Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

After a united struggle of action for the past academic year, university staff in the UCU, Unite, and Unison are now having to decide whether to end the dispute and accept a mildly improved offer of a 2% pay increase. The alternative for UCU members is to continue with a boycott of examination marking. The HE dispute therefore hangs in the balance, and workers now find themselves between a rock and a hard place due to the lack of a fighting leadership in the unions.

The joint unions involved in the Higher Education industrial dispute have put to their members an offer from the employers - the UCEA (University and College Employers Association) - which amounts to a 2% pay rise from August 2014. In addition to the main pay rise, low-paid workers will receive £30 extra, so that all of those who have a 35-hour week will earn a ‘living wage’, in the loosest possible sense. The offer is being made on the condition that it ends the dispute.

The proposed UCU-EIS marking ban, set to begin on 28th April, has consequently been postponed for at least nine days, pending a members’ ballot that will close on 1st May. The Unite leadership is putting the offer to its branches, while UNISON’s HE executive is meeting tomorrow (23rd April) to “discuss the consultation with members”. The unions have been asked by the employers to recommend acceptance of the offer to their members, with a neutral position the minimum requirement for the offer to stand.

The Unite leadership has jumped at the chance to end the dispute and is already congratulating its membership on a hard-fought campaign as it holds its hands up, apparently with nothing more to be done.

The UCU leadership, meanwhile, has put forward a more neutral position. But they have left the future of the dispute up to an individual members’ ballot, as, no doubt strategically, this ballot cuts off the proposed marking boycott before it has even begun and disproportionately undermines the support for it. Now, if majority support is upheld, eight days of the exam period will have already passed before the first examination paper can be cast aside.

The other unions involved in the dispute are yet to act, although UNISON has presented the offer positively. GMB and EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland) are yet to comment.

What has been achieved?

Last October saw the first joint-national Higher Education strike in the history of the British Labour movement. Since then the campaign has clearly made a considerable splash. National media and politicians have been up in arms, and even the BBC has been raving about the marking boycott which “threatens final exams”.

Such mainstream attention is at least recognition of the greater threat university staff can pose as a force of the working class. The action taken in this dispute could be the first step towards a genuinely united front of students and workers against the cuts. The NUS has officially moved to back the planned marking boycott, and throughout the previous strikes the militancy among HE workers – and students supporting them – has been unprecedented.

The University of West Scotland was closed altogether during one of the strikes, whilst up and down the country departments and libraries were shut down for a day. In December Deptford Town Hall, the HR building at Goldsmiths, University of London was occupied and shut down, as were the Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield and University of London’s Senate House, among others. In February, UCL’s Bartlett Centre was forced to close. Workers standing on the picket lines managed to turn thousands of staff and students away; some were recruited to the trade union movement.

The offer that members are currently presented with is unquestionably the result of militancy displayed by the workers who did fight on the picket lines, and who did observe the strike. Indeed, it comes from the bosses’ fear of a much bigger movement, the serious threat of which will have been raised by campaigns such as this one.

More importantly, however, the action which members took was not simply in view of this power balance, but one which they were compelled to take. This dispute was absolutely necessary. It was caused by the objective conditions of austerity and the wider attacks on British workers, which follow from a crisis within the capitalist system itself. The so-called “cost-of-living crisis”, that trade union and Labour leaders alike use to underpin their rhetoric, is not simply an abstract numbers game, but is a material question affecting people’s livelihoods and forcing them to take drastic action.

The unprecedented nature even of strikes such as that in the Higher Education dispute this year reflects the organic crisis of capitalism that the world is in the throes of. From there, the leadership of the working class must take up the mantle.

What does the UCEA offer amount to?

The unions have consistently pointed to the fact that pay in HE institutions has increased systematically below inflation over the past five years. Well, this 2% increase from August is not only below this year’s RPI (Retail Price Index) of 2.8% but also the more important figure for next year of 3%, which it still trails by a whole 1%.

Of course, the unions, who had made a point of calculating inflation by RPI (the higher figure for inflation which will more directly affect their members) not CPI (Consumer Price Index), have suddenly switched their preferred method. With their conciliatory recommendation to accept this offer, now Unite and UCU think that the CPI is the figure to mention!

Moreover, this pay dispute was officially about 2013/14, and based on figures up to that point. The dispute was premised by a 1% pay increase against real-wage decrease of 13% over 4 years. In fact, with this offer, nothing whatsoever would be won until 2014/15. The real figure, which they now, unsurprisingly, neglect to promote, stands at a 15.2% real-wage decrease over five years.

Meanwhile bosses continue to give themselves 5% pay rises whilst carrying the despicable line to the negotiation table that university surpluses are a buffer against “unforeseen market forces”. If they accept the offer that is on the table, union members will have been rewarded with a 16.2% accumulative real-wage pay decrease over six years, 3.2% more than when this dispute began!

