Colleges and Universities on Strike

Liz Lawrence reviews the stakes and internal debates in the University and College Union (UCU) current strike action.


These notes were prepared as an intervention at an internal meeting on 9 February of the ACR comrades who are in UCU, with Liz Lawrence as an invited speaker.


UCU is taking action in the context of a current wave of industrial disputes: the cost-of-living crisis; labour shortages as a result of the pandemic and Brexit; serious understaffing and excessive workloads are major issues. This is also in the context of many workers fighting for a pay rise, the positive impact of the election of Sharon Graham as General Secretary of UNITE, a steady set of victories on pay in the private sector, and total non-credibility of the government.

We also are facing further anti-union laws and other attacks on democratic rights, as well as ongoing privatisation and marketisation of education, and the massive casualisation of the workforce in post 16 education sector, which has been ongoing for many years. Unions have taken days of strike action, in the case of the Royal College of Nurses a day of strike action for the first time, and are now wondering what to do next in terms of escalation, and it is clear in some sectors that the government is blocking negotiations. UCU faces the same issues as other trade unions in terms of how we go forward.

Congress 2017 and the USS dispute

At UCU Congress in 2017 Sally Hunt, the then General Secretary, announced plans to hire consultants to review industrial action strategies. UCU Left quickly put in a late motion for a lay commission to oversee this work, elected by and from Congress delegates. The Commission on Effective Industrial Action developed support for an industrial action strategy that the left in UCU had been arguing for, i.e. solid blocks of industrial action, not odd days of strike action here and there. This was similar to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union strategy.

It is also the case that following earlier sell-outs on pensions (accepting the move from final salary to CARE in USS) Liverpool University UCU had put a motion in 2015 for election of the USS negotiators by HE Sector Conference (pre 92 university sector delegates only, that is the ‘old Universities’ not the former polytechnic sector). This meant that from Congress 2016 we had lay USS negotiators answerable to HESC not HEC elected by HESC each year. This stops them being gagged by HEC (the Higher Education Committee of UCU). This may seem a nerdy technical issue, but I think it is important in terms of what has happened regarding the USS dispute.

UCU owes much to three elected lay negotiators—Carlo Morelli, Marion Hersh, and Deepa Driver—who have been prepared to report back openly to members, rejecting any attempt to impose “cabinet responsibility” among the negotiators or HEC. They have taken a lot of flak for that, but it is important to know in advance of planned sell-outs. So, we had a serious fight over proposed cuts to USS, including blocks of strike action and teach-outs. Between February 22 and March 20, 2018, there were 14 days of strike action. These disputes mobilised a new layer of activists in the pre-1992 university sector, many of whom are in casualised employment. It also led to the formation of the “UCU Commons” group, which supports Jo Grady.

The “Four Fights” Dispute

At one time (e.g., 2013), the right on HEC and the officials argued we could only fight one dispute at a time or had to use separate sanctions for separate disputes, this all being based on the theory of the possibility of lifting sanctions as a means of bargaining leverage. The “four fights” dispute—pay, pay equality, job security, and workloads—provided a wider basis for mobilising members. It is a well-known observation in industrial relations that industrial disputes may be about many things beyond the formal point of the dispute. We have also been “permitted” to use the same sanction for more than one dispute. In short, we have a better match of members’ discontents and the structure of our bargaining claim. There have been some attempts by the GS and others to split off the “four fights” and the USS pension disputes, but this has been resisted.

The current HEC disputes

The current disputes are the ‘4 fights’ affecting all HE and the USS pension dispute. The main issue we have been discussing in UCU Left is how to escalate. We are at a stage where employers are prepared to sit out blocks of action. The programme the HEC voted for on 24th January is more than the GS wanted and less than the left argued for, i.e., 18 days of strike action starting on 1st February.

FE – Respect FE Campaign

In the further education sector, there have been some local successes, and they are now moving towards national action. The Further Education Committee (FEC) of UCU on 25th January carried a motion to build for a nationally aggregated ballot in FE for the 2023/24 pay campaign, and there is an E-consultative ballot to run from 3rd to 24th March. The consultative ballot will revolve around the willingness to take strike action to secure an above-inflation pay rise, binding national bargaining structures, and a national workload agreement. The FESC (Further Education Sector Conference) on 1st April is to discuss the pay campaign and holding a nationally aggregated ballot.


There are 62 seats (42 HEC, 20 FEC). There are three organised groups or “factions,” IBL (Independent Broad Left), UCU Left, and UCU Commons. The IBL is the CP, the right wing of the Labour Party, and people who generally block action. The UCU Left consists of the SWP, left LP, Greens, left trade unionists who want action, etc. The UCU Commons is made up of people who support Jo Grady. Most of them are social media activists who don’t have much trade union experience.

The VP/Honorary Treasurer and NEC elections

Voting for key positions and the NEC closes on 1st March, with paper ballots by post (in line with anti-union laws). It matters who gets elected.  There is the democracy issue of whether you believe in the sovereignty of congress or not The left can get good resolutions for action through FESC, HESC etc. but without a majority on the NEC and its committees, ways are found of not implementing Congress resolutions. A member who goes to conference and votes for things which win a majority may believe it will just happen, but that, of course, leaves out the problem of bureaucracy in the trade union movement.

In the NEC election this year, the issues were very much about democracy and industrial action strategy. We have recently seen the IBL rebranding themselves as a campaign for union democracy, by which they mean plebiscites and e-ballots, which would be given equal weight with decisions taken after debate at branch meetings, the NEC, and UCU Congress. Of course, this would allow for more central bureaucratic control.


Following Liz Lawrence’s intervention, ACR members in UCU discussed the importance of working with UCU Left and also finding a way of coordinating with other comrades in other organisations to work effectively inside UCU Left. That evening, we learned that Jo Grady, the current UCU General Secretary, had agreed, without consulting with all the elected negotiators, to go to ACAS. The current strikes continue, as does the struggle for an effective strategy inside the union.

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Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

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