The Pause, and UCU decision‑making

Vicky Blake writing on her blog, examines the UCU decision to halt strike action.


Source >> Vicky Blake UCU blog

What’s going on?

Step into “UCU Twitter” and other spaces since the pause in #ucuRISING strike action was announced to members on Friday evening and you quickly find confusion, worry, and attempts to piece together what is and isn’t “in rule” and lots of debate about democracy. 

As UCU Immediate Past President, I am in my fourth year of being a “UK Officer”, a team delegated some decision-making and direction by the National Executive Committee (NEC) between its meetings. I was also an “HE Officer”* for three years, finishing my term at Congress 2022. I have led both the HE UK negotiators (the JNCHES negotiation team) and the Superannuation Working Group (SWG) during my tenure as an elected officer. 

It is not always obvious where to find the relevant materials on our website, which is a long-running problem (improved by the searchable Congress motions database [here]). Here, I look at how decisions about industrial action are usually made, by whom, and why, and what is in rule, procedure, and policy. I also highlight the findings of the 2018 UCU Commission for Effective Industrial Action, which holds the status of UCU policy and therefore should inform how rules and procedures are implemented and followed. The CEIA report is worth reading in full [here]. 

We need to understand what we have usually done, and why, in order to think analytically about what is happening and what future tactics we should employ to deliver what we all need: a fair deal on pay and pensions, and decent working conditions. This is integral to what kind of union we can and need to be.

Tactics and togetherness

I have views that I will articulate later about The Pause, but for now, I will say I do not think this was the best tactical decision for this moment in time. I support member-led democracy and understand how this is finely balanced under pressure in disputes, with the need to act quickly and strategically. However, long-established procedures and policy mean we would expect the Higher Education Committee (HEC) to debate and decide whether to pause strike action at the employers’ body, UCEA’s, behest. HEC has responsibility for sensitive industrial strategy and information. That HEC was not consulted on whether to pause is the source of much current debate. The way in which the decision was communicated and lack of clarity about how it was arrived at, has exacerbated much of the confusion and worry.

We have written procedures that cover most of our negotiating and dispute processes: the law, our rules, and the approach of the CEIA. We elect negotiators to deal directly with employers’ representatives, guided by policy and supported by officials. This means negotiators usually have clear expectations about what should happen and when. Much of the last few days has been an argument over different understandings of expectations. We need to ensure that it’s easy to understand how decisions are made and by whom because the alternative risks disillusionment and disengagement when we most need to stick together to get a fair deal for us and for our students.

Union rules, the law, and delegation of authority

UCU rules [link] stipulate that our NEC has the power to authorise industrial action, which it delegates to the relevant industrial sector committees that comprise it (the HEC and, for further education, FEC). Rule 34.1 provides that:

 “the National Executive Committee has the power to authorise or endorse sanctions including industrial action, having regard to the decisions of the Sector Committees. No other body may do so unless that power has been explicitly delegated to it…”

While UCU higher education policy can only be agreed by voting outcomes at a Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC), HEC remains the only legally competent body to formally call any industrial action, even if decided in policy by HESC, unless the HEC further delegates to the HE Officers. 

The approval of local industrial action is delegated from the HEC to the HE Officers. The HEC may also decide to delegate some decisions regarding industrial action at the sectoral (“UK”) level to the HE Officers, between meetings. Examples of fairly standard delegated decisions during a sector-level dispute include deciding upon a branch’s application to vary strike dates owing to local factors such as a clash with reading weeks, or the placement of strike dates within a general pattern decided by the HEC.

Local industrial action is governed by agreed procedures [link] which stipulate that if a branch votes to take strike action and/or action short of strike (ASOS), it will need the approval of the HE Officers, with a minimum of three of the four officers in agreement (see section 8). When decisions about UK level industrial action are delegated to the four HE Officers, consistent UCU Democratic Services advice has confirmed the need to follow the same decision-making procedures as for local industrial action, i.e. three of the four must agree. This also means all four must be consulted, either through a meeting (preferred) or via alternative means of communication. I have even previously participated in an urgent HE Officer meetings from a car parked at the side of a road.

In any scenario where a significant decision about industrial action is taken by a small group with delegated authority, it naturally exposes members of this team to more individual scrutiny. This can be very difficult, especially if there are confidential issues which may not be more widely shared with members that factored into one’s decision. If it is possible, consensus of all four officers is considered optimal in these pressured circumstances. As two of the four HE Officers have confirmed that they were not consulted about the pause to strike action announced on Friday, it is clear that the usual, established procedures have not been followed. 

So who can Pause actions?

