Industrial action ballot tactics for the 2020-21 pay campaign and beyond

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2020 Higher Education Service Group Conference
26 September 2019

Conference Notes:

The primary role of UNISON, or any Trade Union, is to use the collective power of its members to deliver lasting and significant improvements to pay, pension rights and working conditions.

The results of each annual round of pay negotiations, is a good indicator of the extent to which this Service Group is reaching the aspirations of members and activists in relation to pay, when measured against inflation.

In a period of funding constraints and, allowing for complications of the university funding regime, it is extremely unlikely that the employers will be willing to offer settlements close to our recognised measure of inflation.

We need the ability to deliver the threat of lawful industrial action when the employers’ final offer falls short of the joint unions’ claim. This, in turn, is dependent on a successful pay ballot reaching the 50% turnout threshold.

This raises the question of the best tactics to use when considering the strategy of each pay round, the most obvious issue being whether to ballot on an aggregate or a disaggregate basis.

Conference Further Notes:

An aggregate ballot requires the service group to reach a combined turnout in excess of 50% nationally, including all members in all institutions balloted. Low turnouts across some groups of members are potentially offset by pockets of higher turnout, but 50% across the whole number balloted must be achieved to take the action.

A disaggregated ballot treats each ballot held at each institution as a separate dispute, meaning that individual branches can take legal strike action provided a 50% turnout is reached at that particular university.

For a Service Group with good organisation, structures and membership engagement, an aggregate ballot makes sense, since the threat of strong, escalating, national action is likely to achieve movement on the part of the employers.

In the scenario where a national 50% turnout is unlikely to be achieved, a disaggregated ballot is the best tactic, since it theoretically allows the most active and organised branches to use their strength to achieve movement on the part of the employers.

It would be illogical to not consider all possible solutions so that we are able to do what we should be doing – using our strength in numbers to deliver material results for our members.

The available evidence since the Trade Union Act became law suggests that it is not impossible for us achieve a 50% turnout for national action, but extremely difficult, even with sufficient resources available and a high level of organisation.

Whilst recognising and celebrating, the heroic efforts of members and activists to build the size and confidence of our branches, we have to be realistic about our current limitations and aim to play to our strengths.

For the pay campaign of 2020-21 and immediately beyond, a strategy involving a disaggregated ballot makes the most practical sense if we are to achieve our aims.

Conference calls on the Higher Education Service Group Executive to:

Take concrete action so that in the event of the 2020-21 pay campaign moving to a formal industrial action ballot, this will be organised on a disaggregated basis. This will be done with the aim of achieving a 50% turnout and a vote in favour of action at every institution, i.e. a disaggregated ballot, with national action as the main aim.