“Making Employers Sweat 2023” – Some Positive Ideas for Effective Escalation

By: several members of UCU Commons

As a union, we face some really big decisions in January 2023. Through a combination of branch meetings, a Branch Delegate Meeting, and any other correspondence it receives, the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) will be deciding on what the #ucuRising action will look like for the remainder of our current ballot period (which ends in April).

The currently ‘active’ HEC decision is to take us to “indefinite action”.  It’s safe to say this took many members by surprise, given that the Branch Delegate Meeting and earlier UCU survey had polled their opinions on escalating action without mentioning the word indefinite. Some of us have serious reservations about going all-out on an indefinite strike in February 2023. But it’s not good enough to say “I don’t want to do this” – as a member of any union, it’s important to try to be part of conversations that find a path that a majority of members do want to take. 

This blog post sets out a list of ideas of what an “escalating” 2023 action could look like, accepting that one possible way to (really!) escalate is to go all-out in February and not come back until either it becomes (financially) impossible for us to continue, or we have a ‘win’. One of the big concerns about returning to “escalating” action that we’ve seen voiced is that this will have us returning to our last two years of action – where we go out for a few days, and then come back to work, and then go out for a few more days. This has hit UCU members’ pockets, but has not produced the results we are looking for – and it’s not what we at Commons are interested in returning to. Instead, it feels like we are at a point of time in the calendar year where we want to heavily escalate our action – but not where we want to go for our ‘final stand’, which is what an indefinite action would be.

Past successes tell us that the most tactically sound time of year to really hit universities is during their summer marking & assessment period, leading into graduation periods. The universities really want to get graduates off the books, rather than complaining about industrial action preventing them from graduating at all or with their ‘real’ marks. We saw in 2022 that local marking & assessment boycotts could achieve results that short, interrupted action cannot; and that a lasting marking & assessment boycott with significant density could produce a big win for a branch. It isn’t a reach to take from those examples that an aggregate marking and assessment boycott at a peak pressure time in the university year is likely to get us movement on these national debates where the employers have refused to budge for years.  And where such a marking and assessment boycott results in retaliation from employers, or doesn’t get the movement that we want out of them, we go out on the all-out indefinite strike that is our strongest card to play.

What do we do until then, however?  Waiting until May/June 2023 isn’t “escalation” by anyone’s definition. And what about a January/February 2022/23 marking and assessment boycott?

COVID changed the nature of pressure points in the academic year to an extent, and many of us now work in universities where – to ensure that a failure to hold or mark exams does not ‘hold back’ students – predicted grades have become the norm again. Basically, pre-semester 2 assessment forms the basis for a final mark where not all other assessments are completed, and so at the very least allows for progression between stages. This has really added weight to semester 1 marks – and makes for a compelling rationale for a January marking and assessment boycott (which was also supported by the BDM in October 2022).

So that’s, in my view, phase 1 of any “escalation”: 

  1. We move from normal ASOS to a marking and assessment boycott (MAB) in January.

How do we support that for those members marking in January?  Not everyone will be (as not everyone in UCU marks at all.)  We should brace ourselves to have these members’ backs, and set up local solidarity funds that help staff continue on the MAB when partial deductions are applied by their employer. UCU should also nationally establish a solidarity fund, where those not able to participate in a MAB can donate small portions of their income to help support those who are out on a MAB. 

Note that this solidarity fund should really be distinct from the fighting fund, as we will absolutely need the Fighting Fund to be there for us to believably threaten an all-out national strike over the summer.

  1. Non-marking staff should use the natural limits ASOS places on their work to carry out the every-day jobs that keep an action going: they should lobby, campaign and train others to participate in the forms of action that will come as escalation continues.They should also keep working to recruit – and to lay the groundwork for a reballot.

So is that it?  No strike action in Semester 2 – just a marking and assessment boycott?

We can’t expect our employers to do nothing in response to a January marking boycott; and the writing is on the wall that some, at the very least, look intent on effectively locking staff out through 100% pay deductions for partial performance the minute their branches so much as look in the direction of a MAB. That brings us to phase 2:

  1. The second staff start being threatened with 100% deductions for a MAB, UCU officials have to be ready to fast-track approval for retaliatory action at a local level. We see this as having two parts: the form of retaliation has to be decided at the local level, but the national union has to be ready to ensure that that retaliation can legally take place and be supported.

This asks a lot of UCU officials, and we’ve all experienced that they’re understaffed – so a lot of this relies on branches looking ahead and planning for this retaliatory action, and discussing ways of notifying plans with UCU officials long before it’s clear if they will need to be notified. Amended 19/12/22 to add: because this is a national action, a different mandate is needed for all local activity. The combination of statutory requirements and UCU internal processes on local action mean that balloting & notifying for local action will take about 6 weeks, during which time all other ASOS & fundraising activity should of course continue.

What kinds of retaliatory action can local branches take?  They can go on a local indefinite strike when punitive deductions for the MAB are announced – knowing full well they’ve got a lot of UCU national and local resources behind them. The first universities to announce that they’re doing this are going to be hammered with a media campaign, and the longer any such MAB lasts, even if only in a few institutions, without the employers engaging in meaningful negotiations, the worse they will look.  

They can also go on interrupted action, or try something novel where different schools take different ‘shifts’ of the strike action; as long as it has been cleared by national legal officials, we could see a lot of local creativity to target specific events and calendar dates in these retaliatory actions. Shows of strength at key dates, as well as protesting at key university meetings, will keep the action alive, and will make more and more of the student body furious with the fact that employers are not simply giving us a fair deal.

