The NEC met just prior to Osborne’s Autumn Budget. As expected, we now know that the Budget confirmed six more years of austerity (at least), the failure to reach the government’s own targets on borrowing and debt reducion (which austerity was supposed to deliver), slashes further billions from welfare and public services and ratchets up the threats to education itself and to education workers’ pay, pensions and conditions, not least through the intention to introduce regional pay and performance pay for teachers and education workers. At the same time there have been huge handouts for the rich in terms of tax cuts.
Disappointingly, while we might have hoped six months ago to be meeting during a ‘hot Autumn’ of strike action by public sector unions the reality is that the trade union leaderships, including the left leaderships, have failed to deliver and have postponed any such action until Spring at the earliest. One task for activists in the union, therefore, is to do our best to ensure that UCU will be part of whatever action against austerity emerges in the New Year period.
The current lack of action and progress in putting the coalition government even further on the back foot is especially frustrating because members in UCU and other unions have demonstrated their willingness to fight back if given a lead. Indeed there have been several local victories in recent disputes in HE and FE, such as at Queen Mary’s, UEL and others. And just six weeks ago two hundred thousand trade unionists and activists marched on TUC demonstrations against austerity during which the call for a general strike was universally popular.
The NEC also met in the wake of the highly controversial and disappointing refusal by the majority of HE negotiators and the national officers to honour the outcome of the HE pay ballot and authorise action short of strike. There is widespread anger among HE members about this. This followed the decision earlier in the autumn to end action over imposed changes to the USS scheme and the failure to organise a campaign and ballot over pay in FE.
Above all, as became ever more obvious during the NEC meeting, NEC was meeting at a time when the current leadership has absolutely no serious political or industrial strategy for mobilising members or campaigning to defend post-16 education, or developing the kind of national action required to defend our members’ jobs, pay, pensions and conditions.
The GS Report
In her report to the NEC, the General Secretary confirmed that the TUC General Council is still exploring ways of bringing all unions together in a common strategy and she promised to support any such initiatives. In discussion a number of UCU Left supporters questioned the current, and damaging, lack of national fightback and strategy from the union to face the attacks on education and to resist cuts and austerity.
A major item in the GS’s report was membership and finance, but discussion of this was postponed until a later agenda item (see below).
On TPS she reported that women and part-time staff in FE have been particularly badly hit by the government’s changes on pensions, and it appears that opt-out rates are increasing in FE.
The teaching unions in their negotiations with the DfE have achieved some minor concessions in the banding of pension contribution increases but it is clear that the government is going ahead with its plans to raise these.
Two motions on TPS were discussed at this point, the first from Liz Lawrence intended to survey the membership on how many members in FE or post-92 HE are currently in membership of TPS, and to update UCU membership lists on this basis. This was passed unanimously:
The Future of TPS
NEC recognises the danger posed to the future of TPS if younger and new staff decide not to join the pension scheme.
It resolves to survey the existing UCU membership in FE and post-92 HE to identify:
a) how many of our current members in FE and post-92 HE are in TPS or in another pension scheme;
b) what are the reasons of non-joiners for not joining the pension scheme?
Survey results will be used to add data on pension scheme membership to UCU membership records.
The results of the survey will be reported to and discussed at a future NEC meeting
Proposed by E. Lawrence
There was then a debate on a second motion on TPS from Veronica Killen which sought to build some action around TPS alongside other unions, such as a lobby of the House of Lords during the passage of the Public Sector Pensions bill.
This motion became controversial due to a clause which called for support for the ’68 is too late’ campaign (see final bullet point).
The NEC notes:
• The government is still pressing ahead with public sector pension changes in order to reduce the government contribution by 40% over the next 50 years.
• Members are and will continue to pay more for pensions, work longer and get less on retirement, particularly for younger and new members.
• Members have begun paying more in contributions which will rise again in April 2013 and April 2014.
• There has been no research on the impact of working until 68 years, and beyond, particularly in the current work climate in post 16 education.
• The passing of the second reading of the Public Service Pensions bill in the House of Commons and the low number of MPs who opposed it.
This motion calls on the NEC to:
• Acknowledge the ongoing dispute with the government over public sector pension changes and to remind members, through national materials to branches/LA’s, that this dispute is not over.
• To remind members through national materials to branches/LA’s of the increases in contributions for April 2013 and April 2014.
• To contact sister teaching trade unions who continue to refuse to sign up to the ‘Heads of Agreement’ and seek talks on how to progress the dispute, including lobbying to press for whatever changes can be made to the bill and to lobby the House of Lords.
• Resolve to work with other trade unions in defence of jobs, pay and pensions.
• To seek to work with teacher trade unions in Europe and through the ETUC on pay, jobs and pensions.
• To support the ’68 is Too Late’ campaign.
Proposed by Veronica Killen
Some on the NEC (IBL supporters) seemed to be poorly informed and wrongly argued that to pass this would contradict a Congress motion in which the concept of a default retirement age was opposed. UCU Left supporters argued that there is manifestly no contradiction because the retirement age and the age at which one draws a pension are not the same thing. However, that part of the motion was lost and the request to support the ‘68 is too late’ campaign was remitted to the national officers. The NEC took a decision not to support the ‘68 is too late’ campaign on an extremely specious basis. A consequence of not passing this final point was to damage our campaign in defence of pensions.
A third motion was also discussed during the meeting: Self-registration for Annual Meeting for Members on Casualised Contracts. This had come from the Anti-Casualisation Committee originally, had been rejected by one vote at the Strategy and Finance Committee, and unfortunately was again rejected by one vote at the NEC meeting. Its rejection seems to fly in the face of the union’s commitment to equality. UCU Left supporters voted for the motion.
