Organising for the future: what next after the USS strikes?

Number 29: #USSbriefs29

Published in
12 min readJul 6, 2018


Jane Holgate, University of Leeds
Melanie Simms, University of Glasgow

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The USS strike has been an amazing experience. It has been a focal point for extensive dissatisfaction within higher education institutions and has proven to be a unifying issue around which staff have mobilised to express their concern about a far wider set of issues than just pensions. The strikes have been a great opportunity for staff to demonstrate the depth of feeling around issues such as the ‘financialisation’ of higher education, widespread casualisation, workloads, and an undermining of terms and conditions. What is less clear is what happens next and therefore we hope to provide some ideas in this USSbrief that might be helpful to UCU members and branches to take forward their campaigns to build strong workplace unions. We draw on decades of personal experience of organising in unions and other communities, academic researching on union organising, and practical advice in helping unions and community groups to organise.

To begin, we would like to distinguish between ‘mobilising’ and ‘organising’. We want to make the point that a lot of UCU branches have been very effective at mobilising workers around the USS strikes, but to take that forward, we need to think about a different challenge; how to be well organised at grassroots level, so that groups of workers and members can win important improvements in terms and conditions. This means building power and increasing union density and effectiveness. In short, organising is about making sure that we have information to engage our members and the workforce more widely. At its most basic, that information is who is and isn’t a member of the branch. If we map that data we often see that some buildings or departments are better organised than others; posters are regularly changed, new members of staff are asked if they want to join the union etc. We can then make sure we invest effort in recruiting people in the less well-organised departments who can take on a similar role. More advanced organising might involve making sure that different groups of staff are consulted and engaged before going ahead with particular changes; support staff, fixed-term staff, hourly paid staff and the like. When we know who is in the union and why they care about whatever issues are important to them, we know we can represent members effectively and engage them in setting future agendas and actions.

A really crucial writer and activist who informs our thinking is Jane McAlevey. She has a background of organising in unions in the United States. Some of her ideas are really important when we think about the task ahead. She argues that mobilising in the way we saw during the strike is really important to show employers that there is capacity to take strike action to support national negotiators; but to have real power in the workplace and beyond, unions need to pay far more attention to the day-to-day challenges of workplace organising.

Organising is about focusing on building the widest possible membership and engaging people by giving them influence over the decisions that are made and thereby showing them that their actions can change things. To do that, unions also need to recognise that workers aren’t just workers; they have all kinds of links and relationships outside the workplace that they can bring to their unions. And when Jane McAlevey talks about the widest possible activist base, she really means it. Not just the people who come to meetings in July! Not only the people on the picket line, but all of the people who support the objectives of the union and can help achieve common goals. More than this though, it involves speaking to those who are not yet members and those who do not see the point in joining the union. Good organising, by listening and engaging, can often turn these ‘refuseniks’ into active members.

Organising: moving beyond mobilisation

McAlevey argues that the objectives of mobilising in a strike are largely driven by people within the union who have specialist knowledge; officers and activists who are engaged with the issue. We saw this in the USS strike which was, understandably, led in the first instance by people who were well placed within the union to understand the proposed changes and drive through the proposal to take strike action. Participation far exceeded what has been seen in many previous strikes, but it still only involved a relatively small number of people. That isn’t to denigrate the fantastic work done by those people and the real toll that work can take, but it suggests that there is scope to broaden the base of engagement with the union now that there is a pause in industrial action.

To do that, organising is much more diffused throughout a union structure. An organised union focuses on using its power to apply pressure on employers (and sometimes other groups such as politicians) to improve the quality of life at work and at home. It focuses on engaging a very wide range of voices to decide which issues to pursue and should be aiming to engage a majority, rather than a minority, of union members.

Deep organising involves broadening the base of activity — by increasing members or activists — and identifying new leaders based on their capacity to act to increase the power resources of workers. It’s about finding and developing organic leaders who are trusted and respected by their colleagues, and it’s about converting opponents or non-members into active supporters of the cause. This is something missing in mobilisation, which often tends to rely on already-members or ‘the usual suspects’ to regularly turn up to protests or a one-off activity. As a result, mobilisation may not build the relationships that are necessary for developing capacity, power and grass-roots leadership that is sustainable in the long-term. It can succeed as a quick fix, but it is seldom transformative or effective in changing the balance of power in the workplace — for this we need to develop an effective organisation that has the power to effect change.

