TL;DR: Why did ‘the UCU leadership’ decide [for a short ballot | disaggregation | bundled ballots | ballot timing | …]?

by Bijan Parsia

Image by webandi on Pixabay

Reading time: over 10 minutes (3,200 words)

For a (much) shorter Twitter thread going over the timeline please see Rhiannon Lockley’s thread. She also voted differently than I did, for the most part. Please don’t debate their decisions over on their thread, but take the description offered.

This is going to be a tough and long one. It also has more personal opinion in it. I tried to minimise that. In particular, I don’t comment on whether I think various dispute strategies are likely to be successful if enacted, just on whether various approaches are feasible.

A lot of folks are reacting to the 2021 ballot results and a lot of questions come up. Just recalling my rank and file days, it’s very easy to wonder, ‘WTF is “the union” thinking? Why didn’t they aggregate the ballots?!?!? Why didn’t they run the ballot longer? If only they had done OBVIOUS THING X we’d be on the road to victory!!’

I’ve certainly had such thoughts! But having now been on the National Executive Committee (NEC)—and thus the Higher Education Committee (HEC)—since May and attended a Congress, two conferences, and…4? HEC meetings plus discussed things with various UCU staff, I’ve a very different perspective. Both the decision-making structures and the structure of decisions are more complex and constrained than I’d ever imagined.

While we are fallible beings and thus all make potentially utterly risible mistakes, I think it’s safe to assume that if it were easy to make obvious decisions that would clearly put us on the road to victory, we’d make some of them.

By the by, if you think some decisions were wrong or wrongheaded and would like different decisions to be made, your best option is to get involved. Motions from branches drive a good deal of policy and its enactment so you can give input there. Don’t neglect national elections for NEC. NEC membership isn’t magic but it makes a difference.

Who Are the Decision Makers?

If you are familiar with UCU’s organisation, you can skip this section.

UCU has a complex structure, partly as a consequence of merging two unions.

Firstly, you have the UCU staff who are employed by the union (and thus, interestingly, are not members of UCU!). Everything from running the website to managing balloting and campaigns, membership, legal work etc. is done by staff. Staff do not make decisions on policy or execution, but strive to enact what the various member representative bodies decide. That doesn’t mean they aren’t influential! They will provide briefing papers, proposals, interpretations of rules, etc.

UCU staff report ultimately to the General Secretary, Jo Grady, who is both full time staff and elected. She has no policy decision making power (surprising, I know). Again, this doesn’t mean she doesn’t wield considerable power and influence, just that she is heavily constrained by the decisions of Congresses, Conferences, and the various executive committees. She doesn’t even chair these! (She does address the Congress.)

Then we have Congresses and Sector Conferences, which are the primary policy-determining bodies. These have representatives of the various branches (branch delegates) as well as NEC members with voting authority. Motions are generally proposed by branches or committees and then voted on in session (or near session if we have electronic voting).

Next we have the executive committees, the plenary National Executive Committee and the sectoral Further Education Committee (FEC) and Higher Education Committee (HEC). Their primary job is to interpret Congress and Conference policy and adapt it to actionable items and changing circumstances. Congress only routinely meets once a year and a lot can happen in a year.

Committee instructions are then passed over to staff to enact. Again, there’s discretion involved, necessarily.

To figure out who’s responsible for ‘a decision’ typically requires chasing through motions from an executive committee back to a Conference and/or to Congress. You then need to consider who proposed a motion (which is often public) and who voted for it (not so much).


There are a shedload of laws, rules, resource constraints and practicalities which constrain what we can do especially with regard to industrial action.

