Sunday, February 27, 2022

On voting in UCU strike ballots

 Strikes are currently taking place at many UK universities, with staff protesting over workloads, casualization, and (in pre-1992 institutions) further cuts to the USS pension scheme. These grievances are not new and have been discussed elsewhere before, for instance here and here. But there’s been less discussion of the ballot (voting) system that’s led to the strikes, which is pretty interesting in its own right.


A legal mandate for industrial action requires that more members vote in favour of action than against it, but also that at least 50% of members participate (vote) in the ballot. This is intended to ensure that there is wide support for action. Without some provision like this, a small number of workers might claim a mandate for action simply because of low turnout. But this requirement also produces some rather surprising consequences.


In ballots last year, a number of universities narrowly missed this turnout threshold, meaning no mandate for industrial action even though a significant majority of votes cast were in favour of it. For instance, at the University of Southampton, 491 out of 998 members voted – only eight short of the required turnout. This means there was no legal mandate, even though 348 of those votes (71.5% of valid votes) were in favour of strike action. (These figures all focus on votes for strike action, rather than action short of striking, and on the USS dispute in particular. Further, all figures are from November 2021, though a number of universities that narrowly missed the threshold subsequently held a second round of ballots.)


Matters were even closer in some other cases. The Newcastle University was just six votes short (619 out of 1,250). At the University of Manchester, the threshold was missed by a single vote (1,094 out of 2,094). This despite, respectively, 80.1% and 77.7% of those votes cast supporting strike action.


These figures reveal that some media coverage has been misleading. For instance, the BBC reported that staff at 58 universities voted in favour of strike action. While it is true that only 58 secured the necessary turnout, this overlooks the fact that a majority of votes cast at every university were for strike action. (The lowest level of support for strikes was 61.6% at the University of Reading.)


This isn’t simply a case of ‘near misses’ though. These figures also reveal some surprising consequences of the 50% turnout requirement. For instance, Reading did secure a legal mandate because 50.6% voted, albeit with only 61.6% of those (31.2% of eligible voters [228 out of 731]) favouring a strike. In contrast, Newcastle did not secure a legal mandate, because only 49.5% voted, even though 80.1% of these (39.7% of eligible voters [496 out of 1,250]) favoured a strike. This seems strange, to say the least.


The oddity of these rules is even more apparent if we consider some possible ‘what if’ scenarios. As noted above, Manchester was only one vote short of the turnout threshold. Had just one more person voted, then they would have the necessary mandate. But this would be the case regardless of how that person voted. Even had they voted against the strike, their single vote would not have stopped yes from winning, but would have met the turnout threshold.


In fact, support for strike action was so strong that it would still have won even had an extra 576 of those who did not vote instead voted against strike action. Again, it’s puzzling that a vote of 807-to-231 in favour of strikes fails to achieve a mandate, but 807-to-806 would do so. Why should more people voting against something give it a mandate it otherwise lacked?


This isn’t the end of the strangeness though. As we’ve just seen, one more person voting against a strike would have resulted in a legal mandate (807-to-232). But this mandate would have been lost had one of those 232 opposed to strike action abstained, rather than voting against it. So, not only can voting against a strike give it a mandate, but not voting at all might serve to block strike action!


Ordinarily, we expect abstention to be a ‘neutral’ option, between yes and no. In this case though, it was abstentions – rather than no votes – that blocked strike action where ballots failed. It might well be that some members realised that not voting was their best chance to avoid a strike and acted accordingly. (And, perhaps, some others voted no – making a strike more likely – because they didn’t want to block a strike in this manner.) However, if this was the case, then this strategic abstention might have backfired.


As it happens, the strike ballots that failed to secure a legal mandate did so because of low turnout, rather than low support from those that did vote. But things might have been otherwise. It could have been that turnout thresholds were met, but that the vote was a close one. In that case, there might have been a narrow victory for strike action that would have been overturned had strategic abstainers voted against it.


This means that some union members are faced with difficult choices, even if they know what they want. It’s clear what those in favour of strikes should do – they should vote yes to strike action. But opponents of strike action are faced with a dilemma. It isn’t obvious whether they best promote their cause by voting no or by abstaining. Either option might unwittingly create the strike mandate that they sought to avoid.


While the working conditions that have led so many academic staff to vote for strikes are the main issue, the success or failure of strike ballots is often the result of voting rules, rather than whether workers support strike action. The turnout requirement makes strike ballots harder to pass, but also has some rather surprising results.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is a great post, your pictures and writing are greThis is a great post, your pictures and writing are great.blacklink

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this awesome info! I am looking forward to see more postsby you! Lifeguard Training Near Me

  4. "This is really a nice and informative, containing all information and also has a great impact on the new technology. Thanks for sharing it,""app development"""