In our view, there is still a lot of work that can be done in our workplaces to strengthen and deepen the organising base. If we are successful, we will be able to tackle some of the much broader issues that were raised during the USS dispute such as the expanding casualisation of the sector. And, crucially, organising is about picking the issues carefully to build a wide base of support and activity. We now need to organise from being a minority union in higher education to a majority union if we want to increase our power through collective bargaining.

Knowledge is power

Central to all great organising campaigns is knowledge and information, but getting information and keeping it up to date can be difficult once life returns to something like normal after a big industrial dispute. What kind of information do we need for strong workplace organising?

Knowledge about members. Members give some information when they join, but that isn’t always helpful for organising. Non-work contact details can be essential. So can details of contracts of employment that can help identify clusters of members who may share common issues and experiences of work. The more organised a branch is in collating and using this information (within the regulations governing data protection, of course) the more able they will be to pull together groups of members who can organise in small groups and eventually mobilise across the union around a particular issue of concern.

Knowledge about workers more generally. Of course, not everyone will be members of the union, but we should be aiming for the majority of workers to join, so ‘mapping’ areas of the workplace to find out where there are gaps is essential. Much of this is record-keeping and can be a way to involve people who want to be more active in the union without expecting them to go and talk to strangers — which can be hard for everyone! As a workplace map emerges, this can be used to focus branch activities and to help organise these weaker sections. For example, is membership low in Chemistry, but there’s a member there who comes to all the meetings? She may not want to talk to all her colleagues about the union, but a one-to-one conversation with someone from a strong department might be able to elicit useful information about who is an opinion leader and what issues are relevant in that department — it’s also useful in building relationships as these strengthen collectives. Can we identify ‘organic leaders’ who influence other members of staff? These might not (yet) be union members, but if they have a ‘following’ then we need to find these people and bring them on board.

Knowledge about the employer. Of course many of our members know a lot about our employers because of various roles they take on. Although some will be bound by an imperative to keep some information confidential, some of this knowledge will be helpful in understanding how and why particular decisions are made. Tapping into this kind of information can be very helpful in, for example, a campaign to reduce the dependence on hourly paid staff in a particular area of a university or to campaign against the use of nine-month contracts. But it’s also important to do a systematic ‘power analysis’ to understand who might be allies and who might be opponents, and from this figure out what the union/members and allies need to do to shift the balance of power in our favour.

It’s all about the issues

Picking the right issue is crucial to any organising campaign. But issues can only become a campaign if there is widespread support, so working with members and non-members to find out what they care about is really crucial. Tips to identify issues:

  • Get people together informally and ask them what’s going on in their building or their department. Don’t worry too much at this stage whether they are members of the union — you can ask them that later.
  • Try not to pre-judge whether an issue could become a campaign issue straight away. Try to think broadly about traditional union issues like pay and casualisation, but also about less traditional issues like, transport to work, childcare, etc. The issues people have might surprise you.
  • Once you’ve got a good idea about what people care about, try to work with them to work out how you might deliver change. Start with the power analysis (see below under resources for more detail on how to do strategic planning and power mapping): who has the power to change this? What would you need to do to get them to change? Who has the power to resist change? How would you get them to change their mind? What resources do you need to campaign on this issue? Time, information, expertise…? Do you have the resources to sustain action around this issue? What alliances do you need to build beyond the union? Other unions? Other branches? Managers? Non-members? People beyond the university? How will you talk to them and persuade them to support you?
  • Work with your local branch to map these power points and work out whether this issue will be a priority.

As you do this, try to remember that a lot of the time, we can be very ‘academic’ about our approach and assume that a good argument will change people’s minds. That’s not always true, but some good active listening and one-to-ones with colleagues should help identify the concerns people have and what we might do to address them. Don’t always fall back on traditional tactics and ways of doing things. Think about the type of meetings you hold — are these really attractive and welcoming or just talking shops? How about holding ‘meetings’ at different times, places, and in different formats? How about trying to organise workshops at faculty or divisional level where you plan activities among the group? All the time keep an eye out for potential leaders and think about small ‘asks’ every time you have a conversation — even getting someone to commit to displaying a poster on their office door is a step forward for someone who hasn’t been involved before.

