Earlier this week Jack Grove contacted me with a series of questions to help with a piece he is writing for Times Higher Education (THE). I think it’s important when we provide content for publications that are paywalled that we also share those words on a freely accessible platform. With that in mind, I publish below my answers to Jack.

Broad issues enquired about: April 2018 ballot and No Detriment – JEP and possibility of further strikes –  My election to NEC – My affiliations – GS election – My current research.

April 2018 ballot and the feasibility of ‘No Detriment’

Reasonable arguments were made on both sides of the debate over the April ballot to end USSstrike action and set up the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). I thought that the JEP itself was an excellent idea, but I voted ‘no’ because at that time we had the upper hand over our employers, and continuing to threaten further strike action would have won even more concessions on top of the JEP. But in order to explain what I would do differently as GS in a dispute like this, it’s worth stepping back and considering what happened before the ballot period, and where we have ended up since the JEP reported.

When you’re negotiating with employers in an industrial dispute, you owe it to your members to be honest and transparent about what you consider possible. When you reach the sharp end of negotiations, you may have to reach a compromise of some sort with employers. But before then, you need to build a sense of confidence and optimism about what can be achieved if members go on strike. Here’s an example: we know that if the JEP’s recommendations are applied to a 2018 valuation, USS is not in deficit and no detrimental changes (#NoDetriment) are needed. But this is not really new information. UCU’s actuarial advisers, First Actuarial, were saying this in September 2017, before the strike ballot had even started. We had an expert opinion in favour of No Detriment in our pocket from the start, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned in an all-member email. Clearly now the JEP have endorsed this, the official ‘No Detriment’ position of UCU is even stronger.

Equally, we didn’t do enough to communicate to members the fact that USS had deemed all employers to be able to increase their contributions from 18% to 25% for the duration of the valuation cycle. This is why I called for us to demand increases of up to 6.9% in order to protect benefits in my brief about the April ballot decision. If we had started with this as our negotiating position and said so to members, I think we could have won much more. We still would have needed the JEP, in order to fix the valuation and place USS on a firmer long-term footing. But we could have forced employers to cover most, if not all, of the interim contribution increases which we are now facing thanks to USS’s stubbornness. Alternatively, we could have forced employers to repay the strike deductions. As soon as they offered us the 12 March Acas deal, employers were admitting that their proposal to end Defined Benefit was unnecessary. By offering us the JEP, they were admitting that they might have been completely wrong about the unaffordability of USS. By agreeing with the JEP’s recommendations now, they are admitting that there was no need to cut our benefits. We should hold them to account for that, and the damage they did by forcing us to go on strike. We had plenty of time to press employers for an even better offer during the Easter vacation, before the next wave of strikes was due to start. So when I voted to stay on strike in April, I wasn’t voting against the JEP; I was voting to make our employers back up their words with meaningful actions, and start to repair the damage they had done.

JEP and the possibility of further strikes

The JEP vindicated the UCU strike action. We managed to move the narrative about USS significantly during our 14-day strike. The strike demonstrated that all was not well with UUK, and perhaps even less well at USS. Our employers either lacked the political nous to see what was evident to UCU members, or they were happy to see our pension scheme downgraded on false premises. Either way, they must now demonstrate a commitment to helping us maintain it. And that may mean helping us take on the USS executive. Thus, our disputedespite the publication of the JEPis still very much about the extent to which our employers are willing to stand with us and protect our Scheme from its own managers. The JEP has been very important, but it will once again be members and the union leadership who apply the pressure needed for change with our employers. This time around we have a joint union and employer backed document (the JEP) that demonstrates there is no need for detrimental changes to our scheme, but unlike 2017/18, when UUK voted to downgrade USS from DB to DC, in any future discussion UUK must not just vote with us on the JNC, but this must also be backed by tangible employer support and action if required.

We must remember that the Joint Expert Panel was established as a result of a ballot to cease industrial action whilst we seek solutions. The Joint Expert Panel’s first report sought to avoid further industrial action. It is very frustrating that the actions of USS may provoke further action. If we do end up in a ballot situation, and Bill Galvin is still Chief Executive of USS, I would hope UUK and our employers ask questions about decision-making by those within USS, and also consider calling for resignations. Furthermore, if we do ballot and see any future strike over USS we must ensure the long-term and short-term interests of members are secured during that action, and fight to implement phase 2 of the JEP as well as limiting any short-term contribution increases/benefit cuts. As such UCU policy should not just be ‘no detriment’ (which it currently is) because there is no deficit, but also reform of USS. This would involve making structures of accountability and transparency to ensure we do not end up in this situation again.

