The UCU cancelling strikes has thrown up questions about the union

UCU general secretary Jo Grady looking to camera. The union has cancelled upcoming strikes
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This article was updated at 10pm on Monday 20 February to reflect an error. It previously stated that it was the Joint Expert Panel that put in place measures to cut workers’ pensions by 35%, when in fact it was the Joint Negotiating Committee. We apologise for this mistake. 

On Friday 17 February, the University and College Union (UCU) dramatically called off strikes less than 96 hours before they were due to happen. The trade union‘s members reacted – some happy, some not.

However, the move does throw up bigger questions about UCU’s decision to stop industrial action and focus on negotiating with bosses. Moreover, it also raises questions about how good for workers the results of the negotiations will be.

UCU: strikes on, strikes off

The Canary has been documenting the UCU’s actions over recent months. Tens of thousands of staff at around 150 universities have been taking industrial action. The strikes have been over:

  • Bosses cutting workers’ real-terms pay by around 25% since 2009.
  • Pension managers and bosses slashing worker pensions by around 35%.
  • Precarious working contracts, bad conditions and pay discrimination.

UCU members were set to walk out again on 21, 22, 23, 27 and 28 February, and 1 and 2 March. However, late on Friday 17 February, the union announced it had “paused” those strikes. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said in a video message that this was due to “significant progress” in talks over pay and pensions with university bosses. She further said the pause in strikes was to:

enable us to hold intensive negotiations with the aim of delivering a final agreement

Read on...

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There was already some movement from bosses over pensions. Also on 17 February (timed with the UCU strike pause announcement), bosses said that pensions might be able to go back to previous (pre-2022) levels. That is, bosses may scrap the 35% cut. It’s worth noting, though, that this does nothing for those workers who found themselves £240,000 worse off between 2011 and 2019, due to pension changes then.

The union was adamant that the reballot for further action needs to be won to make sure the UCU gets the right result in negotiations. This reballot starts on Wednesday 22 February. However, predictably, UCU bosses calling off strikes late on a Friday – when they were due to start the following Tuesday – unleashed a torrent of shit on the union and Grady from some quarters. So, let the chaos commence.


On Twitter, some people were supportive of the UCU’s decision:

However, many other people were not happy:

The blog the University Worker, which is on the website Notes From Below, perhaps summed the situation up best. It released an article titled:

Let us be crystal clear: this is shit

It picked apart each of the claims made by the UCU and Grady over where the negotiations were at and highlighted issues with all of them. For example, the UCU claimed on Twitter that it had got a “commitment” from bosses to “end all involuntary zero hours contracts”. What this actually meant was that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) was consulting with its boss-members on this. So, as the University Worker summed up:

  • This takes the massive risk of suspending strike action for 2 weeks (7 days of strike action) on the assumption that UCEA is going to compel member institutions to agree to its recommendation.
  • If UCEA now knows that paltry allusions to consulting their members on single issues can diminish the length of industrial action, they will continue to do this over every issue in the dispute.

Meanwhile, the UCU confirmed that its members would still be working to contract (action short of strikes, ASOS). That is, they shouldn’t spend the weekend of 18-19 February prepping lessons that would now be taking place because the strikes are cancelled:

However, back in the real world, some members still had criticisms:

Vote ‘yes’ in the reballot

The bigger point, though, is democracy – or the lack of it – in the UCU bosses’ decision. As the University Worker pointed out:

We voted to go on strike, we worked to get other members to vote to pass the thresholds, we organised picket lines, we raised money, and we built connections with other disputes that are ongoing. Now we’re being told we have to stop.

However, as is the case with any major trade union, change can only be won when members stick together. As the University Worker summed up, UCU members must:

Make sure the reballot is a success. Calling out the problems with the negotiations and the strategy can only be solved if we’re in the position to take more action.

So, what is clear is that UCU members need to vote ‘yes’ to more strike action in the reballot – even if they’re not happy with their union. However, this whole episode has thrown up bigger questions about UCU bosses.

UCU: an ugly aftermath?

This tactic of calling off strikes was previously called out by Grady in 2018, when she wasn’t general secretary. Now, she seems to have changed her mind. The UCU’s cancelling of strikes comes at a time when other unions are escalating their actions. The Communication Workers Union (CWU), Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) are all increasing their defence of their workers via strikes. The UCU’s decision therefore seems disjointed from the rest of the trade union movement. This is at a time when the Tories’ anti-strike bill is threatening every worker in the UK. So national trade unions should be working in sync.

Moreover, the aftertaste of UCU bosses subverting democracy via cancelling the strikes may linger. That a union can take such a drastic top-down decision is not uncommon, but it’s certainly of concern that it was done at the last minute and imposed, rather then voted on by union reps.

The hierarchical structure of the UCU needs to be seriously reviewed – given the union’s claims of representing its members and having the support of students. It remains to be seen what the outcome of these latest union talks with bosses will be. However, what the future of the UCU may look like is currently even less clear.

Featured image via the UCU – YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. Pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if Ms Grady has political ambitions, and as a result is trying to impress – or even acting on orders from – Sir Keith Starmer.

      We all know HIS position on strikes.

    2. A good point, Red Star.
      The cozy relationship between many trade union leaderships and the right-wing of Labour is a major weakness – But – Nothing new.
      Many rank-and-file trade unionists are unaware of it.
      During the Blair years (and since) many trade union positions, both elected and full-time, have been filled by right-wing careerists.
      When I held a significant elected regional TU position during the Blair years I came under enormous pressure to “deliver” my region to the Blair agenda.
      I was threatened, blackmailed and offered significant bribes to join the Blairite club.
      I told them where to get off.
      Many others “took the shilling” and remained in those gravy-train positions for many years.
      Corruption is nothing new.
      Trade unionism is nothing without rank-and-file activism.
      Educate and Organise to fight the employers.
      Otherwise we will always be on the back-foot.

    3. I think it’s a problem basing your critique on a publication like the University Worker, which I never came across in my period as Scottish President of the UCU or UK president. In the period since working hard as a local branch activist, again I’ve never heard of it. Our picket line has been really good in the circumstances, and my view is that this pause is really helpful to allow us to build up a really good reballot, and go back out on strike if necessary at a period nearer the assessments and when it’s likely to hit the management the most. I don’t think the problem lies with the General Secretary although no-ones perfect, but with a large minority (sometimes majority on the HEC) who, for instance still voted for ‘indefinite strike’ after a Branch Delegate meeting supported Jo Grady’s call for 10-11 days strikes. Unable to get the indefinite strike back on the agenda, ( they had put it there at the November HEC despite not consulting with members), they then pushed through 18 days of strikes despite what the membership clearly wanted and which was shown at the BDM. Some interesting analysis of the problems of indefinite strikes can be found at the following site:

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