Saturday, 14 June 2014

Higher Ed members break pay freeze with a two percent deal

Activists continued to pressure employers during talks
Unison members in Higher Education have won a two percent pay rise for 2014 as a result of our long-running dispute. 

We rejected last year's offer of one per cent and took three days national strike action in coordination with our sister unions in the sector. 

As we examine the balance sheet of our dispute we need to remember the context: the government-imposed pay freeze across the public sector and Health workers are facing zero percent. 

Whilst two percent is below RPI (approx. 2.5% at time of the final offer) it is also above CPI, the employers' preferred measure (1.6%). The pay freeze was broken despite efforts of those who tried to undermine our dispute. 

There were those who did not believe we could win, who had not faith in our members' willingness to stand up and be counted, and they mistook their own feebleness for weakness across the sector. 

They repeatedly claimed we would lose members over these unpopular strikes. The truth is our sector grew faster than ever before during the dispute. 

There are those who do not believe we can take meaningful strike action because our density is too low, in a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and pessimism. We have shown we can still take action and have an impact even when our density leaves much to be desired in some areas. 

Those same pessimists argued to call off further action until we had consulted further with members, which weakened our side at a critical time when the UCU was about to start their marking boycott. We should have been threatening action of our own and supported them. The employers then made an offer calculated to be just enough to buy off the dispute when we were looking hesitant. 

Those of us on the left had argued for escalating the action earlier, coordinating with other unions beyond our sector, and for the UCU to begin action short of a strike earlier. 

The tactic of the 'broad left' in UCU, however, was to string the dispute out on a 'slow burner'. 

This had a demoralising effect with long gaps between strike days action - they even de-escalated the action with two hour strikes in the UCU - and support predictably started to wane. This tactic of delay scuppered the chance to win a greater pay rise earlier. 

The tussle within the leadership of UNISON and UCU over these differing positions shows the need not only to win seats on the executives for the left, but demand greater accountability of exec members. For example, some members of the HE SGE voted against strike action every time and yet were able to claim in their election manifestos that they supported the strikes.

We should ensure we on the left publish how we vote, explain and debate openly our strategies whenever possible and expose those who continue to hold us back. We should be less fearful of being accused of undermining 'collective responsibility' when our own positions were undermined repeatedly by undemocratic maneuvering on the right. 

And we need to build on the networks and strengthen the relationships between activists who are loosely on the left who have taken action together over the last year. We need better forums for debating these tactics.

In the end a two percent settlement falls well short of catching up with the cost of living over five years of frozen pay, and the tactic of delaying and then downplaying the strength of our actions has frustrated our attempts to win an outright victory. 

However at the same time we cannot underestimate the importance of what this dispute demonstrates: we were right to make a stand on pay and we have been vindicated taking a bold lead. In doing so we have broken the pay freeze, setting a marker down for next year and for other service groups to build on our modest success. 

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