A rebuttal of How to Stop a University by Zara Dinnen and James Eastwood in relation to the UCURising campaign and the debate on strike action.
I have been Cambridge University UCU Branch President for two years but am writing this in a personal capacity. I am not affiliated to any of the union’s political factions or groups.
The article’s title, How to Stop a University, sets it up with a misleading premise. It does not show how any university can be stopped, or even define what this means. If what is meant is to ‘close’ the university, then unfortunately no amount of industrial action by UCU alone can achieve this end. Instead of talking about stopping or closing a university, we should be talking about how to win the campaign — and how we do that whilst protecting our members — and students — from harm in the process. The essay, like so may others in favour of indefinite action, seems to see the action as an end in itself, losing sight of the fact that we should be doing everything we can to win the campaign without exposing our long suffering membership and students to further hardship, or taking their support for granted in such an endeavour.
The nature of university work
The main point that needs to be made here is what is absent from the essay — the members. The union is there as a collective body to campaign and protect the interests of its members. The members set the direction of travel in any campaign by expressing their democratic intent. But even when action has a broad mandate, support should not be taken as given and the concerns of the wider membership still need to be represented and addressed. Indefinite action may mean that rescheduling and crisis planning by management cannot take place — but it also means that members are unable to budget to support the action. Rather than being able to decide for themselves, in an informed manner, how and when they can support the action, that decision is removed and they are regarded as a homogenous block that will support the action through loyalty to union, comrades and the industry, rather than individuals who have to put food on the table and heat their homes in the middle of an unprecedented financial crisis.
Members also feel loyalty and responsibility to their friends and colleagues and the students. Their colleagues are also suffering under the same pay and conditions but for whatever reason may not be members or support the strike. Indefinite action only increases their workloads and stress, and members will feel responsible for that — even if the blame lies squarely with management. The way that action has been structured before, to escalate over a period of weeks does cause disruption that can be addressed later whilst indefinite action may not. But we need to remember that this does not impact university income — it does impact the lives and careers of the students. Student support for the industrial action should not be taken for granted either.
The university will not stop. UCU does not have the coverage even within individual universities to effectively close them down, even if every member in those branches came out on strike. We won a massive ballot — but don’t forget the incredible effort that took in every branch, and the simple fact that we won’t even get every member who voted for action on the picket. Teaching and admin will continue. In collegiate universities like mine, a large proportion of teaching will go on as the colleges aren’t on strike and the supervision system depends on a non-unionised gig economy. The point is we don’t have to stop the university to be effective. The 2018 strikes were a win. The disruption may have been minimal but the real power comes from reputational damage to the university — and the threat of an effective and well-timed marking and assessment boycott (MAB).
Control over the dispute
The control over an indefinite action lies with the members, this cannot be denied. However, rather than calling off the action with a ballot as we have seen with sister unions it will simply die as more and more members simply cannot afford to lose more pay. That is not control. And it is not ending the action from a position of strength. That is what losing looks like. And not just the campaign, but the union.
If we intend to use indefinite action to impose fear and as a negotiating tool, then we need to give time for those negotiations to continue — time that branches can use to build the fighting fund, build the branch membership and secure wider support for action when it is called.
The very fact that this debate is happening at all should be cautionary to those pushing for indefinite action now. Why would we use our weapon of last resort immediately? I know war analogies are not popular, but to quote Sun Tzu, “Victorious warriors win first and go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and seek to win.” This is our weapon of last resort not solely because of the potential continued disruption to our employers but because this also causes the most damage to our own members and students.
Employers are not concerned about the difficulty in getting staff back to work. They will be counting on staff voting with their feet. Indefinite action will limit participation from the start, and with no end in sight it will dissipate quickly. Management know this. Many branches, my own included, did not support action before xmas. Nevertheless, once the decision was taken officers and activists worked around the clock to make it a success. It was exhausting — also considering that in the background the ordinary work of the union did not stop. If the indefinite action goes ahead, then the branch will again be working non-stop to try and garner support for continuing the action whilst at the same time organising another Get the Vote Out (GTVO) campaign for the re-ballot. The pressure will not be on management — it will be on the union infrastructure itself.
Workers will not remain at their strongest potential until the end. They will be at their poorest, coldest, hungriest and with no end in sight will simply make the easy decision to cross the picket. And that may happen sooner rather than later, the action failing before any ‘tactical’ pause in action can be called or claimed.
The timing is not good — perhaps again the timing of the ballot was imposed on the union without properly considering the strategic implications for the campaign. We know the most effective tool we have is a summer MAB. This is what really concerns management and is more disruptive than any strike action. We ‘ve seen more recently that the most disruptive action was to encourage staff to refuse second marking duties in solidarity with our campaign — which left department heads scrambling to re-write rules on matriculation.
Timing can be used to the best advantage too. The suggested phased action has been scheduled to be as effective as possible, avoiding reading weeks and trying to ensure that the deductions aren’t all made in the same month. Phased action of this type isn’t just to disrupt, as any action we take is limited in scope given our low coverage, but to build morale and the campaign, to organise and maintain student goodwill which cannot and must not be taken for granted.