  1. We have to declare a dispute. Notify the employers. Give them some time. Then ballot (with 50% turnout). Then declare we will undertake action. Then give the employers some time. Then we can act.  Those are hard constraints.
  2. Of course, we want the action to actually be disruptive, so going on strike during winter holiday isn’t really sensible. If most unis have the same reading week, reading week might not be ideal. Will anyone notice in December? These are soft constraints and subject to dispute.
  3. A big constraint is UCU staff time. There’s only so much of it and it’s split over all of UCU including local HE disputes and vital FE disputes  as well as non-dispute activities. (For example, the #JusticeForCollegeTeachers strikes occurred just before and overlapped with the HE ballots and the Novus prison educator strike was successfully concluded on 26 October). UCU staff work for us and we need to be considerate employers!
  4. Another big constraint is UCU finances. The Fighting Fund funds all fights (note: there are local branch funds as well) and there are a number of disputes going on across HE and FE. Because of union busting laws, we have to use postal ballots. This isn’t cheap. Also, running a ballot takes considerable staff effort, not to mention all the organisational and ‘Get the Vote Out’ (GTVO) effort by branches. This has to be done right or an action might be subject to legal challenge.
  5. Finally, we rely on third parties for some things. For ballots we are required to use the Royal Mail and essentially required to use Civica as the scrutineer. These have variable capacity and reliability so we have to plan around them.

HE is not the only concern of UCU and the big national HE disputes are not the only HE disputes and activities going on. This is very very important to keep in mind. UCU does a lot that you might not notice.

The 2021 USS and 4Fights Ballots

That was a lot of Too Long to get to this point, but necessary I think. I’m going to focus on the chain of motions and decisions that led to the specific situation we find ourselves in:

  1. two disputes, 
  2. co-balloted (but not co-disputes), 
  3. disaggregated
  4. with a short ballot window, 
  5. mostly in October 2021

There are key meetings:

  1. Congressional HE Sector Conference (HESC) 2 June
  2. Post-HESC Higher Education Committee meeting (HEC1) 2 July
  3. Special HE Sector Conference (SHESC)  9 September
  4. Post-SHESC Special HEC Meeting (HEC2) 20 September
  5. Balloting 18 October–4 November
  6. Branch Delegate Meeting (to advise) and Special HEC Meeting (to decide on next steps) 12 November

Remember that each meeting consumes a lot of time of all parties, but especially staff. Motions need to be submitted in time for amendments to be proposed. Once motions have been carried at a Conference, the staff have to harmonise and massage them into coherent papers and recommendations for HEC which also gets motions and amendments (all of which can interact). Everything needs to be checked against rules and laws and everything else UCU is doing. As far as I can tell, most motions are not vetted with staff beforehand (but that shifts load around). Motions have no predetermined scope or shape. They are generally submitted without awareness of other motions. 

HESC (2 June)

Just consider the HESC motions HE1–HE6 (with two amendments as well): they are all about the Pay dispute (which is to say the 4Fights since the ‘dispute vector’ is pay—yes, it’s complicated!). I encourage you to read them all. Some are vague but some are very specific.

Let’s consider Motion HE2’s resolves:

UCU commits to re-launch a campaign over the four fights among UCU members with publicity and social media prior to balloting for industrial action up to and including strike action where these are not met.

Where possible, to coordinate this campaign with ongoing national HE dispute(s) over USS to maximise unity and organisational efficiency, and ballot and call action according to this principle.

This sorta supports B (co-balloting), though you need to ask what the ‘where possible’ means.

But now, we have the consequential one with lots of specifics (HE3):

Reject UCEA’s 2021-22 offer and formally enter into dispute.

Task HEC Chair and elected negotiating team with developing materials to raise member awareness around the headline issues of the 2021-22 New JNCHES claim during summer 2021, and to actively organize towards the possibility of balloting.

Task HEC with holding a Special HE Sector Conference in the first two weeks of August 2021 on the topic of HE dispute(s), including New JNCHES, USS, TPS, and any possible links between them.

Schedule a HEC meeting the week following this Special HESC to action the policy determined by conference

I believe the proposed timing of the SHESC was to allow for an earlier ballot start. Certainly some of its supporters read it that way. 

I don’t think saying ‘You must schedule an HEC meeting within one week’ makes it possible. Look at the HESC motions and consider how you would harmonise them. Then add in planning, dispute formulation, legal checks, etc. and recall that people take leave and get sick and there are other things going on. Let’s say UCU staff pull overtime and some all-nighters to make this happen… this isn’t generally sustainable.

