UCU university workers on a protest (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The university workers’ ­battle that has seen many days of strikes this year is in mortal danger.

UCU union general secretary Jo Grady is trying to wind up the present marking and assessment boycott and delay a national strike ballot. Grady is urging surrender just as the employers upped their attacks. Last week saw a dizzying series of reversals and apparently random moves from the top of the union.

The first shots came from ­employers’ body Ucea. It issued a letter that made clear that it was not going to improve its puny pay offer of 3 percent for last year and 5 percent for this year. That means a huge pay cut in real terms once inflation is considered.

And, said Ucea, there would be no movement over returning the pay deductions imposed on ­­workers who have been involved in a ­marking boycott that has stopped some universities issuing grades for degrees. Grady responded by ­tweeting that the summer strike ballot that had been called for by this year’s UCU conference would not go ahead.

Without such a ballot, under the anti-union laws, the UCU cannot call more strikes after 30 September. And Grady made clear there would be no meeting of the elected Higher Education Committee (HEC) over the summer. This is the body that could have called such a ballot.

Then suddenly Grady reversed direction and announced that there would be key meetings. The union had scheduled a Branch Delegate Meeting—made up of representatives from each ­university—for Friday this week. It was set to be followed by an HEC on 14 August to reflect on the BDM and make decisions about how to take the dispute forward.

This is not because Grady has become converted to stepping up the struggle. Instead, she hopes that the meetings will call off the boycott and agree there should be no speedy strike ballot. Effectively this would mean closing the fight. Trade union leaders always rest on their most passive and hesitant members to curb the energy and initiative of the most active.

Grady calculates that the ­demoralisation, hardship and uncertainly that her own strategy has caused will now see support for her retreats.

It’s up to rank and file UCU ­members to prove her wrong.  Saira Weiner, UCU branch ­secretary at Liverpool John Moores University and chair of North West Region HE, told Socialist Worker, “It’s a continuation of years of ­failure to offer a coherent and united way forward to win.

“And as always there is a ­democratic deficit. “The conference decision about a summer ballot isn’t implemented, branches that are leading the ­boycott are given very little ­support, and there’s no forum for them to shape the way forward.”

“It’s possible to beat the ­employers. But that means ­overturning Grady’s strategy”.

Saira and Roddy (below) spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity

We need a serious programme of action to win this, say UCU activists

The present university workers’ dispute is a continuation of a battle that began in 2018 and has been going on, with ebbs and flows, for five years. The union says some of the attacks on the USS pension scheme have been beaten off. But in any case this affects only workers in the “pre‑1992” universities.

It doesn’t affect workers in institutions that became universities after 1992 when the government upgraded the polytechnics.

But there have been no wins over pay, equalities, contracts and casualisation and workload—what the union calls the “four fights”.  Workers have struck for around 70 days since 2018.

And some have this year been part of a Marking and Assessment Boycott (Mab) where they refuse to grade students.

This has seen some lose 50 days’ pay.

“On the one hand there is this remarkable resilience. People keep fighting, and keep voting for more action,” says Roddy Slorach, UCU branch secretary at Imperial College in London.

“But at the same time there is systematic sabotage from the top of the union, and a complete absence of a strategy to win.”

The union has tested to destruction the method of calling intermittent strikes.

Grassroots pressure, and organisation from below by left activists, particularly in the UCU Solidarity Movement, forced Grady to go beyond a series of one-day strikes. At points there has been more extended action.

But the union leaders have always fought off demands for an indefinite strike. Organising an indefinite strike, as called for by Socialist Worker supporters among others in the union, is the only way to guarantee a win.

“We rightly tell people to keep going with the exam boycott and to vote for more strikes,” says Roddy. “But after what has happened that sounds hollow unless it’s combined with a serious programme to win.”

“That has to mean the union calling more action in September under its present mandate as a lead-in to an indefinite strike.” Occasional strikes aren’t just ineffective against vicious employers.

They can also bleed energy of activists who must urge repeatedly the wider membership to restart the battle, or to vote in yet another ballot. But the key struggle never seems to arrive.

Defeating Grady’s attempts to end the battle must be combined with arguing for a strategy to win. That means notifying strikes now and starting a ballot that will lead to indefinite action.

It also means rushing solidarity and funds to the minority of workers who have implemented the Mab and lost thousands of pounds of wages. And there must be much more serious solidarity with Brighton university, presently on indefinite strike over compulsory job cuts.

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