The NEC notes that:
(1) While staff on casual contracts do not have the exactly the same issues of “coming out” as some of the equality groups, they have to think carefully about the risks of “coming out” as union activists or even about complaining about their lot, because in many cases their careers can be ended on a whim;
(2) Branch officers can have too many other commitments to organise a meeting specially to elect delegates to annual meetings of employment groups, or may not feel such a meeting will be well attended;
(3) Many branches would have to elect delegates at a regular meeting before Christmas or at least some time before the cut-off for registering delegates. This can put off casually employed staff if they don’t know what days they will be working in advance, as many of them don’t. They can’t afford to antagonise their employers or lose the money for the work;
(4) Saying “no” so late in the day is likely to affect the attendance at the 2013 Annual meeting for staff on casual contracts;
(5) The annual meetings are only advisory to the NEC, and the NEC can change the standing orders, so if there were grounds to believe an annual meeting did not reflect the views of the membership the NEC is in a position to take account of this.
The NEC agrees to the changes in the standing orders of the annual meeting for members on casual contracts that were passed unanimously by their annual meeting last year, in spite of the contrary view expressed by the SFC.
Proposed by Lesley Kane
UCU member participation
The issue of union democracy was put firmly on the agenda during the General Secretary campaign in early 2012. This debate has been sharpened by the email ballot which closely followed on the question of reducing the size of the National Executive Committee. Key questions are raised about what sort of union the UCU should be and how we secure the democratic involvement of members. This can be distilled to debate between participatory or plebiscitary democracy. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the ‘plebiscitarians’ won the day when NEC considered a set of proposals from ROCC (Recruitment, Organising and Campaigning Committee) concerning participation in the union, in particular how regions and branches operate.
There was general agreement regarding the importance of regional committees in the life, organisation and growth of the union. However, unsurprisingly perhaps, there was a lot of disagreement about how to address the challenges faced by the union.
The NEC is polarised, almost entirely, between supporters of the UCU Left and supporters of the Independent Broad Left (IBL). Broadly, UCU left supported initiatives likely to involve large numbers of members in action, whilst the IBL was nowhere nearly so ready to do this.
The union officials are concerned about their jobs which the decline in membership threatens. Unfortunately, they are pessimistic about their ability to halt the fall and this is partly due to the close affiliation of some of them to the Labour Party and its uncritical support for neo-liberal economic policies (supporting austerity). As a result, they are promoting a policy of retrenchment, reducing the size of the NEC and the frequency of meetings. They are arguing for a move away from meetings of members and towards ‘modern’ methods – e-ballots, consultations and surveys, putting forward model rules which would force such methods on branches who fail to attract less than a fifth of their members to branch meetings.
The general impression from the NEC confirms the view that a small majority on the NEC (the GS, IBL and allies) are determined to remove UCU from the field of battle in terms of any wide scale campaigning defence of Further and Higher Education, and regard the prospects of any such campaign over pay, workloads, pension and jobs as “unrealistic”.
While some of the ROCC proposals were not contentious, UCU Left supporters and others took a position in opposition to the following points. Our reasons are given in brackets.
- An e-ballot will be triggered if a meeting calling for industrial action is not attended by 20% of the branch. (Opposition to e-ballots in general and concern that 20% is an arbitrary figure not achievable by some large branches).
- Regional Offices to be responsible for the administration of calling notices and agendas for regional meetings. (This should remain in the hands of lay officers, with regional office administrative help).
- Election of officers at regional meetings to only be valid if 33% of institutions were represented (arbitrary figure again).
Given the current political balance of the NEC these objections were not supported by the majority of NEC members and the votes were narrowly lost, apart from one referring to the need for an equality audit of meeting times for branches and regions and of relevant facility time for such meetings in work time.
It is important to note that these are not union rules and would require a 2/3rds majority at congress to become so. So they cannot be imposed on branches. The issue is likely to emerge again at the next HEC and FEC.
The NEC discussion was dominated by the fact of falling recruitment, leading to falling subscriptions and a financial deficit. It was generally accepted that until recently the UCU had bucked the trend of falling trade union membership but that in recent months leavers had exceeded joiners, especially but not exclusively in FE. People argued that the success of UCU recruitment in recent years had a lot to do with national campaigns and local disputes in which the UCU was involved as much as it had to do with expansion in the HE sector. Examples were quoted from the Leeds dispute in 2010 and the campaign to recruit Graduate Training Assistants (GTAs) at LSE.
It’s was very clear from the detailed figures presented to NEC that when the union involves itself in national campaigning activity this energizes the union and we put on members big style. The figures for Nov 2011 (net gain 1300) unsurprisingly show this, but the most impressive figures are for March 2011(net gain 1700). Let’s remember: that’s when we fought tooth and nail for action against the foot-dragging of Independent Broad Left supporters.
There was thus a detailed discussion about UCU’s membership and finances in the context of reports presented to NEC detailing a decline in membership since about the beginning of 2012. This decline is almost entirely due to reductions in the number of new posts in post-16 education and to job losses in the sector.
Some 700 new members have been recruited in the current recruitment drive to offset these losses but NEC agreed that there needs to be a development at branch and regional levels of a high-profile recruitment campaign.
In discussion UCU Left supporters argued that people join unions when they see them fighting back and it would be a mistake to think that making cuts in services or staffing would be the appropriate answer to the current membership difficulties. (NOTE: a UCU Left document on recruitment is here).
A revised interim budget was presented to the NEC for approval. This did not include cuts at this stage. It took into account the financial impact of the sale of Britannia Street, the former Natfhe HQ, and falls in membership income which would mean carrying forward a budget deficit for the time being.
It was agreed to hold an extra NEC meeting on January 25th to make further decisions about next year’s budget and to consider proposals from the union leadership for a three or four year plan to deal with this issue.