HEC1 (2 July)

The first thing to note is that there was no technical need for a SHESC for action to occur. HESC could have delegated this to the HEC which is a more lightweight and nimble body. It could have also asked HEC to do informal consultations with branches.

The gap between HESC and HEC1 was driven by a number of practicalities, including the induction of new NEC/HEC members and consultation with branches on the results of HESC. HEC received 81 pages of notes from various branch Emergency General Meetings immediately before HEC1.

The fundamental problem HEC faced was that there are formal and practical issues in getting a SHESC together. From the briefing notes, ‘the only requirements under standing orders is to provide three working weeks’ notice of the meeting, and a timetable that allows for the submission of motions and amendments’. But the agenda is put together by the elected Congress Business Committee (CBC). The CBC has to examine motions, determine that they are in order, and sequence them (while noting dependencies and conflicts). Then they put out an agenda and solicit amendments. Then they have to deal with those amendments. While aided by staff, the CBC is a members committee, so those folks have to find a time they are free. Branches have to call meetings to put together motions, etc. All during a time when many people take holiday (including UCU staff!).

UCU staff presented four possible agendae, all with a notification going out the day of the HEC (2 July). If you put a deadline for motions of 3 August (that is, a month!), you’d have a conference date of 18 August… outside the mandated first two weeks of August. A month for branches to draft motions and have a meeting to vote on them. This is very tight. The other suggested dates for conference were 25 August, 1 September and 8 September.

HEC voted for 8 September (which then had to be moved because of a conflict with Jewish holidays). I voted for the 8th reasoning that it just gave us enough time for branches to have some shot of getting things together (the deadline for motions was August 23… so ≈7 weeks). My branch didn’t manage to organise ourselves to submit anything in time.

Some people believe that voting for the later date violated HESC’s instruction but, obviously, I don’t agree. One of the people who proposed the HESC motion said in HEC that she had meant the dates to be indicative and that she had said so when moving it at HESC. But also, even if she had meant it literally and the delegates at HESC meant it exactly as written, the requested dates were functionally impossible. Even the date that we picked disenfranchised branches. If moving fast was what was desired, then delegation to HEC would have had that effect.

SHESC (9 September)

Motion 1 delegates the timing of the USS ballot and actions to HEC. This is to allow for flexibility with respect to negotiations and time to build up a campaign. It didn’t pass.

Motion 3 (69 Yes, 65 No, 12 abstain) is key:

1. Declare a dispute with UUK over the employers’ failure to push for a 2021 valuation.

2. Organise a ballot over USS. The ballot should be disaggregated, and should run from last week in September 2021 to last week in October 2021, for industrial action in November/December 2021.

3. Ensure that industrial action is escalating.

4. Produce USS campaign and communication materials immediately for branches.

5. Start preparing for a massive GTVO.

4 requires campaign materials to be produced ‘immediately’ which just wasn’t possible. It also required ‘HEC’ to start preparing for a ‘massive’ GTVO. These aren’t quite things that can be straightforwardly required or enacted. They are very subject to resource constraints (especially staff time, but also statutory requirements of notification).

This passed while amendment 3A.1 (62 Yes, 69 No, 17 Abstain) did not:

Point numbered 2, after ‘The ballot should be disaggregated, and should run,’ delete remainder of clause and replace with ‘for at least 7 weeks, giving branches sufficient time to run an effective GTVO campaign.’

It would have allowed a longer ballot period but at the (recognised) cost of probably pushing action into 2022.

This motion is why disaggregated balloting occurred. No one proposed a motion specifically on aggregation, so it’s possible some people voted ‘for’ disaggregation because they supported this motion in general even if they would have preferred aggregation.

I think this timeline would have been optimistic even if SHESC happened three weeks earlier. There was a 39 day gap between SHESC (9 September) and the start of balloting (18 October) so, assuming exactly the same staff heroic effort (i.e. no holidays in August, the new employees were onboarded, other disputes and issues were handled) then it would have been feasible from that perspective—but recall that branches too have to do stuff in preparation (for example, member list cleaning). Three extra calendar weeks doesn’t necessarily equal three extra weeks of effort.

