8 March 2012

We need a united fight to defend education, jobs and pensions.

The Con-dem assault on education

UCU members face a shocking assault on our jobs, pensions and institutions. These attacks come against a background of consensus amongst mainstream political parties of the need for ‘austerity’, short hand for making us pay for the economic crisis.
Determined to make lecturers and students pay and to destroy public education, the government’s slashing of the EMA and £9000 fee regime threatens to destroy the values of academic freedom, high quality education and research, replacing them with the anarchic values of a rigged ‘market’.
All that stands between us and a chaotic system in which only the most privileged will continue to have access to ‘education’ are the trade unions.

Defend our Pensions

Currently EIS, UCU, NUT and PCS are consulting members for action over the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) on March 28th, this is THE crucial battle in defence of the public sector. We urge our colleagues to campaign all out for a YES vote in the consultation exercise.

Next week on March 14th, the NUS is organising walk outs which the Higher Education Committee of the UCU has resolved to support. UCU members need to be talking to students now about the importance of the fight to defend pensions and how it is part of the defence of education.

In contrast to the majority opinion on the current National Executive, the General Secretary did not think the successful defence of TPS and USS could be secured. The GS wanted to accept the government compromise despite its meaning that members would be paying more for longer in return for less and would not argue publicly against the dispute; but clearly hoped that members shared her disinclination to fight. That it was their pension rather than hers meant that she was disappointed in this.

During the election campaign the General Secretary briefly rediscovered enthusiasm for the campaign. Then the election was over. Since then we have seen no intervention to get the vote out on the consultation survey, no argument explaining to members why it is important that the UCU be able to show the Government that there is still an intense dissatisfaction with the pensions proposals.
In the recent General Secretary election in UCU, the left candidate Mark Campbell campaigned positively to defend pensions, to save jobs and institutions and to build the UCU.  Sally Hunt the incumbent won a clear victory but worryingly for all of us the turnout was just 12.7 per cent.

Sadly Sally Hunt spent much time during the campaign “red baiting” her opponent and attacking the “enemy within” rather than tackling the key issues we face as a union. Despite this negative campaign the UCU Left supporters, the focus of her attack, still secured big votes across the country and a third of the NEC places.
These kind of attack on the left have no place in the modern labour movement.
The UCU should be a union of open debate and discussion not accusation and counter accusation; it is ironic that an education union should be discussing closing down debate. A bi-product of such attacks can also give a green light to employers to victimise union activists; those the GS singled out for attack despite their putting their time and effort into building the UCU.

Many UCU members will also be puzzled and concerned that the General Secretary’s first move after re-election is, without a debate in UCU branches, regions or on the NEC, on slashing the size of the unions national executive.
What posts will be removed? Will equalities seats be lost? Will members on short term contracts lose their representation? Will FE members have less representatives? The speed of the GS’s move smacks of rule by plebiscite.

Which is more important, our pensions or the size of the NEC?

Most unfortunately, our General Secretary seems bent on continuing her divisive campaign and is devoting a great deal of energy to it, to the exclusion of the campaign to defend our pensions and the defence of education. Why on earth are we faced with a ballot about the size of the NEC now when the union faces the most important fight in its history, after all the TPS consultation is still on! This is a serious diversion from the TPS campaign.

The “savings” from proposed reductions in the size of the NEC is roughly the same as the GS’s salary and amounts to a ‘grand total of 7p per member per month. There are good reasons for having Equality seats and seats for large sections of the union such as FE and HE. All of us are part of one minority or another in the union and the GS could be denying many of us a voice in the running of UCU.
In any members’ ballot on a reduction to the UCU NEC, we will need to argue to maintain a fully democratic and accountable NEC that serves all the union’s multiple constituencies equally and fairly. That will mean voting against any proposals that reduces lay member control of our union.

Defend Union Democracy

There could well be arguments for reducing the size of the NEC but this must be debated properly and democratically, not through a take it or leave it plebiscite, tagged onto other issues, which is fundamentally undemocratic, since the alternative arguments cannot be heard or discussed.

The structure of the National Executive was painstakingly arrived at over months of negotiations at the time of the merger of the AUT and Natfhe. It was a structure designed to ensure that all sections of the union were properly represented, and that the National Executive would not be dominated by any group or section of the union. There would be representatives from pre and post-92 and from FE; there would be representatives from the regions and the devolved nations; there would be representation from disabled members, from women, from LGBT members, from black members, from academic-related staff, and from staff on casual contracts.
That is the careful balance that the General Secretary proposes to disrupt. Which section does she, one wonders, intend to disenfranchise first?

The GS seems to be turning her back on the democratic methods the UCU has championed. There can be little doubt that any moves to undermine ordinary members influence within the union will be applauded by the support of Vice Chancellors, senior university managers and the government.

For many UCU members, these arguments may seem peripheral. Our members are focused on government and management attacks on our institutions. If we’re to convince our members to get actively involved in defending our jobs, pensions and post-16 education we need a united and confident union.

In any serious battle, such as that we face; we need informed decisions to be taken, following effective debate. This is how trade union branch meetings, regions and Congress work their best, we allow them to be undermined at our peril.

Unite and Fight

Some trade union leaders are vacillating in the face of government attacks. They balance between angry members on one hand, and support for a Labour Party scared that industrial action might lose votes in the May elections.
The resultant prevarication can eat at members’ confidence. The UCU GS is no exception. Our members are looking for a united response to a massive attack from the government and unfortunately this is exactly what they are not getting from our General Secretary. The left on the other hand has fought for a united response and the strike action last March, the UCU/NUT/ATL strike on June 30th and then the magnificent public sector strike on November 30th showed how we could unite and take on the government.

So there is a tension within the UCU which cannot be resolved without action by our members. Hopefully this will begin on March 28th, albeit involving only part of the union. June’s Sector conferences and Congress will also be important in determining the future direction of the UCU – towards a confident, growing, outward looking, democratic and combative union or backwards into a defensive laager of referenda and personal cases, with a diminishing number of activists unable to carry the workload. We urge all activists to get delegated to congress where these important arguments will take place.

Most UCU members have no choice but to fight for their jobs. It is our job to unite the union along trade union lines of solidarity and unity, based on the principles of trade union democracy which has lasted since the first trade unions were founded. We cannot look towards our General Secretary to do this, but we can look towards ourselves and our members to do it.

A downloadable pdf of this is available here for you to distribute.

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