Effective Industrial Action: What Does It Look Like?

This is clearly a crucial juncture for UCU members in higher education, and UCU Commons members were preparing a blog on the choices before us when the General Secretary issued a report containing very serious and substantial proposals for the future of the Four Fights dispute on Wednesday 13 April. We encourage everyone to read this report, and present this blog post largely as it was drafted before the General Secretary’s report was circulated to members as an independent and (we believe) complementary contribution.

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Why we need to always be thinking about tactics

Industrial action is nearly always a zero-sum game between workers and employers: in the short term at least, our job is to force them to spend money on us that they’d much rather be spending on other things. This is particularly the case within UK HE at the moment. Zero-sum processes like this inevitably involve conflict: one side is trying to beat the other, working out what tactics are working, and changing its tactics and demands in response to what works and what doesn’t, so that it’s in a position to win as many of its demands as possible.

There are some worrying indications over the last few years that, for some VCs at least, the main aim in disputes is to remove the union as a factor in their decision-making: to break us. We’ve seen this at a local level—with redundancy threats targeting union activists to break the will and capacity of local branches to fight mass redundancy. We’ve also seen it at a national level, with the machinations of the Beer/Eastwood clique in undermining USS. We know that at least one VC is happy to want to make the union and its members ‘bleed’.

The most morally justified, rationally effective, eloquently presented, broadly-supported union claim in the world doesn’t change the bosses’ minds (however much we might want it to). Bosses change their minds when they think that it’s the only way to remove a source of disruption which is preventing them from doing an unacceptably large number of the other projects on their mind. All other things being equal, they’d much rather spend the money on a stylish piazza—or on a biotech spinoff in which they own shares—than on their staff. During industrial disputes, it’s our job as trade unionists to make sure that they sorrowfully put the piazza plans back in the drawer, because we’re causing so much fuss that paying us off is the only way the university they control will operate normally for them.

We have to knock management off balance in order to do that, and it’s very hard to knock an organisation’s leaders off balance if the only tactics we use against them are those which they have got previous experience of facing down and defeating. We need to get inside their loop and destabilise their decision-making processes, to the extent that they see signing a deal as the easiest way out of their predicament. So, in order to win, we need to be collecting evidence about how well our tactics are working, evaluating that evidence, and deciding whether or not to alter what we do. Because, we can be sure that our opponents are doing the same thing to us. They want to win also. 

Elements of effective action

Assuming that the test of an industrial action’s effectiveness is the bargaining leverage that it brings to bear on employers, any list of the qualities of an effective industrial action (as distinct from the qualities of a strong industrial dispute more broadly) must surely include that it is:

  1. Broad-based: a large proportion of the workforce must be involved.
  2. Disruptive: the type of action undertaken by workers must severely impact the activities of the employer(s), whether immediately or cumulatively over time. 
  3. Sustainable: it presents both the credible threat of sustained action and the ability to carry out this threat if necessary to achieve sufficient disruption and leverage.

That all three of these attributes need to come together for the action to be effective may seem obvious when they are listed together in this way, but debate within UCU often seems to lose sight of this fact. This has a lot to do with the way that we make the key decisions on each of these dimensions of successful action at different times and in different decision-making bodies:

  1. A sector conference or executive committee makes decisions about the ballots. Most importantly, it decides whether a ballot will be ‘aggregated’ or ‘disaggregated’, i.e. whether the measure of success against the anti-union 50% turnout threshold will be at the level of individual branches or all the balloted branches (see our previous post on this question). A disaggregated ballot almost guarantees that some members will be able to take action, but also that others will not (their branches will not pass the threshold). An aggregated ballot holds the possibility that all members will be able to take action, but the risk that none will have a mandate. So this decision has enormous consequences for the breadth of any industrial action.
  1. Further sector conferences or executive committee meetings decide what action to take during the six-month mandate for action if the ballot is successful: what type of action will be taken, and how long it will last. Multiple such decisions on periods of discontinuous action can be taken during the six months.
  1. But none of these sectoral meetings can make decisions about the ‘strike pay’ available to members from the national Fighting Fund. This fund is common to both FE and HE sectors, and so it’s governed by full Congress and (between Congresses) the National Executive Committee. The ability to financially support members who need this assistance whilst withholding their labour obviously has enormous implications for the sustainability of the action.

