Published: 24th February, 2019
Members will no doubt have heard the news about the outcome of the pay-and-equality ballot. Although 70% of those members who voted in England, Scotland & Wales backed strike action and 81% voted for action short of a strike, the turnout was only 41%, falling short of the 50% legal threshold. In Northern Ireland, where this threshold does not apply, 68% backed strike action and 82% backed action short of a strike.
We do not have a breakdown of the results by branch – nor by any other demographic, such as age, contract type or gender – but we are confident that at University of Leicester more than 50% of members did vote. (We know this because we asked you to tell us when you had voted and more than half of you told us you had. Previous surveys at Leicester during dis-aggregated ballots have proven extremely accurate.)
We are obviously very disappointed by these results, both the failure to reach the threshold at national level and that the turnout at our institution was not higher – 55% voted in the ballot for strike action against compulsory redundancies that took place over just three weeks in August 2018, for instance.
Debate is already raging on social media over the reasons for the insufficiently high turnout. We make just three comments here.
First, we think that too much emphasis was put on the ‘pay’ part of the campaign – not enough on our demands for greater security for all staff (against casualisation), gender equality (close the gender pay gap) and sustainable workloads (too many of us have excessive workloads). Even national UCU, in its tweet announcing the result, referred to it as an ‘HE pay ballot’!
Second, some members suggested to us that now is not the time to be threatening strike action in universities, what with so many Brexit-related uncertainties. Our response to this – in brief – is that it’s difficult to foresee a time when timing might be better. Brexit-related uncertainty will not end on March 29 and Brexit-related instability may well continue for several years, perhaps even a decade or more. We do not think we can wait that long to address such important problems to our members – and indeed to our sector as a whole – as the gender pay gap, stagnant pay more generally, precarity, and dangerously high and rising workloads. Moreover, if the ‘experts’ are right – the architects of ‘project fear’ – then the UK’s exit from the EU will cause significant economic problems, which will fall most heavily on poorer members of society. Brexit is also likely to have a gendered impact – this is not certain, of course, but it is well-established that the past decade of austerity has hit women harder than men. If these dire predictions are correct then it would seem more important than ever to take action as a union that will mitigate these effects. In Primo Levi’s words, ‘If not now, when?’
Finally, a few members have expressed frustration at the ‘excessive’ number of emails received from UCU about the ballot; some have suggested that communication ‘overload’ prompted members to block emails from UCU, to refuse to vote and even to leave the union. Whilst we appreciate that receiving lots of emails can be irritating, we’re puzzled that some people would be so piqued that they would not vote. Against this complaint, other members have told us they appreciate receiving our messages and reminders. We’d be interested to hear further views on how we might better communicate our message.
At University of Leicester, we suffer all of the problems that this ballot for strike action was addressing. As we explained here the gender pay gap at our institution is 14th worst in the UK, half of all academics are on insecure contracts and a quarter of us have reported workloads that are ‘unmanageable most of the time’. Clearly we will not be taking national-level industrial action on these issues this year. But Leicester UCU will continue will campaign on them to the best of our ability.