Last week, almost 20 UCU branches began a marking and assessment boycott. University bosses have retaliated with job cuts and lockouts of workers at several universities. Members need fighting leadership more than ever.

Last week, almost 20 UCU branches began a marking and assessment boycott. University bosses have retaliated with job cuts and lockouts of workers at several universities. Members need fighting leadership more than ever.

On Monday 23 May, 20 University and College Union (UCU) branches began a marking and assessment boycott in UCU’s national disputes over pensions, pay, and conditions. 

More than 40 branches currently hold a mandate for a marking boycott and ten days of strike action. However, around half of the branches with a mandate pulled out of the boycott at the last minute.

This is due to timidity and vacillation from the top of the union, which comes at a time when employers are escalating their attacks with redundancies and lockouts of workers. Members deserve a militant fightback more than ever.

Boycott

The marking and assessment boycott comes after months of debate over strategy. During such discussions, the boycott was often presented as an alternative to strike action: one that would finally break through the intransigence of the employers.

After an incredibly short and intense ballot and reballot campaign last winter, almost 70 branches were ready to go on strike.

The union was therefore in a strong position to call a boycott and strike action as early as January. However, the union leadership instead used the promise of reballoting for ‘effective and creative action’ during the summer as a means of pouring cold water on the idea of effective strike action at the start of the year. 

As such, the mandate ran out in May with little to show for it, and both disputes lost momentum.

Consequently, although the latest ballot saw some of the biggest branches in the union passing the threshold for legal strike action, fewer branches overall managed to make it over the Tories’ anti-trade union barriers. 

This number was further reduced due to a deadlock on the union’s Higher Education Committee, which delayed the authorisation of the action. Added to this was heavy lobbying by the general secretary to put the dispute on pause until 2023.

As such, members found that not only was there no plan to actually make the boycott work, but delays meant that many branches which had a mandate had already completed their marking and therefore could not take effective action. 

It is no surprise so many branches have withdrawn from participating, given that the national leadership showed no interest in leading the fight forward. The leadership even encouraged branch committees to essentially sow doubt about the boycott amongst their members.

Lockouts

Taking advantage of this confusion and demoralisation, university bosses have shown no hesitation in upping their attacks on workers.

The University of Roehampton has announced a ‘strategic realignment’, threatening to fire and rehire 226 of their academic staff, alongside making 64 full-time posts redundant.

Similarly, management at De Montfort University announced the prospect of 58 compulsory redundancies as part of a new restructuring programme, while the University of Wolverhampton said they plan to stop enrolling students on more than 100 courses, threatening around 500 jobs.

Across the board, bosses have banded together to try and break the resolve of the few branches fighting on. They have threatened 100% deductions of staff pay for anyone participating in the marking and assessment boycott – what some activists are rightly terming lockouts.

Such harsh measures have been announced at Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Ulster, and the University of Arts London. While the UCU leadership have prevaricated over going on the offensive, the bosses have shown no such hesitation.

Solidarity

In the absence of a fighting national leadership, grassroots members have taken things into their own hands. For instance, a ‘twinning’ campaign aims to build solidarity between branches and strengthen the hardship fund. 

Given the faltering national campaign, union reps across the country have proposed to enter local negotiations in order to implement some of the national demands. These include concessions on minimum contracts, as well as winning back-dated pay rises or one-off bonuses. 

Some branches have also voted to keep the ten days of strike action in reserve to target the start of the next academic year in September, in the hope of winning local concessions until then. 

The current wins at Durham University and the University of Cardiff, for example, show that – even with a reduced mandate – some concessions can be won. While this is less than members deserve, these struggles have our full solidarity.

But it is an absolute indictment on the leadership of the union that – at the end of a courageous four-year campaign, where members have sacrificed over 45 days of pay for strike action – what we are left with is branches scrambling to salvage any kind of local concession.

The problem throughout these disputes has not been the lack of resolve from members. Frankly, it has been the timid strategy of the leadership that has led to many members becoming demoralised.

Leadership

Through the marketisation of higher education, jobs, pay, and conditions in this once prestigious sector have been eroded. And the crisis of capitalism means the bosses are increasingly squeezing workers to maintain their profits. 

This explains the intransigence of the employers. Ultimately, they are class enemies – not mistaken friends to be reasoned with.

This is why we need a leadership that aims not simply to win a seat at the table, but actual demands, with a fighting industrial strategy, and that is unafraid of bold tactics such as indefinite action

We need a leadership that has full confidence and trust in its members, and that is committed to rank-and-file democracy.

We need a leadership willing to link up to the wider trade union movement, and to broaden our struggle into a fight against the Tories and the capitalist system they defend.

In order to achieve this, we must build up the forces of Marixsm in the union – those who are fighting to transform UCU into a democratic, militant union – and build the class-struggle leadership we deserve.

This is exactly what we’re doing in UCU Marxists and in Socialist Appeal. We urge UCU members to join us in this task.

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