This outline reflects how decisions have been made in the current disputes, but it is not necessarily the only or best way of taking decisions about industrial action. To maximise the effectiveness of our actions—that is, to make them most disruptive to our employers, whilst minimising the cost to ourselves—we should also employ a diversity of tactics, targeted to disrupt specific parts of each employer’s business and its income streams. This might mean different UCU members sometimes taking action at different times. It will definitely mean involving far more UCU members in tactical decision-making, harnessing our intimate knowledge of our own work processes, so as better to disrupt these work processes. How best to undermine the recruitment of higher-fee-paying international students? How best to disrupt the processing of grant income? How best to obstruct the employer’s ability to comply with various state-mandated reporting obligations? 

Where can we discuss and choose effective action?

On 20 and 27 April, UCU will hold two special higher education sector conferences (SHESCs) dealing with the Four Fights and USS disputes respectively. These conferences will make decisions about what action (if any) to call in these disputes on the basis of a mandate derived from the ballots held between 16 March and 8 April. The SHESCs have a range of options with regard to the type and duration action. But these decisions should not be made in isolation from the consequences of decisions taken at other times and by other bodies in respect of the other key dimensions of effective action:

Breadth: the Higher Education Committee (HEC, the executive committee responsible for the HE sector between meetings of the sector conference) decided on 25 February to hold disaggregated ballots in both disputes. As a result:

  • In Four Fights, 36 branches have a mandate for action based on these ballots, or 39 in total (previously this was 64). This is 27% of the 145 branches involved in the Four Fights dispute, representing around 40% of the balloted membership.
  • In the USS dispute, 24 branches have a mandate for action based on these ballots, or 27 in total (previously this was 44). This is 40% of the 68 branches involved in the USS dispute, representing around 47% of the balloted membership.

Around 70,000 members were balloted in the Four Fights dispute. This needs to be seen in the context of the overall higher education workforce: there are well over 320,000 staff (the exact number of graduate teaching assistants and casual staff is obscured by the category ‘atypical academic’ in the HESA figures) in the parts of the workforce in which UCU organises (academic staff and academic-related professional service staff). So a relatively small proportion of the workforce will be able to take action. UCU’s membership density is very unevenly spread across job families and academic disciplines, so some areas of university activity will still face considerable disruption, but others will largely continue as normal.

Sustainability: NEC decided on 18 March to ring-fence a portion of the Fighting Fund for a vital national dispute in FE. This decision meant that a motion to increase the amount of strike pay available to members in HE automatically fell (it was incompatible with the decision to ring-fence funds for FE, and so couldn’t be voted on). This means that strike pay in the HE disputes remains capped at 11 days (+ 5 days of 100% ASOS deductions for members earning less than £30k). 13 days of action have already been taken in the Four Fights dispute (+ 5 days for USS in many branches), so in practice this means that members will have to be supported through further action from branch funds. Branches normally provide support for members experiencing particular hardship, but they cannot replace the national Fighting Fund.

SHESC delegates will have to decide whether effective industrial action is possible at this time, and (if not) whether the gains from continuing the disputes through industrial action in the short term will outweigh the costs of further action.

Costs and opportunities

Even if delegates feel that effective action is not possible at this time, some may decide that action (in those branches with a mandate) is necessary anyway in order to build our capacity to take effective action in the future. It’s certainly the case, for example, that strike action can help to strengthen the engagement of individual members, potentially recruiting them as activists. Some delegates will argue that action is necessary in order to grow the overall membership as well, but the response of current non-members to ineffective action will clearly be less positive overall than it would be to more effective action. Of course, these benefits can only accrue to branches that have a mandate for action.