The law and UCU rules are technically silent on who may pause or cease forms of industrial action, or when an offer from an employer must be put to members for a vote. Union policy is helpful in situations not covered by a specific rule, as it would be impossible to create a set of rules that could be considered fully comprehensive. We do have established procedures and policy that affirm the HEC as the body which should usually make such decisions in an HE dispute. This supports the logical principle that the body who may call industrial action has responsibility for the prosecution of it and the associated campaign. 

The rationale of the 2018 Commission for Effective Industrial Action report [link] is instructive with regards to how we should understand established procedure. This document was presented to Congress 2018 in final form, and was reaffirmed by Congress 2022 as having the status of union policy (motion L8 – here). It makes clear that the representative body (HEC in this case) is that which members should expect to determine whether to pause action during negotiations. It is hard to see any scope for justification in this policy to pause action, as has happened in the current UK level JNCHES disputes over pay and pay-related conditions. Pay particular attention to section 2.10 of the rationale:

2.10      Providing clear direction to members

2.10.1 The Commission discussed the process by which the union makes recommendations to members about whether to initiate or continue industrial action.

2.10.2 The Commission recognises that decisions of this nature are properly a matter for the relevant representative bodies whether at local or national level. However, we believe that it is important that members know and understand the views of their elected representatives before they vote.

2.10.3 The Commission also considered the circumstances of when action might appropriately be suspended due to a new offer being put before members.  Our view is that action should continue until a point at which the representative body is recommending acceptance of an offer.

The importance of democratic accountability has long been impressed upon representatives and negotiators. In the past it has also regularly been impressed upon employers’ representatives, by UCU officials during negotiations, that any decision to pause/suspend action, or to consult on an offer would need to go through our democratic structures. Reassurance was always provided that during a dispute, emergency meetings of the HEC could be convened very quickly (as in 2018 for USS). Our ability to meet online now makes this process easier and mitigates some of the barriers to short-notice attendance. 

Uncertainty about which undefined group of officers and/or officials made the decision to pause strike action is a cause for further concern, regardless of whether one might agree with the decision. We do know that the HE Officers, who might be delegated in time-sensitive situations that render calling an HEC impossible, were not consulted as a team in line with established procedure. We also know that the full elected negotiation team was not consulted, as they have been outside the room since the cancellation of the final scheduled dispute resolution meetings, which were replaced by ACAS mediated talks. 

There are eight HE UK negotiators, also referred to as the JNCHES negotiation team. In accordance with UCU rule 16.4, and agreement of the Higher Education Sector Conference, the JNCHES negotiation team is comprised of four negotiators elected annually by Sector Conference at annual Congress, and four ex officio negotiators: the chair of HEC (i.e. Vice President or President Elect while they are Chair of HEC), the two HEC Vice Chairs elected by HEC, and the National Head of HE (a paid official). The formula that underpins this team derives from rule and policy which directs its implementation, as laid out in the annual calling notice (see here). The election of people to the role of “negotiator” implies that those people will do the negotiating and are accountable to us.

Negotiators deal with employer representatives on our behalf and report to HEC and to HE Sector Conferences. Clearly, there will be  circumstances where it is not possible or sensible to field an entire team of negotiators in a formal setting. However, our negotiators are elected to work as a team. Drawing on the whole negotiation team’s strengths and experience of previous meetings is pretty vital if we want the best deal for members. As such it would be in all our interests for the whole team to be involved in  strategy meetings ahead of negotiations, to engage with negotiators not in the formal talks in ‘side rooms’ where those team members who know the detail can be usefully engaged to check facts and figures for negotiators in the formal space, act as sounding boards, and play back potential arguments.

It is deeply concerning that a significant tactical decision has been made without appropriate democratic cover. Employers’ representatives can be relied upon to drop new tactics or offers positioned as time-limited into the fray. The decision to pause would appear to have been taken by those present in the ‘room’ for the ACAS negotiations, potentially in combination with the President (who signed the email we received on Friday). We know the full elected HE UK negotiator team was not consulted, and that the full team have not been included in any pre-ACAS strategy meetings, trade union side-rooms, despite their elected remit.

A decision to pause strike action, particularly before a revised offer is on the table, should have gone to the HEC to decide. This is union policy, and it is a logical extension of democratic principle captured in our rules: the HEC is the body with responsibility for industrial action, and a pause in notified action has an effect on our leverage from it. If this were truly impossible, at minimum the whole negotiator team ought to have been consulted, and the proposal discussed with the HE Officers acting in their delegated capacity, before a decision was made.


* The HE Officers team comprises four post-holders: 

  • President
  • The Chair of HEC – this is always the officer who is either Vice President or President Elect in a given year. They also chair the JNCHES negotiation team, and often chair the Superannuation Working Group (SWG) which includes elected USS negotiators, unless they appoint an alternate
  • The two HEC Vice Chairs, one from pre-92 and one from post-92 institutions, elected annually by HEC. 

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