My election to the NEC

I remain really pleased and honoured that I was elected to the UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) and with such an overwhelming majority and endorsement from those who voted. Additionally, the 14% turnout was significantly higher than in 2018, when it was 9.7%. I think this shows that when you engage with people directly, and on issues that matter, then people are willing to vote. I won far more first preferences than the second-placed candidate (3843 to 2134). My second preference votes were quite evenly distributed amongst the remaining candidates, which suggests I have broad appeal across the UCU membership. I think the reason for this is because I ran on a strong platform, that highlighted my expertise, and how this would be practically applied if I was elected. I want to see more people like me, who are committed branch activists and all the experience that brings, coming forward and standing for national roles. I think to many members it is a mystery what happens at the NECthis was certainly the case last year for many in HE and involved in the USSstrike. It would be good to avoid a situation like the mass demonstration outside Carlow Street again, and I think making the business of the NEC (and its subsidiary committees) transparent and therefore our committees more accountable to the membership, would be helpful in this regard.

My affiliations

I confess when it comes to affiliations and membership the track record from my early years is a little embarrassing. When I was younger I was a card carrying member of the Beano fan club, though I let this membership lapse circa age 9, and I have dabbled in the Sheffield Wednesday supporter club (though to my shame this has always been transactional, and purely to build up points for away games). At other times I have been a season-ticket holder, but sadly in recent years this has been a labour of love, and not to watch the quality of football on display at Hillsborough. I have a string of academic and professional memberships including: British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA), British Sociological Association (BSA), and Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD). Politically speaking, I am also a member of the Labour Party, though sadly the demands of my job and my considerable union work prevent me from being as actively involved as I would like. I am not a member of any other political group, nor any community or political groups that support or affiliate to Labour, such as Momentum, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Socialist Workers Party (SWP), etc. Nor am I a member of any faction within UCU.

GS election

The GS election is taking place in a crucial moment for UCU members. Post-16 education is in turmoil, but not every candidate in this election knows what it feels like to work in this highly volatile sector. I think it is important we have somebody heading our union who genuinely understands the sector because they have lived and worked it. Obviously I’m running because I think I am the best person for that job. But even if I don’t win, I would like to see a winner who represents the sector. We are about to enter tough times, and we need a champion from the membership to lead our union.

My current research

My current research project with Professor Phil Taylor was inspired by the first seminar I taught after the USSstrike finished in 2018. In the seminar I used one of Phil’s (Taylor and Bain 2003) old papers on call centre case studies, which analyses the contribution of subversive, satirical and countercultural humour to a union organising campaign, specifically centred on the role of humour in industrial conflict. Having just spent an extended period of time on strike, on mostly jubilant picket lines, I realised that only a handful of seminal studies (e.g. Lane and Roberts 1971; Fantasia 1988) theorise the role of humour, the carnival atmosphere on picket lines, and the feelings of liberation and elation which striking workers experience. But yet humour is a key part of all picket lines. The Fire Brigades Union strike of 2002-3 and the British Airways-BASSA dispute provide compelling examples of firefighters and cabin crew in turn engaging in satirical, clowning and subversive humour directed at the specific targets of government and employer, with particularly sharp barbs fired at the political and corporate leaders (Chancellor George Brown and Willy Walsh, British Airways, respectively) as personally responsible for the workers’ plight. Phil and I have spent time collecting data on the humour deployed during the USSstrike period of February-April 2018. The visual and verbal humour publicly displayed by workers on picket lines, at mass rallies and demonstrations in the form of slogans on placards and banners, costume and dress, artistic expressions, music, song and dance. Some of this was on Twitter, but a large part of our data is about humour directly experienced and performed on picket lines. We present a chronology of the strike and how humour was used differently during different parts of the strike, to inform, educate, mobilise, create a sense of community, and foster what we are calling ‘attribution’: an understanding of what causes detrimental changes to working conditions, pensions, pay (and so on), and the people identified as being responsible for them.

Dr Jo Grady
University of Sheffield UCU and UCU General Secretary Candidate 2019