Members may already have seen the result of our national postal ballot over pay.
61.9% of members who voted, voted to reject the 2.0% pay offer and were prepared to take strike action, but the turnout of 31.0% falls short of what is required to take the campaign further.
We are very pleased that a clear majority of members voted in accordance with the national recommendation, endorsed by our branch, that we should firmly reject a below-inflation increase, since it represents a real-terms pay cut.
Normally, we would now be preparing for action and coordinating with UCU and other unions to make the action as effective as possible.
Unfortunately, the viciously anti-democratic Trade Union Act says that a 50% turnout in a strike ballot is required for the legal strike action to take place. All other democratic votes stipulate no such restrictions, but combined with 20th century rules on postal-only balloting, these regulations are specifically designed to make it as difficult as possible for trade-unionists to organise, particularly in relation to effective strike action.
Many of our members and activists will, quite correctly, be angry and frustrated at this outcome. For years we have seen our wages fall back in real terms and every year, we aim to campaign for a real-terms increase with an element of catch-up to bring us back to where we should be. Even at universities where employers have agreed to pay the real living wage, many of our members are struggling to afford even the essentials.
For many of us, it felt like this year would be different. With ballots timed to match those of UCU and campaigning material produced and distributed to branches, it looked like we were better prepared to deliver a significant result which could have breached the 50% turnout threshold.
Whilst many activists thought that a 50% turnout represented a significant challenge, that didn’t stop the most active branches and activists from campaigning to reach it. At Brighton we visited most workplaces with leaflets and emphasised over and over again how members need to make sure their vote is returned, by post, before the deadline. We produced one regional newsletter and a guide to voting. We also contacted many of our members by phone, at work, to check that they had voted and guide them to do so if they hadn’t.
Since we don’t have a regional or institutional breakdown of votes (we’re trying to establish if we can get that), we don’t know how successful our campaign at Brighton has been. What’s clear is that there is an enormous amount of work to do on a national basis if we are to attempt the same project next year. Whilst Labour have promised to repeal the Trade Union Act, it would seem that if the Act is still in place next year, we would be best advised to ballot on the basis of a disaggregate ballot, which would mean that if we achieved 50% at an individual university (as opposed to nationally) then this would allow local strike action to take place, which could still be coordinated with UCU and other unions.
Whilst moving away from national action, albeit as a result of adopting a pragmatic approach, may not be ideal (and debates over different tactics to use will continue), it would at least give us some options if we are to do what trade unions should be doing, and deliver meaningful increases to pay and pensions for our members from the autumn of 2019.
We’d like to thank all our members who played a part in this campaign, even if their only contribution was to make sure that they voted! We know that many of our members went further than that and encouraged others to do so. Many activists gave up their time and energy for the benefit of all, in the best traditions of trade-unionism.
We talked to many people over the last six weeks. Our branch has clearly been strengthened as a result of the campaign, even if the outcome is not what we would have liked.
The result represents a setback which the higher education service group of UNISON and the trade union movement has to learn from. It will be necessary to discuss and debate the way forward and draw up plans for delivering the best possible outcome for our members in the future.
Despite our disappointment, we will continue to campaign for the best possible working conditions for all our members, whilst laying the groundwork for the pay campaign of 2019.