The £30 extra offered to those in the lowest paid jobs will only mean a living wage for those workers with 35 hour working weeks, and even for them only on a technicality. For those working fewer hours than this, the hourly wage has to be stretched further anyway to make ends meet. How will £30 more suddenly amount to a reasonable livelihood?!

There is also no mention in the offer being present of the London living wage, to which £30 will mean even less, or of an increase in the London minimum allowance (to £4,000, one of the unions’ few concrete demands). Effectively, any HE worker living in London at the moment on below-living wage must continue to do so. Regardless, it’s a “living wage” for some, and a little bit more, below the living wage, for others. This offer is qualitatively different from the unions’ claim to fight so that “no University is paying any member of staff at a level below the Living Wage / London Living Wage”.

In addition, there is no mention in the offer of any of the unions’ secondary demands, many of which will ultimately be fundamental to any movement of HE workers. For example, the question of “zero-hour contracts and other forms of casualisation in the sector”, has not been resolved - an increasing problem at universities and the go-to side-step of workers’ rights for university bosses when looking for cheap, non-unionised labour. The lack of any progress in this area would further service the disconnect that the big unions have from this layer of HE workers.

National agreement on Disability Leave, Employment Security Agreement, gender pay-gap, and the inclusion of the living wage in all outsourced contracts – none of these demands get a look-in. According to the employers these claims “will be addressed at next New JNCHES meetings on 24 April and 20 May”. However, the results of these meetings will come after UCU members have voted on the marking boycott and, based on what has come out of the last one, don’t hold any prospects of reassuring workers.

Unite, in a particularly eager attempt to spin defeat into victory, is trying to claim that they got the threat of incremental pay “off the table” during this round of negotiations. The truth is, incremental pay was never on the table. Further real-wage shortfalls are. The fees of union members would be better served fighting these attacks that are on the cards.


The action of the HE pay campaign began with a one-day strike on 31st October 2013 at every campus in the country, which was followed by two more, in December and February respectively. In spite of a new-found militancy among those HE workers who were leading the fight on the picket lines, and the passive support of many more workers and students, there was no significant building of forces strike-on-strike.

By the third day of joint strike action on 6th February 2014, demoralisation was setting in – not least because that strike seemed to have been organised haphazardly and there were many complaints about how poorly publicised it was. By this stage, that there was going to be a marking boycott seemed to UCU members to be a foregone conclusion anyway.

Because the same level of action was repeated twice more, with no escalation or visibly significant gains being made in the campaign, these further actions had the opposite effect of dampening down some of the initial militancy.

The situation could have been radically different though. If the gains in forces and consciousness made were utilised towards a two-day strike, or longer; if the unions more pro-actively poured their resources into education, branch agitation, publicising the campaign, raising awareness, linking up with student unions, etc. in order to combat the media’s slanders and the management’s attempts to create divisions among workers, and between workers and students; and if a clear militant strategy and socialist programme had been put forward by the union leadership: then the battle lines would be drawn more clearly, and workers would better understand the serious victories that could be won through struggle.

In reality, however, the one-day strikes became somewhat mechanical. They did a lot of good, thanks to the hard work of those on the ground and the objective circumstances, which make sympathy with strikers easier to come by these days. Without escalation and a clear fighting strategy from the leadership, however, there would always be limitations to the growth of the campaign.

UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt accurately describes the dispute’s progression as “two distinct phases of industrial action”. The word ‘distinct’ here is immediately problematic. If demands were not met after the first strike, the second ‘phase’ of industrial action ought to be a heightened continuation of the first, not simply a repetition of the same action.

In this HE dispute the UCU quite clearly de-escalated the struggle of its own members. One-day strikes were followed not by two-day but by two-hour strikes! Helpfully, the management at many universities decided to dock staff who walked out for those two hours a full-day’s pay anyway. At three universities in Scotland, lecturers took matters into their own hands and observed a good old-fashioned all-day strike.

Marking ban

The ban on marking during the summer university examination period follows these scaled-down strike actions. Although it’s officially an action short of a strike, UCU clearly always intended to use it as its final, most extreme measure. Back in February they described it as their “ultimate sanction”, and members were discussing it as a tactic even as far back as the first one-day strike.

In theory a marking boycott would demonstrate, beyond any other measure to this point, the indispensable value of the services HE staff provide. It could have catastrophic consequences for the university management if it is carried through successfully, throwing the entire degree award system into chaos. There could be huge repercussions for the job market, with so many graduate jobs now handed out to finals with the condition of a degree classification.

