At its meeting on 30 March, HEC passed motions tabled by UCU Commons members (those numbered 2 and 3 in this blog) and began a process of consulting UCU members as a whole on the proposed interim resolutions in both the pay and conditions dispute with UCEA and the USS dispute with UUK (with separate ballots in each dispute). Our original motions proposed that no recommendation be made in either consultation, but they passed only after they had been modified by a UCU Left amendment to recommend that we reject the UCEA proposals and by a separate motion resolving that any consultation should come with a recommendation to either note or reject each proposal—meaning that we are recommended to ‘note’ the joint statement with UUK. The same motion also resolved that the negotiators in each dispute should prepare reports to accompany the consultations.
What does this mean for the process of decision-making that all of us are now asked to engage with? In this blog, we set out some of the questions that we’re currently asking ourselves, hoping that they might help others to make sense of the decisions before us.
The joint statement with UUK includes an ongoing programme of joint working on the valuation methodology and member consultation on benefit restoration. ‘Noting’ this statement would surely commit us to continuing this process. (Justine Mercer, the chair of HEC, also seems to share this view; Vicky Blake, one of the authors of the relevant motion, explains her thinking here.) Through this work, our USS negotiators can gradually bind UUK ever more tightly to the commitments they have already made.
USS negotiators Mark Taylor-Batty and Jackie Grant state very clearly in this blog that ‘taking further industrial action at this stage, with the aim of heading off future risks that are not yet manifesting, endangers the implementation of the 2023 valuation timetable for April 2024’. Indeed, it is difficult to see what the objective of action at this stage would be: removing the clause ‘where this can be done in a demonstrably sustainable manner’ from the commitment to benefit restoration has been suggested, on the basis that it could give UUK a pretext to abandon the commitment, but this risk can be mitigated through the joint working process and addressed head on if it materialises later.
The stated logic of the ‘note’ recommendation is that we should maintain our mandate for industrial action in the USS dispute, but hold back from using this mandate unless the process for benefit restoration on the basis of the 2023 valuation (now underway) is somehow derailed. It would be strange to ‘note’ a joint statement which contains phrases such as ‘we are committed to working together…’ and then behave in a way that threatens to undermine that work. Although the term ‘note’ has no clearly defined meaning in the context of our industrial disputes, its implications in this particular case seem clear—and they outline a pragmatic and promising way forward in the USS dispute.
Would it pay to reject?
The proposed talks with UCEA offer marginally more ‘up front’ (primarily relating to zero-hours contracts) than the joint statement with UUK, but come with an undoubtedly higher risk that there will be no acceptable outcome at the end of the process. So should we hit the reject button? There are several potential reasons for doing so, but each comes with its own set of questions.
You might want to reject the proposals because we need a better deal on pay. The headline pay offer itself has been comprehensively rejected, and we can expect the negotiators’ advice in the upcoming consultation to follow the generally critical attitude of this blog. The main means of getting a better offer would be to use a new mandate to undertake a marking and assessment boycott (MAB), directly targeting graduation and progression. But in leverage terms, a MAB has in effect already happened—that is, the MAB that employers are expecting. It seems unlikely that UCEA would have made any offer at all if they hadn’t expected us to win a new mandate, and we’ve always been clear about the intent to declare a MAB in April if not earlier.
So the first question is not so much should we do a MAB and force a better offer? but can we deliver a MAB that’s more disruptive than employers are expecting? The MAB can be a very powerful tactic (as UCU Commons members have argued here and here), but it requires a high level of organisation—this new blog is an excellent guide to that—and facing down threats of punitive pay deductions, as Queen Mary UCU have recently done. Are you, your colleagues, your branch in a position to do this? To sustain a boycott of marking and assessment, or to support those who are boycotting? Preparedness will certainly vary across the union, not least because head office staff have been supporting continuous industrial action and negotiations since initial MAB training was delivered in January.
The second question is just how disruptive the MAB has to be in order to force a better offer. We know that better off universities are hiding behind those institutions hit hardest by the free-for-all in student recruitment since 2016, exacerbated by the pandemic. We know that major unions in other sectors have found it difficult to win offers that match inflation: for example, the RMT’s deal with Network Rail for 2022/23 and 2023/24 is very similar to the overall offer from UCEA for these years. We also know that we have between 25% and 30% membership density in the sector as a whole, and that in UK-wide negotiations involving five unions, we are the only one of those unions with a UK-wide mandate for action at this stage. These are facts that need to be considered, but they are not fate: only members as a whole can decide whether our MAB can be stronger than employers’ will to resist it.
The stakes are high, because the pay deal has been firmly rejected but any sort of MAB will be very costly to all involved. As most USS employers would be affected by a MAB in the dispute with UCEA, it might have implications for the USS situation described above. It would also likely delay serious talks on the pay-related parts of the claim (casualisation, workload, pay equality, and also pay spine compression) which make up the actual UCEA proposal at this stage.
I don’t wanna talk (on these terms)
You might want to reject the UCEA proposals because you think this is a bad sort of deal, e.g. you don’t believe that we should be entering extended negotiations ‘on the understanding that no further industrial action, including ASOS, is called during these talks’. The joint unions’ claim involves a number of elements that will certainly need extensive negotiation to be implemented effectively, and the HE unions have quite rightly refused to entirely rule out industrial action during the proposed talks, in the sense of retaining the right to run ballots. But whether we could actually call action and continue the talks is a question of whether we have the leverage to force employers into talks without even the most basic preconditions (from their perspective). There’s nothing in the proposals to stop us from calling their bluff—it’s a question of relative power.
Equally, you might want to reject the UCEA proposals because you think that this is a bad deal of its sort, i.e. you’re happy to pause action in order to enter extended negotiations, but you think that the terms of reference for these negotiations need to be improved. The current terms of reference provide for wide-ranging negotiations (e.g. in casualisation, the crucial issue of the relationship between finite funding and insecure employment is expressly mentioned) and include elements on the ongoing monitoring of progress in implementing the outcomes. But (like our member Chris Williams) you might want to see a clearer timetable for the implementation of any agreement, and more details on how this will be measured. To what extent should these parameters be defined at the outset and to what extent should they be an outcome of the negotiations?
Many improvements to the terms of reference can certainly be envisaged, and much of what we might like to see in them may have been refused by UCEA in the negotiations so far. We also have to consider the willingness of employers to reopen negotiations on terms of reference that have just been agreed through a laborious Acas process. We may need a strong MAB for relatively marginal gains in this respect.
Questions of leverage
Because we’re essentially considering interim resolutions for further joint working and negotiations, the question of whether we have the leverage at this moment to force further concessions is even more to the fore than it would be if we had more concrete offers to assess. The decisions that need to be made now are about how best to continue the disputes, not whether or not we should end them. This is ultimately why UCU Commons members in HEC proposed that no recommendations should be made. HEC has chosen to make recommendations, but these conclusions can be arrived at via different routes: on the UCEA offer in particular, the different possible paths to the recommended ‘reject’ each pose their own sets of questions—all, however, come back to the fundamental question of leverage. Our industrial action to date has got us this far, in both disputes—is now the time for more action, or to enter a phase of in-depth negotiation and joint working?
We know that people will be discussing these options with other members and colleagues, both in branch meetings and in many other ways. Questions of collective action are best considered collectively. But collective strength cannot be built by denying individual agency. It’s absolutely right that each of us is ultimately able to make our own judgement call on the best way forward.
This blog was written by Ben Pope, based on wider discussions within UCU Commons