The UCU and the industrial action – research and ineffective strategies

The UCU has, following a ballot on industrial action, announced that there will be a two-day strike on 25-26 May 2016, followed by “an instruction to members to work to contract with effect from 25/05/2016”.

Four years ago I had an email exchange with Matt Waddup, national head of campaigns for the University and College Union. It concerned the ‘action short of a strike’ and the problems that this caused for writing, research, and external duties of academics. You can read my original questions here; and a couple of rounds of responses here.

In the current FAQs, the only time ‘research’ is mentioned is concerning the strike day. There is nothing in the discussion of what it means to ‘work to contract’ concerning research. I find this staggering given the proportion of time, expectation and management, for a research-active academic, that concerns research. In the short-term, I really think that an academic, perhaps especially someone early career, trying to only work their contractual hours will disadvantage themselves first and foremost.

I remain unconvinced that the UCU leadership, most of whom seem to have a background in unions or further education, really understand the working life of a research-active higher education academic. This is not to denigrate further education of course, but just to suggest that there are noticeably different types of work involved between sectors.

One thing that was in the union email, but not in their press release, was this message:

Finally, outside the action,  the union will also be appealing to all members to resign, giving due notice, from currently held external examiner positions and not to take up new ones until the  dispute is settled.

I’m not quite sure how this is ‘outside the action’, but it actually sounds like the most powerful thing being proposed.

In the press release, but not in the email, was the following:

If no agreement is reached in the coming weeks, members have agreed to target further strike action in June and July, and are considering additional action in August to coincide with the release of A-level results. The union is also beginning preparations for a boycott of the setting and marking of students’ work, to begin in the autumn if an acceptable offer has still not been made.

If the union, and its members, are serious about getting employers to reopen negotiations then it is these kinds of hard-hitting action that will be needed. A full boycott of anything to do with REF or TEF might be still more effective. Otherwise we will be back to the pattern of previous action – short strike, ‘work to contract’, minor concession, suspension of action, ballot, resigned acceptance, and statu quo ante.

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