A consultation denied? Has UCU delivered what the members wanted?
In an online survey at the end of March 2023, an undeniably overwhelming majority of UCU higher education members who took part expressed their combined desire for a formal consultation in both of the ongoing disputes — 4 Fights pay and conditions with UCEA, and the USS pensions with UUK. The result on USS was mirrored in the weighted results of the branch delegates meeting (BDM) — though on 4 Fights there was an even split. Subsequently, Higher Education Committee (HEC) decided to accede to the members’ wishes.
At least, that is what we thought.
What we were presented with was something far different from our expectations.
It became clear after the HEC meeting that there had been serious problems in even securing any kind of consultation, as some reps resolutely voted as a block to deny the membership any say. A compromise however was eventually reached so that consultation would go ahead. The e-ballot would be accompanied with reports from the negotiators, and there would be a recommendation on each dispute — to reject the UCEA proposal on 4 Fights, and to vote to note the USS proposal on pensions.
Vote to Note?
There was immediate confusion over what note would mean. Reps and members on different sides of the argument interpreted it in different ways, one even declaring that note = reject.
Frustrated by the lack of clarity, I asked Chat GPT.
In a trade union ballot, a vote of ‘note’ usually means that the voter is not indicating support for any particular option or candidate but is instead registering a preference for the union to take some kind of action or make a statement regarding a specific issue. Essentially, it is a way for members to express their opinion without necessarily endorsing a specific course of action or candidate.
The exact meaning of a vote of ‘note’ may vary depending on the specific rules and procedures of the trade union in question, so it is important to consult the union’s constitution or guidelines to understand the exact implications of such a vote in a given context.
What we have in effect is either a vote to reject completely — which implies continuing or escalating industrial action — or a vote to… do what? If the result of the consultation is another HEC meeting where action could be escalated even if the majority view is note, then what is the point of the consultation? Is note truly and opposing view to reject — or just a softened version of it?
What are we being asked?
When we look at the questions that have been presented, we have to wonder how they were constructed and to what end. The level of obfuscation in these questions could be seen as another attempt to deny any proper consultation.
First, the question on pay and conditions (4 Fights).
1. Do you wish to NOTE or REJECT the proposals agreed between the joint trade unions and UCEA at ACAS?
Compare this to the original e-survey question:
Do you support UCU members being formally consulted on the proposals that have been reached with UCEA on pay, ending zero-hour contracts, workloads, casualisation and closing equality pay gaps?
The e-ballot question is not immediately clear and is based on a lot of assumed knowledge about the workings of the campaign to date. How many members are aware that UCU is one of five unions in the negotiations? Outside of branch officers and activists, what proportion know what ACAS is, that they were involved, and what the content of the negotiations was? There is no immediate explanation of what note means in this context, and for many members it may be the first time they have ever encountered this option on a ballot. The option to accept does not appear.
Secondly, the question on the USS Pension dispute.
2. Do you wish to NOTE or REJECT continuing joint work with UUK?
Again, compare this to the original question posed:
Do you support UCU members being formally consulted over the proposals that have been reached with UUK to restore benefits and lower pension contributions?
This question doesn’t even mention that it is about pensions! There is no distinction here between ‘continuing joint work’ — such as the previously hard-won joint negotiations — and the content of the proposals before us. In fact, it makes no reference to this particular dispute.
How many members will bother to click through the links to find out what is going on here if they don’t know already? How many will vote if they can’t see any substantial difference in the options being offered — and HEC could override a vote of note in either dispute?
On USS there are only two options, with no opportunity to accept, and again no explicit commitment on how a vote of note will be interpreted. Members have been denied any say in standing-down the action on USS, even though the majority opinion of the negotiators is that any further action at this point would be fruitless, as substantial progress has been made and the re-evaluation process must take its course.
What is a consultation anyway?
For a time on Twitter it seemed that some were arguing that there should have been no more than one option on the ballot. That would be to vote Reject, or to not vote at all, which would be a strange consultation indeed.
There are understandable arguments for why accept was not a possible option — there is not enough on offer in either dispute to warrant ending the disputes, and keeping them open allows the option to initiate further action in short order in the additional six months secured by the re-ballot. The pay offer was already previously rejected by the union and that was backed up with an informal survey. There is also the possibility that allowing two options in opposition to reject, effectively splitting the vote — would give a minority win to reject.
However, the uncertainty that note brings will be unsettling for those members — and branches — who feel that there is simply nothing more to be gained on USS by further action and want to stand down now.
On pay, despite the previous rejection, there may be many members, especially in smaller institutions, who feel that there is no realistic way forward here either — as pushing UCEA into recommending a higher offer may have actual negative effects locally. At the same time, there is growing support within UCEA members to opt out of national pay bargaining altogether, and this aggregated action may well be the impetus they need to push that agenda forward.
It’s clear that the membership wanted to be consulted — and equally clear that elements within the HEC wanted to stop that from happening. Though a consultation was initiated, no real say or control is being given to members who, being denied the opportunity to accept in either dispute, must take on trust that a vote of note will respected in opposition to and distinct from one of reject.