Are you ready? Really ready?

At some point in a campaign, it becomes important to know how much strength of feeling there is behind the issue. So, organisers often use something called a ‘structure test’ to see whether there is a wider view that the issue is important to a larger group. If there is, the campaign can go ahead knowing that it is a good investment of time and energy. If there isn’t, then the issue might be more effectively dealt with as a personal case, or a small collective grievance brought by a group of staff.

Structure tests are really just about finding out who’s with you. It can be something as simple as calling a meeting on the issue and seeing who turns up. Or it could be a survey of members to see who is willing to volunteer to help out. The key is that a good structure test will help you work out how much support there is to take action on the issue. It’s really important not to miss this step. Branches and activists often identify really important issues but where there is little broad support. In those situations, there are more effective ways to pursue those issues; perhaps through collective negotiation at branch level, or personal cases.

A ‘structure test’ in action: letter signed by all union members in a building

Camera! Lights! Action!

The steps towards a broad-based campaign can take hours or can take years, but it’s important to have some idea of what kind of action might be appropriate to change the issues you have identified (this will vary depending on circumstances and your levels of innovation). Some strategic thinking is needed here linked to the mapping exercises about what levers you have, what resources you have, and crucially, who has the power to change things.

Common actions in union campaigns include:

  • Grievances: collective and individual.
  • Petitions.
  • Publicity around the university and beyond.
  • Action days where people do activities to highlight the issue.
  • Collective bargaining. Remember: collective bargaining takes place at university and national levels, so the branch needs to be involved.

But in short, get creative!

Stay safe: looking after yourself and developing others

Campaigning can be exhilarating, but also exhausting so it’s important to remember that not only is it not necessary to do it all, it’s a usually bad idea if you are doing it all. If a campaign relies on one or two key people, there usually hasn’t been enough attention to the process of making it a broad-based campaign (or spending time finding enough leaders). Developing activists is therefore crucial both for your workload and mental health, and for the campaign more generally. Try to think about how you might develop the people who are coming on board but who maybe have less experience or confidence. The branch is an obvious first point of call. But there may also be opportunities to build networks with other branches, other unions, other campaigns etc.

It’s also important to remember that it’s perfectly fine to take time off, and also to campaign in ways that you find less tiring. Also, it’s important to inject some fun and social events into all our organising activity — that way people are likely to stay engaged and committed.

Demonstrating power and support: getting all members to publicly sign their commitment to strike.


In short we need to make sure our branches are well-organised so that we can engage all of our members in the debates and decisions that are going to take place in the coming months. Relying only on the ‘usual suspects’ cannot be an effective option, or we risk ignoring the voices and views of members who might be a bit quieter or who have different views and interests from the main group of activists. Negotiating differences of views and interests is of course always tricky, but is the challenge at the heart of any collective representation.

To be effective, organised, strong branches we need to make sure that we understand deeply the power that we have and how we can use levers to achieve our agreed collective objectives. We cannot do that without information and strategic planning. Our hope is that this USSbrief will provide some ideas and inspiration about how to do that in your local campaigning. Good luck — and let us know if you use any of the ideas! We’d love to hear your stories.


TUC Pocket Guide to Organising and Campaigning

UCU toolkits for organising including a guide to workplace mapping and running a recruitment campaign.

Jane McAlevey: No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age. YouTube video of book Launch in Winnipeg, 3 November 2017.

Jane McAlevey: “We can’t labour without our lives”, YouTube, 2 September 2012.

Jane McAlevey’s website (with links to all books and many other resources).

Although this is very US focused, it outlines the main things to think about when mapping power.

UCU also has a lot of resources around specific issues such as:

This paper represents the views of the authors only. The authors believe all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs29; the authors will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.




A set of papers written by University Staff and Students, on University Staff and Students, for University Staff and Students.