UCU has a massive mandate: now what?

stock image of a UCU ballot envelope

by: Dave Hitchcock

On 24 October the results of two national, aggregate ballot campaigns were announced, and if you’re reading this you probably know the results, but just in case:

We have a turnout of 58% (57.8) of all eligible members for the pay and conditions ballot. 81.1% of the votes were YES for industrial action up to and including a strike.

We have a turnout of 60% of all eligible members for the USS pensions ballot, where 85% (84.9) voted YES for industrial action up to and including a strike.

Both of these mandates are very solid indeed, comparable to the 2018 mandate in the first USS dispute which led to a strong action to defend the pension scheme’s defined benefits arrangements. Of the two, it is my view that the pay and conditions ballot result is truly historic; that it shows just how thoroughly fed up a huge plurality of academic and professional services staff are with the state of UK higher education, not just with their deteriorating pay and worsening conditions, but with the fundamental ways the sector is run.

So the union’s staff and all the branch reps and volunteers ran a wildly successful campaign to get out the vote, bumping turnout by about 8% overall. Now what happens?

We have to choose how to use these two mandates. UCU Congress voted to link the disputes this time around, which means actions in both will be coordinated and, functionally, the same at any branch which has a “live” mandate in both. In other words, you won’t be on strike just for USS pensions if you can also be on strike for improved pay and conditions, you’ll be acting in both disputes. One might end in resolution sooner than the other (likely candidate = USS), but we can come on to that.

Q: Who Chooses What We Do?
A: The Higher Education Committee (HEC) of the union does, and it meets on 3 November to vote and decide. HEC includes all the elected members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) from the HE sector, and its decisions should reflect the expressed views of the membership, which the union is soliciting in two ways, first with a survey where 4,000 members responded. You can see the results of that here. Secondly, by taking into account the views of ‘branch delegate meetings’, who in turn will represent the views of members from their branch meetings, or using their own surveys, etc. To be super clear on this point, because people love obfuscating about it for some reason: the union’s General Secretary does not choose what strategy the union takes now. She can make recommendations, but HEC decides.

Q: What are the options, summarised?
The union’s survey laid out several possible courses of action along branching pathways. First, do we give time for employers to negotiate with us or not? Second, when do we start to plan for strikes, do they start in earnest before Christmas or not? Third, when do we plan to escalate if no resolution is found, and target assessments with marking boycotts?

Based on the survey, members definitively do want to give employers time to negotiate to avert strike action. 93% voted for it, and I’m right there with them, it’s a reasonable thing to do, it puts the ball in their court, and it tells the truth about something: we will strike if you make us, but we’d rather reach a solution and keep doing our jobs, so here’s a chance to make that happen, please take it seriously.

Things get slightly more nuanced once the questions turn to when to strike and when to start escalating, but again, clear pluralities voted for:

  • a few days action in November, with fuller escalation in spring
  • for that November action to be limited, but national (i.e. including Scotland’s universities)
  • to target assessments for boycott in December rather than waiting for later points in the year.

Again, those results are pretty sensible: they plot a clear course which everyone will be able to see well in advance, which all institutions will be able to participate in, and which put pressure on employers in clearly defined ways, step by step. Sensible stuff, membership! There’s a good debate to be had over when it is best to look at boycotting assessments, it clearly varies somewhat by institution and will need to be carefully planned for across the sector, but in practice a broad majority of members surveyed seem willing to start looking at this tactic from early next year.

I suppose there are other options, like striking as soon as the Trade Union Act allows and not stopping until our demands are met, but it’s not clear to me what advantages that brings over some time to prepare, negotiate, talk to our students about what is going to happen, and get a few nice winter toques or something. Employers know it’s coming.

Q: Will this be what happens then?
A: We don’t know. As I say, HEC decides, and while they are elected by membership, turnout in those elections is nothing short of abysmal (something like 13%). It would be better in future if candidates for the HEC and NEC were much more public about their stances on tactics in industrial disputes. Votes won’t be public, and after the fact, it is not going to be clear who voted for what, because minutes of those meetings won’t give out that information, for some good reasons (it’s industrially sensitive), and some not-so-good ones too. Many readers will recognise that the perils of this sort of arrangement are exactly why the voting records of politicians are a matter of public record.


Alright, you’re caught up. It’s Decision Time, and the Deciders are going to sit down for a 3-hour-long remote meeting on 3 November and eventually vote on a course of action. The national union will then announce that decision as soon as it can, and we’ll make a start. I think it’s important to finish off with one observation here: this ballot result is genuinely powerful. The whole membership of the union will be able to act together, across every university in the country. We really do have a chance here to make a difference, to fight for better conditions for staff and students, to save a pension scheme, to chart a better path. Let’s take a deep breath and get to it.

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