It is easy to forget that our union's campaign for better pay and conditions remains operative. The last strike action took place in July, and the prominence of the campaign is fast dwindling from the memories of many (if not most) members. Last week (w/c 26th September), a series of meetings took place in the various UCU regions. The purpose of these meetings is designed to help the union's Higher Education Committee gauge the degree of support for the campaign amongst ordinary members before the HEC decides what step to take next.
The HEC has a stark choice: to accept UCEA's 1.1% pay settlement, or to recommend further action with a view to arriving at an improved settlement. In a recent branch survey, results (in respect of those who responded) were about evenly split between members who supported and those who opposed further action in the campaign.
In the event that this is indicative of members' feelings nationally, what, then, does the HEC do? The argument to accept 1.1% appears to have force. If there is less than wholehearted support, or no support, for further action from many members, then any further action is (it would seem) doomed to failure. Also, UCU will be out on a limb in taking any such action, since UNISON have decided not to take action of their own after their HE executive decided "that the ballot results and views from regions meant that the union could not deliver a sufficiently strong strike".
This is exactly the same argument used by the Conservative Government in the debate on what is now the Trade Union Act 2016, and the requirement imposed by that Act that trade unions cannot take strike action without a 50% turnout of members on a ballot. The Government's position was that a union which declared action without such a turnout was "undemocratic" in doing so.
This view has been widely, and rightly, criticized, not least because it ignores the silent majority of union members. Most union members are not activists. They have no interest in union internal politics, they do not stand on picket lines, and they often do not vote in union ballots – for strike action or otherwise. They are in their union because they believe that to be the best way they can protect their job and improve their position. The reason why they do not vote in ballots for strike action is not because they oppose strike action. It is because they trust that the people elected by ordinary members like them to lead their union, will do just that, and as leaders will make the right decision.
The Trade Union Act is not yet in force, but already its illogic – that (as Professor Martin Rees once put it) absence of evidence equates to evidence of absence - has been allowed to influence union decision-making. If the UCU HEC accepts the 1.1% settlement, they will be admitting that our union's leaders and branch representatives cannot lead the silent majority of members to campaign for a better result. They will be doing more than just caving in to the Conservative Government's attack on trade unionism and workers' rights: they will be doing the Tories' job for them. And they will commit a betrayal of the trust placed in them by the people who elected them to lead their union.
The choice, therefore, is one between giving the members of UCU what they ( or at least some of them) appear to want, and doing what is right. It is rarely easy to do the right thing, particularly when there are voices telling you not to. It may be that, should further action take place, some of the owners of those voices decide to leave UCU.
However, there is no reason why our union cannot mount a strong, well-organized campaign for a better result than the derisory settlement on offer, and gain more members as a result. And let us not forget that the next time pay is up for discussion, the Trade Union Act will most likely be in force, so the HEC will be powerless without a 50% membership vote in support. This is most likely the last opportunity for the leaders of our union to lead us, and I fervently hope that they choose to do so.
UCU Health and Safety Officer & Departmental Representative (Northumbria Law School)
Northumbria University Branch