MEMBERS OF the University College Union (UCU) have smashed through the government’s strike ballot threshold to declare their support for industrial action over devastating cuts to their pension scheme. Eighty-eight per cent voted to strike after the government announced cuts that would cost the average lecturer £200,000 in retirement.
After the result, announced on 22nd January, the Tories’ failure to engage seriously with the demands of the UCU forced the union to declare a programme of industrial action that will demonstrate members’ steadfast opposition to the cuts. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt wrote to members to report the employer’s “hardline stance” saying, “You deserve decent treatment and yet at the moment your concerns are being treated with contempt”.
She announced, “having tried to achieve a negotiated solution, now we must take industrial action. I say that knowing that action for you will always be a last resort. But if we do not stand and fight now we will lose the right to a decent retirement income forever”.
The union has announced fourteen days of strike action in the sixty-one universities that achieved the 50 per cent turnout threshold imposed by the last Tory government. This action, commencing on 22nd February for most institutions, is one of the boldest plans of industrial struggle we have seen for a long while. Rather than the usual tentative one-day protest strikes the UCU’s strategy announces that it means business – it means to win.
Despite the impressive result, it needs to be noted that seven universities will not be taking part in the strike action. Not because UCU members voted against industrial action but because fewer than fifty per cent of members voted in the ballot. This hypocritical law, passed by a government that itself failed to win fifty per cent of the vote, is a draconian measure to stop workers excising their right to strike. The law even insists that all ballots must be conducted by post rather than the provenly more effective electronic balloting system.
The fact that sixty-one out of sixty-eight universities achieved the notoriously difficult threshold is a testament to the determination of lecturers to defend their pensions. The remaining universities will be re-balloted to give them another opportunity to participate in the strike.
Though the UCU’s decision to ballot each university individually turns out to have been unnecessary as the average national turnout is enough to have won them the right to a national strike, it is likely that this approach will be adopted by other unions to mitigate the risk of losing a ballot. It is yet to be seen what the effect of this compartmentalised approach to balloting will have on the effectiveness of industrial action and whether it might frustrate members taking action on behalf of those who didn’t reach the threshold.
Fortunately for universities, students cannot be bussed between institutions to take advantage of sections of the workforce not participating. For workplaces like call centres, any weak link in the strike could be exploited to undermine the whole operation.
Though UCU members looked geared up for a solid strike despite the anti-union laws there may still come a point where they face a choice between obeying an unjust law or winning a legitimate dispute.