Depending on how you interpret the requirement for industrial action, there’s not a lot of wiggle room with the end date. Notification to employers is required as well as tallying the votes, deciding what action, and gearing up to enact it. Too far into December is meaningless, so to hit ‘November/December’ you need to hit near the end of November (on either side) at the latest.

This is roughly why the ballot window was short. But it wasn’t decided here; it was decided in HEC2.

I’ll note that motion 4 also passed:

Call for a ballot and strike action and ASOS, with strike action to start in week of 11 November. An indicative timetable is HEC on 17 September, ballot from 24 September to 25 October. The subject of dispute should be the employers’ failure to take measures to defend DB [Defined Benefits].

Organise massive GTVO campaign and produce materials to support this.

Now it only gives an ‘indicative timetable’ and I believe that it’d be legally impossible to decide on the 17th and ballot on the 24th (we needed to establish the dispute—allowing 14 days for employers to respond—plus send employers 7 days’ statutory notice of the ballot).

So at this point we have tight explicit constraints and heavy implicit ones (i.e. staff effort).

HEC2 (20 September)

Given the SHESC motions which passed (through an online vote closing on 14 September), UCU staff need to prepare a plan (including legal vetting) and HEC members need time to propose motions and amendments to them.

HEC members were given a plan put together by UCU staff (working their butts off… remember other disputes are ongoing and other stuff needs to be done!). They attempted to meet the requirement of action in ‘November/December’ with the recognition that strikes and even ASOS in December start running into holidays and may be less effective.

Some time constraints:

  1. Notice of the disputes had to be sent to employers with 14 days to respond (2 weeks)
  2. Then, notification of the ballot (with a sample ballot) sent to employers with 9 (7 required) days to allow for employer challenges (1.3 weeks)
  3. After the results of the ballot have been communicated, notification of action can be sent and requires 2 weeks’ notice.

Thus, the statutory and prudential waiting times alone total 5.3 weeks (37 days). From 20 September, if we just did all the waiting, we’d already be at 27 October—add to that the actual ballot time, and the time necessary to call a HEC meeting to act on the ballot results, and you can see that the ballot window had to be short for effective action to be taken in November/December.

If we had leeway to push action into January (as some argued), then we could have easily had a longer balloting period. I would have preferred that.

As it was, UCU staff worked weekends and nights. They put off leave. Members worked very hard too, but… UCU staff work for us. They belong to a different union. We have to treat them the way we want employers to treat us.


If you ignore all the constraints, many of the decisions look arbitrary. If you factor in all the constraints (and assuming I’ve captured them in enough detail and accurately), then they look fairly determined. Maybe if SHESC had been earlier or if HESC had delegated to HEC, we might have had a bit more leeway on ballot length. (It’s not certain! You can’t just slide things around the calendar—minimally, you need to actually know everyone’s calendar.) If amendment 3.A1 had passed, we’d definitely had a longer period, but probably no action before 2022.

We ran UCU staff ragged which potentially diverts effort from other vital actions.

Now, I don’t think most people understand the constraints or keep  them in mind. After all, it’s largely invisible to most of us. I’m only slowly grasping them. But they are very real.

Personally, I think we should have fewer and more lightweight structures. Just as onerous and complex conditions in trade union law slow us down, so do complex internal structures. This also reduces the number of people who can be involved and makes it difficult to understand how decisions get made (see this document).

I also think we should prioritise increasing UCU staff and staff time. And we could try to be more organised about motion writing (e.g. actually harmonising them and avoiding symbolic motions).

This was written by Bijan Parsia (twitter: @bparsia). It aims to be informative to those new to the discussion of a complex and potentially contentious subject. Due to the length and quickness of turnaround, it may be more tendentious than other TL;DRs. Thanks to Ben Pope for proofreading, substantive corrections and helpful suggestionsFeedback welcomed.

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