Several public sector unions in the UK are currently balloting for industrial action in order to go on strike together on 30 June. The Higher Education section of the University and College Union (UCU), however, failed to link up with this movement. Does this indicate a rather economistic approach with a narrow focus on interests of members while wider societal concerns are disregarded?
From 28 to 30 May 2011, I attended the annual UCU Congress in Harrogate as a delegate of the University of Nottingham UCU branch. The government cuts and the increasing restructuring pressures on Further and Higher Education dominated the agenda. The cuts to teaching budgets of up to 80 per cent, the increase in tuition fees of up to £9000 per year as well as large-scale job losses especially in institutions of Further Education at this point in time engendered a strong sense of urgency amongst delegates. For the Higher Education section within UCU, it was the imposition of changes to the USS pension system by the employers, which was on the top of the agenda. UCU had accepted that some changes were necessary including higher contributions by employees in order to address the risks resulting from longer life expectancy as well as increasing salaries. Eventually, however, proposals by the employers and proposals by UCU went head to head and with a stalemate between the union and the employers, the ‘independent’ chair sided with the latter and forced the new scheme through on 10 May 2011. This scheme is hugely disadvantageous for new members to the profession, because the final salary scheme has now been closed for new entrants and replaced with a Career Average Revalued scheme (CARE) at less favourable terms.
The discussion at Congress was about how to respond to this imposition of changes to USS. One part of the delegates supported the proposal to have first a new ballot and then move towards further, sustained industrial action. The previous ballot in March 2011 had been won, but the turnout in that ballot would have been too low with just 36.32 per cent of members voting. If UCU wanted to change the USS pension system, more sustained action was necessary now and this would require a fresh and stronger endorsement by members. It was further argued that participating in the strike on 30 June was pointless, as this particular strike would put no pressure on employers in Higher Education. The date as such would be useless, as most of the students would have left University for the summer and many members of staff would be away on field research or take annual leave. It would simply be impossible to mobilise for a large turnout.
On the other hand, however, a group of delegates pointed to the wider implications of the cuts to USS. This should not be treated as an isolated issue. It would be part of a much larger restructuring programme. Pensions in general were under attack across the public sector and this attack was ultimately part of the much wider attack on the welfare state as a whole. In other words, the struggle would not simply be about the details of changes to USS, but about wider changes in society. Hence, it would be highly important to join other unions on 30 June in a joint struggle against the cuts and for the maintenance of the welfare state.
In the end, those supporting a new ballot and opposed to participation in industrial action on 30 June won narrowly the debate. In my view, the difficulty to mobilise members on 30 June cannot have been the main reason for opposing a strike on that day. Yes, it would have been very difficult to get a large turnout on 30 June. Many members would ask why they should lose a day's pay, when their action had no impact on the employers. At the same time, however, is it really more likely that members will vote 'yes' in a ballot, which asks them to participate in sustained industrial action, which could cost them perhaps half a month's salary? The new ballot asking for sacrifices of such a magnitude may well be lost. In short, both strategies are at least equally difficult to implement on the ground.
Hence, the reasons for that decision are of a different, more fundamental nature. First, the Higher Education section of UCU has decided to pursue what one delegate described as an 'economistic' approach, focusing narrowly on the single issue of changes to USS. The struggle against the changes imposed by the employers was not perceived to be part of a wider struggle against changes in society and the attack on the welfare state. Second, this debate raises the question of trade unions' role in society. Are they simply representing the economic interests of their particular members or do they have to engage with wider societal concerns?
At this Congress, the Higher Education section of UCU decided that it was the former, an assessment which was also confirmed by the General Secretary Sally Hunt’s address to Congress. She strongly attacked the employers and the government for their cuts to education across the board. When she spoke about the strategies of resistance, however, she focused on increasing legal services to members, faced with redundancy, and even spoke about the inevitable move towards local bargaining as a result of deregulation in Higher Education. There was no reference to larger joint actions with other trade unions against the cuts in general.
While service provision to members is essential for every trade union, if it becomes the main focus of strategy, then it reflects an economistic trade union approach. What this position overlooks is that positive policies for members can only be pushed through, if the general climate in wider society is favourable. A narrow focus on USS will not achieve this. The fact that the decision against industrial action on 30 June was taken only by a narrow margin indicates that the struggle over the future direction of the union will continue.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab
31 May 2011