Branches criticise the General Secretary’s strategy for the HE disputes

UCU Left report on the Branch Delegate Meetings, 12 November

The two Branch Delegates’ Meetings (BDMs) took place on Friday. These had been called after the ballot results on USS and the Four Fights campaigns had been released and over 100 branches were represented. 

BDMs do not have constitutional status in UCU but emerged in the original 2018 USS strikes to ensure branches were up-to-date with the most recent developments in the dispute.  Crucially BDMs ensure members can feedback on developments in the dispute and that this feedback comes immediately to negotiators and to HEC. As a result BDMs provide an informal mechanism for a kind of direct democracy in UCU. If their views are ignored by the HEC, as occurred after the second ‘#NoCapitulation’ moment in 2019, branches can bring motions of no confidence to Congress. Branch delegate voting is weighted by sector conference delegate entitlements, so the votes of big branches carry more weight than those of small ones. 

The BDM on the USS dispute highlighted the extensive knowledge and understanding within branches of the key questions of strategy and tactics. Overwhelmingly, branch delegates reported that they recognised the importance of the timing of the dispute and the need to maximise our leverage on employers and USS prior to the February deadline for the decision on changes to contribution rates. Most delegates reported large branch meetings with members, where the majority view reflected the need to launch serious industrial action prior to the Xmas break. Token action was rejected as simply insufficient. Indeed, even in branches where the GS’s questions had been put out to members in a survey, without debate and discussion, delegates reported responses that were highly critical and questioning, with members objecting to the narrow range of options being offered.

The Four Fights BDM followed a similar pattern, although with more reps ‘in the room’, the format of the meeting was very frustrating for delegates, and large numbers of delegates were not called. This meant two things. First, it was difficult for reps to get an idea of the overall pattern of voting because they did not know what other branches had concluded. The weighted votes of the meetings were not reported to delegates.

But the second problem is that the Four Fights dispute is simultaneously a UK-wide battle and a series of local ones, because whatever is agreed at “New JNCHES” must be implemented locally, and UCEA always claim that local employers will not give them a mandate (basically, because some want to hold on to the worst employment practices, like zero hours contracts or bogus self-employment). The battlelines in the fight over casualisation, workload and inequality are inside every workplace. Branches’ experiences are different, and it is essential for reps to hear what those differences mean. A dispute of this kind relies on a culture of solidarity, and we must factor in local confrontations into the union’s overall strategy.

For example, members at the Royal College of Art are engaged in a bitter local battle over casualisation and workload. At the time of the BDM, RCA UCU members had taken 9 days of strike action and were about to begin 5 days more. But frustratingly they were not called to speak. Neither were Goldsmiths (with 3 weeks of strike action announced) or Sheffield, both branches where the Four Fights dispute intersects with their local disputes over redundancies. Branches benefit from building local campaigns of key demands under the Four Fights umbrella, and using them to build support for ballots and industrial action.

Nonetheless in both meetings, nearly all the delegates who spoke recognised the need to keep the fights together and not decouple them. Some wondered why two separate BDMs had been called. Delegates argued against delayed ballots and aggregation, instead proposing to move to reballot branches which missed the 50% threshold in order for them to join further escalating industrial action as early as possible, before February 2022.

There was criticism of the short ballot window from branch delegates, particularly the large number that missed the threshold by handfuls of votes. Many believe that they actually exceeded the 50% threshold, but delays in the post to Civica meant late postal votes weren’t counted.

Likewise in the USS meeting, branch delegates favoured campaigning beyond strike action, which should already have been underway. On USS, UCU policy is for legal action against USS, a trade union campaign for the defence of defined benefit pensions, and lobbying MPs and journalists. Our defence of USS cannot be understood as a narrow vested interest, but part of a wider campaign against the marketisation of higher education and – because pension attacks are fundamentally an attack on younger workers – an inter-generational defence of the right to a decent retirement for all workers.

Although the results of the BDM voting have not been released, these debates indicated that branches and their delegates reject the proposals coming from the General Secretary and UCU officials. Members recognise the seriousness of the dispute and want the union to respond with the seriousness that the threat requires.

We will know what decisions HEC took on the basis of the BDMs very soon.

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