UCU changes tactics in pursuit of national strike action

The University and College Union is, for the first time in this dispute, switching to an aggregated ballot, which could bring about national walkouts

The University and College Union has confirmed it is pursuing plans for a national aggregated strike ballot of university staff over pay, conditions and pensions.

The union’s higher education committee (HEC) met on Friday, 1 July, authorising a ballot for late summer with the potential for strikes in November and new votes to extend the industrial action into spring 2023.

The decision to switch to aggregated ballots, as the union seeks to strengthen its hand in the long-running industrial disputes, was floated as a possibility by the general secretary earlier this year.

The aggregated ballot signals the union’s intention to raise the stakes for employers, threatening shutdowns at every university.

The university sector is worth tens of billions of pounds… It can more than afford to meet the demands of staff
– Jo Grady, UCU

A majority of those voting must back walkouts in a strike ballot, which is only legal if turnout is above 50%. The union says it will ballot around 80,000 members at 149 universities.

In an aggregated ballot, the union must achieve a majority ‘yes’ vote, with a turnout of at least 50% of its members across Britain, to lead members in strikes at every university.

In disaggregated ballots, the union counts each branch separately, creating the phenomenon of some universities closing down over a sector wide dispute while other campuses remain open.

The benefit of a disaggregated ballot is it multiplies the chances of achieving legal strike action. Multiple long-running strikes have gained UCU national publicity, and the issue has been debated widely in parliament. The downside, however, is employers have argued that in a national pay dispute of more than 140 employers, striking at a few dozen institutions is not compelling evidence union members back continued strikes.

Some universities in the UK have been affected by 15 days of strike action this year. Around 40 branches are part of a marking boycott.

In the last ballot, the number of branches that could legally take strike action fell from 68 to 39, potentially a sign that fatigue had set in among UCU members. Some from the left of the union have pushed for this tactic switch that it hopes will reinvigorate the debate and strengthen the union’s position.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady: “By attacking pensions, cutting pay and continually refusing to negotiate in good faith, vice-chancellors have pushed staff towards taking more strike action, and now university staff are set to join the wave of industrial action sweeping the UK.

“We do not take such action lightly, but university staff are beyond sick of falling pay, cuts to pensions, unsafe workloads and the rampant use of insecure contracts.

“The university sector is worth tens of billions of pounds and is predicted to generate record levels of income. It can more than afford to meet the demands of staff who are struggling in the midst of [a] devastating cost of living crisis.

“Time is running out, and we hope vice-chancellors finally see sense and address the long-standing concerns of staff. If they don’t, mass disruption will be entirely their fault.”

Read more: Staff work 2 days overtime every week, UCU claims

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