Taking industrial action also means that we miss out on opportunities to develop capacity for more effective action in the future. Even if we can grow our resources in terms of the number of activists, the union’s salaried staff will remain fixed in number. These staff are kept incredibly busy during industrial action, e.g. with the complex and legally sensitive process of notifying employers of the action, creating and distributing campaign materials, gaining media attention, and supporting an increased frequency of meetings of the democratic decision-making bodies. If staff were not undertaking this work, they could support our progress towards more effective action in a number of ways. Some examples include:

  1. Support with preparations to ‘get the vote out’ (GTVO): we’ve already shown that we can beat the 50% threshold in terms of aggregated turnout (and with a short ballot window, just three weeks in October and November last year), and the comments above on what effective action looks like show that crossing the tactical threshold from disaggregated to aggregated ballots need not depend on guaranteed increased turnout. But it is still vital that we develop further in this respect: staff can help to spread best practice and provide behind-the-scenes support to ensure that activists are using their time effectively to contact members.
  2. Funding: measures are already being taken to improve fundraising at the UK level, and branch-level fundraising will remain important too. But in order to achieve a real breakthrough in the sustainability of our disputes, we may have to find ways of better integrating the structure of these disputes with how they are funded. For instance, in a marking boycott, members not involved in assessment could support those members undertaking the boycott. But this will need very careful preparation if it is ever to work on a large scale, and staff would be crucial within this: analysing membership data, preparing legal advice, and communicating the plans to members.
  3. Membership density: staff have already created resources for recruitment and branch development, and they help to facilitate UCU participation in the ‘Strike School’ and ‘Organizing for Power’ courses run by Jane McAlevey and her team. We can’t rely solely on industrial action to boost our membership numbers, and by recruiting more successfully outside of periods of action we can maximise the recruitment potential when we do take action.

Our staff are not synonymous with ‘the union’, and a reminder of what they have to offer is in no way intended to downplay the significance of local, branch-based activism. But it is a big (and common) mistake to regard the so-called ‘union bureaucracy’ as a hindrance rather than a valuable (and finite) resource that we need to use in the best possible way. Limited and targeted interventions, supported by national and regional staff, could make a major difference to our ability to take more effective industrial action in the near future.

A case of now or better?

Earlier in the year, the timetable for action was dictated in large part by a series of crucial decision points in the USS dispute (in particular, a meeting on 22 February; the elected officers decided that action on Fights Fights would continue 28 February – 2 March largely to join up with the NUS strike and walk out on 2 March). These decisions have now been made (and not in our favour), but we can still move employers if we gain sufficient leverage: the 2022/23 New JNCHES (aka Four Fights) negotiations with employers have just started, and changes to USS are still possible at any time (see a recent blog by Mike Otsuka)—though it may be harder to achieve them now than it would have been before the benefit cuts were formally enacted.

The summer assessment period might be a good time to try to achieve this leverage. But tactics that have been successful in the past may not be again—the landscape in which we take action is not static. In particular, many of the practices developed by institutions to mitigate the impact of COVID on assessment can be used to mitigate the impact of a marking boycott as well. We will need maximum breadth of participation in order to get a result from such a high-stakes form of action, and probably considerable planning to adjust to the new realities of assessment: again, this work cannot be done whilst we are engaged in extensive action. And we’ve already seen that this action under current circumstances will lack both breadth and sustainability.

So a continuation of the campaign by means other than immediate industrial action is also a positive option, and ultimately may well be the quickest way to bring about movement in these disputes. SHESC delegates who come to this conclusion will probably find it best reflected in motion 18 of the Four Fights SHESC (from the University of East Anglia). But whatever the outcome of these SHESCs, we need to ensure that we aren’t caught in a cycle of ineffective industrial action which costs us more than it costs our opponents.

Being on the front foot and seriously challenging employers to negotiate the changes that we need to see doesn’t have to mean taking action indiscriminately—any more than it should mean always ‘keeping our powder dry’, demobilising and hoping to take advantage of a fortunate turn of events. Broad-based, sustainable, disruptive action can build capacity for more of the same—but capacity is finite, and if we spend it on narrow, unsustainable action, we are unlikely to benefit from this dynamic. We need to evolve our tactics if they aren’t working.

Written by Gavin Brown, Ben Pope and Chris Williams, with contributions from David Harvie and David Hitchcock and thanks to our fellow UCU Commons members, in particular Helen Eborall, Jo Edge and Tilly Fitzmaurice.

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