But in practice such a form of action is very difficult to organise. It relies upon the responsibility of each individual union member involved in their own separate capacity and, given the reality of how many markers are active UCU members, puts these individuals under extreme pressure in their departments. UCU has reported threats from universities that those who boycott marking will not be paid at all for the entire three month exam period. Furthermore, UCU has made clear to all its members that they should hand over the exam papers to non-striking colleagues to mark if asked by their university.

A marking boycott campaign has neither the visibility nor the unifying effect of a strike, especially, in this case, as only two of the five unions involved in the dispute can carry out this action – all the markers are in UCU and EIS. That it is short of strike action is not just a technicality; it is a lesser participatory measure.

The fact is, the UCU have arrived at this difficult choice - of whether to go ahead alone with a marking boycott or not - as a result of the mistakes of the leadership since the beginning. If the leadership had presented members with a clear fighting strategy from the start, linking the HE campaign to the struggles faced by workers in other unions and students in universities and colleges, and highlighting the need for a political programme - i.e. a socialist alternative - then UCU members would not now find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, isolated in their campaign to defend pay and conditions.

The HE pay campaign’s limitations

From the beginning, the leadership of the Higher Education campaign has been found lacking, beginning with the demands. Anyone who has been anywhere near a HE strike picket line this year will have heard about the “cost of living crisis”, the real-wage decrease of 13% over four years, and so on. But in the statements and claims union leadership has made, there isn’t much in the way of a clear demand to resolve this problem. Meanwhile, figures regarding the use of zero-hour contracts and the existence of a gender pay-gap seem merely to express the problem, not demand a solution. The latest bosses’ document from UCEA dealing with the pay dispute quite reasonably points out the lack of concrete explanations and demands in the joint unions’ claims, which, of course, the bosses are more than happy to use to their own advantage.

In terms of building, the campaign has failed to win over a super-exploited layer of sub-contracted staff who will be vital to the victory of any HE dispute in the coming years. The union leaders did not link with the 3Cosas struggle, an extremely radical, well-fought campaign of militant strike action which has seen sub-contracted migrant workers win almost all of the demands they have put forward.

These workers began in a University of London branch of UNISON but left to join the small Immigrant Workers of Great Britain union. Documents recently released by the University of London reveal that UNISON officials were colluding with management to deal with the problem of “the Spanish”, who apparently didn’t fit in with the way the union leadership liked to deal with things! These workers have proven to be an example to their comrades in larger unions, and yet their two-day strike was just a footnote in the run-up to the second one-day national strike because senior UNISON officials had effectively forced them out of the union.

These problems, coupled with the tactical shortcomings of the union leadership - which, in the case of the UCU, has backtracked inconsistently since the joint one-day strike - leave the industrial dispute hinged on the events of the next two weeks. The well-intentioned marking boycott looks now to be do-or-die, naïve short-termism: the decisive juncture at which the rewards of victory will be weighed against the costs of defeat, determined by the strength of forces which have already been mobilised. Even Unite, which stands apart from the boycott, at least directly, is choosing to frame its own negotiations within the context of it. And clearly this pressure point is all too much for the union leaders, who are already trying to pick token victories out of a defeat.

All of these limitations - the lack of clear demands; the failure to link with the most exploited and militant workers; the inconsistency in tactics - derive from a common problem: the lack of a perspective or programme from the trade union leaders, who do not make any link between the particular problems facing HE workers and the crisis of capitalism, which means that the time for real, genuine reforms is over.

Ultimately this reflects the fact that the union leaders have no confidence in the possibility of transforming society. They have accepted the capitalist system and the need for cuts that capitalism demands. Rather than raising the prospect of a militant fighting campaign, linked to the idea of a general strike and the political question of a socialist programme, the leadership instead accepts crumbs from the table and paints defeats as victories. With such a lack of confidence from the leaders, no wonder that demoralisation creeps in amongst rank-and-file members.

Lead the workers, don’t follow the bosses!

The pattern which this Higher Education dispute has followed suggests that the leaders have been looking for a way to end the dispute with the minimum of fuss all along, prioritising this keeping of the peace over the defence of their own members’ rights against the savage attacks of the bosses.

Whether the workers accept the tiny concessions on offer or not, the attacks they are experiencing on their living standards are just the beginning, while the present struggle is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the bosses are concerned. What is needed is a leadership of the labour movement capable of making bold revolutionary demands.

The Marxist Student Federation demands:

  • No to the 2% pay rise offer (a 1% real-wage shortfall); for a real living wage for ALL workers involved in the dispute, including workers currently outsourced and subcontracted
  • An end to zero-hour contracts
  • Equal pay for men and women
  • Privatisation and profit out of universities; for Higher Education to be fully under public control, run democratically by staff and students
  • For a militant struggle involving all students and workers, linked to the wider struggle of the labour movement
  • For the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control, so that the wealth in society can be used to make HE institutions function wholly for the benefit of education under socialism