There is a mathematical difference between 100% deductions from February to deductions lost from phased strike days and possible lockouts at the end of the academic year.
Rather than having an impoverished and strike-weary membership reballoting for continuing the mandate, why not have members ready to continue the action emboldened by picket-line morale? Why push for the extreme action now and put the possibility of winning the re-ballot under threat as support diminishes? Let’s not forget that the actual action should not be the weapon, but the threat of that action. That means that the current debate over phased vs indefinite action is a side-show — what really matters is winning the re-ballot for that MAB. That is the kind of real pressure that we can bring to the negotiating table. What our members want, what our students want (right now anyway) is for us to win the dispute without having to go through with the action. And that is something that the essay seems to forget, as if the action was an end in itself, when really anyone concerned for the welfare of our members should be doing everything they can to ensure that the action is never called.
How we best apply pressure before April is by maintaining maximum support from members and students, demonstrating the strength and resilience within the campaign and showing management that we can win the re-ballot and the threat of the MAB is real. One aspect of the targetting and timing reasoning proposed in the essay is as outlined in paragraph 20, copied below:
Starting from the position that we want to use the historic mandate we have to best advantage, the next question is how best to apply pressure before April. This requires an analysis of the distribution of work across the academic year. Anyone involved with teaching knows that the most important, essential content is always delivered early in a semester. Independent study also becomes more feasible once essential content has been delivered. If a course is affected by strike action, it is likely that later more advanced or detailed topics would be sacrificed to deliver the essential content missed earlier in the programme. Any university worker knows that student attendance and engagement is also highest at the beginning of a semester, and that key administrative, funding and planning deadlines come early in the semester. Later weeks will still be important, but they will likely build on teaching, and administrative processes, that have already taken place.
What is being targeted here isn’t the running of the university or causing disruption to management — but it is deliberately targeting the quality of the students’ education. Our dispute is with the management, not the students, and to be frank I find that proposition quite shocking. When it talks of ‘value’ of the lost work, we should remember that this is value to the students, not to the university and cannot be equated with monetary value.
The section on money starts by not talking about money, but tries to argue that indefinite action is not indefinite and is likely to be shorter than phased action as it is more effective. However there is nothing to demonstrate that such action is more effective. We simply have no idea whether it will be effective or not or even how well it will be supported by the members. We have branches now mandated to strike who have never striked before in ‘living memory’, branches where coverage is tiny. We aren’t talking about individuals deciding not to strike, but the possibility of whole branches breaking the mandate. Solidarity is not a given and once again, cannot be taken for granted. Nor can we criticise those members and branches for being forced (yes, forced) into that position.
Not only does the essay assume that the union is solid and homogenous, it also assumes the same of UCEA. UCEA is very far from united and fractured along easily definable lines — red brick post-92s vs Russell Group. It is tempting to think that the smaller institutions would be more easily influenced by indefinite action and so bring pressure to the group — but here our membership is on the whole very low and inexperienced where larger campaigns are concerned. It’s the Russell Group that are afraid of the summer MAB — they aren’t concerned with the limited disruption of any strike action.
Again — 100% deductions for an indefinite period from day one are completely different from escalating phased action that can be budgeted and timed to the extent that any deductions do not fall all in the same month. Inventive wage sharing schemes involve members not taking action but donating pay, and whilst individual branches may be able to secure donations, it might not follow when all the institutions are in the same boat. Strike pay is limited with most members being entitled to £50 a day — payable only on presentation of their payslip showing the deduction. Cambridge has its own hardship fund and we are able to short-circuit the national system to an extent — but not every branch is able to do this, meaning those deductions will impact staff immediately and potentially for months before any strike pay is received. I myself benefitted from our local hardship fund in 2018 when my department refused to honour the VC’s commitment to phase strike deductions — it paid my rent that month.
Indefinite strike action is not new, and some of our sister unions have used it either in actuality or as a threat to win campaigns. However those examples cited have much more coverage than UCU does either locally or nationally. Unite can stop the buses because of the percentage of staff that are members and support the action — not to mention the resources of the biggest union in the country. UCU can’t close a university.
Indefinite strike action makes the most of our structural power as workers. This is true. But we have to acknowledge what that structural power actually is, how it is limited, what the most effective use of our power actually is — and how we achieve our aims with the least hardship for our members and students. The pinch points identified in the essay that it wants to exploit aren’t things that affect the university establishment or management in any way, but do the most damage to our students’ education. Indefinite action gives control of the dispute to the management, who can just wait until the strikers vote with their feet and walk back into work.
With the strength of the mandate, now is not the time to waste the efforts that we took to get where we are. We need a coherent strategy to win the campaign, not the strike, and we need to see that strike action or a MAB is not an end itself. We use these tools most effectively by deploying the threat of action in negotiations, and by having a considered, properly-planned campaign of escalating action through which we can demonstrate to management that we will win the re-ballot and morale will be strong.
We are here until we win — not until the campaign collapses because our members can no longer afford to strike.