Have Tribune no fact-checkers?

Two incoming members of UCU’s National Executive Committee, both of them leading figures in the General Secretary’s Praetorian Guard, have written an article for Tribune, the magazine of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, on the lessons to be learned from our strikes in 2019 and 2020. The article is a factional intervention in the union’s internal debates, which is fair enough: we all get to make our case. The problem is not the faction but the facts.

The article is contradictory on the question of the responsibilities of the union’s General Secretary, and I will consider this later. For now, let’s look at the statements of fact. The authors say:

The union’s ballot results smashed its previous record [turnout] for a Four Fights-type [pay and conditions] dispute.

This may be true if we only look at UCU proper, but the union was formed by the merger of two unions, the AUT (organized in pre-92 universities) and NATFHE (organized in post-92 universities, and in Further Education). The last two ballots before merger were on pay and conditions. In 2004, the AUT balloted on pay and conditions with a turnout of 54.4%. NATFHE did not ballot nationally that year. In 2006, both unions balloted on pay and conditions in the dispute over the Framework Agreement which governs pay and conditions in Higher Education. The AUT turnout was 51%, the NATFHE 47%. The simple average of these two is 49%, which matches last year’s “record-breaking” turnout and given that the AUT had many more members in Higher Education than NATFHE, the national turnout was higher than that.

The authors criticize the decision to conduct the ballot on a disaggregated (branch-by-branch) rather than aggregated (all members in one vote) basis. The distinction is that in a disaggregated ballot every branch must reach the legal threshold of 50% turnout for a valid ballot, whereas in an aggregated ballot, the threshold is applied to the voting membership as a whole. The authors say:

The union’s campaigning took more branches than ever over the threshold – 56 in the Four Fights dispute, climbing to 69 after another equally impressive set of results in a series of re-ballots. (The previous record was 7.) But 69 was still only a minority of the branches covered by the Four Fights dispute. More than half of the employers in the union’s collective bargaining framework would face no industrial action and therefore no pressure to make the union an improved offer.

The national turnout in that ballot was 49%: if we aggregated those votes, no branch would have been able to take lawful industrial action.

After the first eight days action, the union decided to take fourteen more days in February and March this year. The authors claim (the HEC is the Higher Education Committee, the part of the National Executive which deals with Higher Education):

At this point, a number of branches called for control of the Four Fights dispute to be taken out of the HEC’s hands through a wider consultation process. But the HEC ignored their requests, opting instead to press ahead and schedule a further fourteen days of strikes.

The decision to take fourteen days of action was taken by branch delegates at a special conference in December last year:

we take 14 days of strike action (20th, 21st, 24th, 25th, 26th February; 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th March). This pattern should spread the action as evenly as possible across different days of the week, so as not to place a disproportionate burden on particular members.

I will return to the question of the arguments made by the authors, especially their incoherent view of the role of the General Secretary, after some examining and other bits of my job, but even here, there are factual errors. Just one for now, since it is important, if technical. The authors claim that the General Secretary is responsible for ensuring “that the strike fund is topped up”. Strictly, UCU does not have a “strike fund”, but a “Fighting Fund” which is used to support members on strike and to cover the other costs of industrial action such as balloting, which is a major expense. The amount of money in the Fighting Fund is set in the annual budget. The budget is drawn up by the elected national officers, is put to the National Executive Committee, and is adopted by a vote of branch delegates at the union’s annual Congress.

So much for the facts, grapplefans. Stay tuned for the next installment.

2 thoughts on “Have Tribune no fact-checkers?

  1. The Tribune piece also ignores the point that the UCU held an aggregated strike ballot earlier in the year and it failed to beat the threshold (only 41% voted, it was announced in February 2019). That followed the failure in October 2018 of a disaggregated ballot. Another failure to pass the threshold in a meaningful way would have been disastrous to credibility of UCU in terms of their ability to hold strike action (and Grady personally) – the UCU, arguably, had no choice but to go for disaggregated ballot as it would at least secure some sort of mandate for strike action (in USS institutions, at least). It was third time lucky but turned out to be a poisoned chalice. By levering in so many issues (the Four Fights + pensions) to get a workable strike mandate, the strike was never going to be settled – with institutions already under massive financial pressure, even before Covid arrive – and was doomed from the start.

    The Grady bunch has always imagined that they would have made a better fist of the 2018 strikes than Sally Hunt – they’re now trying to make excuses about what went wrong. Hunt’s experience meant she knew when to take on the more fanatical elements of her union, for whom strikes are successful regardless of the outcome because they forment that class struggle against hierarchies/capitalism which is their real (unachievable) aim. Grady had pandered to them in the election so couldn’t do that.

    Grady’s mad ideas about pension deficits being a neoliberal construct created by Tories & media (the subject of her PhD & fed by conspiracies around Jane Hutton, who has a similar view) didn’t help either; even if was true (it’s not) it would require a fundamental remaking of the UK & global pension industry to get what Hutton/Grady/Marsh wanted and sadly lots of union members deluded themselves into thinking they could reshape pension valuations to achieve this utopian idea. Any pension experts or level heads who point out their delusion are denouncing as neoliberal running dogs, feeding the ridiculous situation we have at the moment.

    Coronavirus has cancelled the UCU congress, which is a mercy for Grady and co who may have needed to face up to a year of disastrous leadership – championing an unwinnable battle with universities and USS, rejecting a decent compromise offer and costing members a lot of money.

    Liked by 1 person

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