If the vast majority of universities retaliate with 100% deductions for partial performance, the vast majority of UCU will go out on indefinite or in any event heavily-escalated action. This is a real challenge to the employers – if they try to punish us excessively for boycotting one part of our job, the reality is that we will have no reason to do any of our job anymore. 

  1. If the 100% deductions for a MAB do not come, and the MAB carries on, there should be strategic action at key times in the local academic calendar to keep pressure on the bosses. Events like open days should be hit hard – and if we are forced to carry action on into the summer, graduation and the 3-day peak activity point that is clearing should also be specifically targeted.  

These ongoing ‘strikes with a precise purpose’ will help us recruit and show our strength and determination even if they are not causing the same level of disruption that an ongoing MAB or an all-out strike will. Employers talk to each other: if they see that a branch is committing to the overall UCU strategy for action, they know what they will be forced to deal with if they try to come down hard on staff in May/June, when their internal progression clocks start running out.

  1. Even beyond ‘strike’ activity, we should escalate by making the most out of what ASOS will permit us to do while we are at work. What we’re calling ‘micro-activism’ is stuff that every UCU member (and indeed, all non-members) can engage in to just make the employers’ day-to-day business a little harder.

What these specifically are isn’t something we’re going to set out, as that would encourage employers to try to find ways around them before they’ve caused any disruption. But if you want to know what types of activity we are thinking of here – stuff to do at work while doing your job, no breach of contract, but also absolutely not doing more than your job – you should reach out to us and we’ll be happy to talk you through possibly micro-aggressive micro-activism.

And then….

  1. A summer MAB that, if necessary, can escalate to an indefinite all-out national strike.

There are various advantages to holding off until the summer to press the big ‘emergency’ button, red and tempting as it is given how frustrated we all are with our employers. One is that it gives both branches and members ample time to prepare: we can all take stock of what we will need to have in place, financially, socially and emotionally, in order to be ready to sit out in the summer. Branches that have been less active in the last few years will have gotten practice at both strike activity and a MAB (and, if employers are particularly vindictive, an indefinite strike) in the run-up to the big summer finale. If the proposed local and national solidarity funds take off, with staff donating suggested portions of their salary where they are not marking, this will leave us with a Fighting Fund that employers know will permit us to wait them out for a significant period of time. But more than anything: as members, we’ll be ready because we will have been briefed on what is happening with ample time, we will understand what is expected of us and what might happen as a consequence, and we will be supported by a union that is likewise ready to leverage all our power against our employers.

That version of UCU sounds pretty frightening to us, and we can’t imagine employers being able to ignore it.  Can you?

But wait – doesn’t our ballot run out in April?

Yes. One of the consequences of aiming for the summer as a ‘finale’ of our action is that we will need to re-ballot. There is a risk in this, but no more of a risk than there is in attempting an indefinite all-out strike at the currently set-out timescales. And nobody wants to sit and just twiddle their thumbs until April of next year – the above makes it clear that there is every chance that some, if not most, of us will be engaged in heavy-hitting action from February onwards.  (Our employers have had ample time to show that they’re reasonable and, well…)

Balloting again is part of this overall strategy of escalation, and is a way to keep the all members involved along the way: reminding us of what the overall plan is (and that there is a plan), and showing us how the building towards the summer is shaping up.  It is an opportunity to engage with people who do not mark and are not part of a lock-out because of a 100% deduction for a MAB – to get them on board with any ‘Get the Vote Out’ efforts. And it’s an opportunity to engage with people who are marking or locked out – to remind them that their contributions are essential and part of a wider plan, and to ensure that they feel appropriately supported by the rest of us. 

It is a way to remind folks that we have an end point in mind, and that it’s the end point that will hurt the employers in a way that we’ve seen generate results before.

We could, of course, not hit the thresholds on a reballot.  But is it likely? If we can show that there’s progress being made, and that there is escalation so as to dial up the pressure on the employers, it is hard to see why staff would not carry on. We already have the first signs of UCEA once again playing games, in the sense that their seemingly constructive offer to bring forward the next pay negotiations were premised on a commitment that none of the union negotiators made. Staff anger about the unwillingness of the employer bodies to step up is not going to decrease, and if we can demonstrate a clear, affordable plan of onward action, there is no reason why we can’t smash another ballot.

So. That is a pitch.  And it is just a pitch. There are other things that can be voted on and tried: in the absence of lock-outs, a MAB can be backed up by extended strikes by other staff, for example: several weeks out of work, and then a little time back to make some money.  This will cause massive disruption, but also come at a big cost to staff, and so maths would have to be done here on how long that would be affordable. And, instead of a MAB in the summer, all UCU members could be immediately brought on board with an indefinite action as soon as marking/assessment periods begin – but again, benefit from the extra time to plan and gather support and work up local tactics that a later start to an indefinite action would represent.

If any of the ideas presented here sound good to you, you absolutely should take them to your branches – and might even try to work them up into a motion.  One of our members, Sylvia, has produced a very generic motion for the January HEC that effectively just says “discontinuous escalation” as an alternative to “indefinite action” from February that you can sign if you prefer the idea of escalation to ‘indefinite action’ and are happy to let HEC negotiate what that means – but you can also absolutely tweak that motion to put in (these or other) more specific ideas if you feel strongly about them, because branch motions can generally be longer than HEC-specific motions.

We are also very open to any other ideas people have – and think the more ideas are put out there and shared, the more likely it is that branch discussion of the ideas will produce carefully thought-out, nuanced proposals that are sent to HEC. If you have any additions or suggestions to make on what’s here, we at Commons are happy to hear those and (where appropriate, with permission) can update this blog accordingly!

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