reballoting); looks v. weak.Weaker action if not enough branches make threshold; individual branches might routinely not make threshold.
Likelihood of successIn 2021, the aggregated tally was:
For USS: 53% 
For 4Fights: 51
If aggregated balloting leads to enough ‘free riding’ or converts enough ‘No’s to ‘abstains’ then risk goes up.
A successful legal challenge threatens everyone’s action.
In 2021:
For USS, 37/68 (54%) branches made threshold.
For 4Fights, 54/146 (37%) branches made threshold.
Some branches were close so might convert on individual reballoting.

Michael Carley has a table of the aggregated vote going back to 2004.

When evaluating a strategy, you need to consider the weight you put on each of the possible outcomes plus the likelihood of each outcome. A common proxy here is ‘expected utility’, that is, in its simplest form, multiplying the probability of an outcome times its value. Intuitively, the idea is that a 1% chance at £1000 (0.01*1000) is equal to 100% chance at £10 (1*10). That is, we generally take higher risks for higher rewards.

Alas, we don’t know for certain how likely any outcome is for any given attempt in advance. For 2021, we can say that if the turnout would have been the same, we’d have been better off aggregating for both disputes. But, of course, we don’t know it would have been the same! Perhaps disaggregation drives GTVO and aggregation wouldn’t have been as motivating. Given that the turn out is close to the threshold, the risk of not making it under different conditions can’t be conclusively ruled out. (If the net turnout had been 60%, they’d I’d say it’s conclusive.)

Of course, winning the ballot isn’t the ultimate win… we need to win the disputes. It’s plausible that aggregated success would hugely improve our odds of winning.

Also, the decision we face on (dis)aggregation for a reballot is somewhat different. The branches who met their threshold have their mandate for 6 months regardless. So, the risk of “no action” on an aggregated reballot is 0%. [Note: This was based on my reading of UK Guidance page 14 and some advice; but note I’ve gotten some conflicting advice and comments on Twitter about whether a employer legal challenge to invalidate prior mandates given a failed aggregated mandate would succeed. So, it’s not necessarily 0%.]

On the other hand, everyone has to reballot on an aggregated reballot and having to do so right after a successful ballot might demoralize or just feel odd.

This interplay between probability of an outcome and its value and the fear of certain negative outcomes, plus the uncertainties around all of these, makes it difficult to reason about.

When considering things, I encourage you to separate out your valuations of the possible outcome and your estimate of their probabilities. Try to set your valuations lower than you instinctively feel, because high valuations tend to distort probability analysis.

The key is that there are no no-brainers here in general. I’ve got my view and am pretty confident in it, but there is considerable uncertainty. We need to acknowledge the fact that there is so much uncertainty and complexity when discussing these matters.

We always have to accept some risk. We can lose. Indeed, we’re likely to lose often regardless of our strategy. The employers are powerful and the Government is not remotely on our side.

This was written by Bijan Parsia (twitter: @bparsia). It aims to be informative to those new to the discussion of a contentious subject. Thanks to Dave Hitchcock and Ben Pope for proofing and pushing me to clarify the strategy section. Feedback welcomed.

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