For the first time since 2019, UCU came together in-person, in its annual Congress: a three-day union policy conference with delegates from every branch. The meeting included two days of general union policy-making, ‘Congress’, and one day of sector conferences where motions about industrial policy would be heard.
The fact that Congress met in-person after such a period of time is remarkable. Many delegates who attended had not been before. In the dark days of lockdown, many old hands would be forgiven for expecting that a return to an in-person Congress would not be possible. Although we have seen a flourishing of online meetings and conferences since 2020, the return of an in-person conference therefore represented new opportunities and challenges for delegates.
There were sharp disagreements which were generally handled well, but there was also a very large amount of unity across Congress delegates.
Further Education Sector Conference
On Sunday, the Further Education Sector Conference heard the Head of FE launch the campaign in preparation of ballots in the new academic term involving at least 150 branches. He said this would be the biggest and the best resourced campaign that FE had ever seen.
Delegates voted to outline how the already agreed nationally-coordinated campaign over pay, workload and an England-wide binding bargaining agreement should be conducted.
They supported calls for a demonstration in London on one of the first days of strike action, an England-wide strike committee, and to prepare for an aggregated ballot of all FE branches from January if the coordinated campaign had not succeeded in moving the employers.
Delegates also supported a raft of other important motions on maternity/paternity rights, parity with sixth form colleges, the impact of the cost of living crisis on Black members’ mental health, which resolved to campaign for the government to publish data on the disproportionate impact it has had on Black people, and motions in support of trans and non binary people in FE.
The Yorkshire and Humberside motion on attendance monitoring in colleges was well supported after delegates explained the corrosive impact on staff and students on punitive attendance chasing policies, which are rife within the sector.
A late motion brought by Trafford college on the negative impact of Ofsted in the wake of the tragic death of Ruth Perry was unanimously supported.
Higher Education Sector Conference
Meanwhile at the Higher Education Sector Conference, delegates voted for a long reballot over the summer in both the Four Fights and USS disputes. Our existing mandate runs out in September and without the ability to threaten further action in the autumn term the employers will be tempted to harden their stance against the MAB and may renege on promises on pensions.
HE delegates also voted to encourage branches to call strike committees if they had not done so already, and to call a national strike committee in HE disputes. Such a committee would have a coordinating role to ‘increase members’ involvement and participation in building disputes and [shape] their direction.’ Delegates should be elected from every striking (or MABbing) branch and meet regularly while action is being taken. (The meeting would be advisory, but they should be run by union members rather than officials. A rule change motion which would have created rules and standing orders for a national strike/‘dispute’ committee with decision-making powers was not heard on Saturday due to lack of time.)
The responsibility for calling a national strike committee now falls to the incoming President. Given that the UK-wide MAB is now at an acute point, one should be called urgently in the Four Fights dispute.
Motions calling for further exploration of Conditional Indexation in USS and a ‘student distribution system’ were also passed. UCU Left opposed CI because it risks becoming a way that USS reintroduces stock market uncertainty into members’ pensions just as we are close to a victory.
We also questioned the wisdom of focusing on balancing student numbers rather than opposing the entire market system, in which Universities UK is lobbying for £12K undergraduate fees in England and next year’s undergraduates are signed up to 40 year RPI-based loans. This is not opposition in principle but concerns the practical implications of such a stance. The risk is that this opens the door to advocates of high tuition fees, dividing members and branches, and staff from students and parents. The motion called for both exploration of student redistribution models and the immediate advocacy of the idea – which seems premature!
Accountability of the General Secretary
One of the most difficult debates also relates to democracy.
On Saturday, Congress voted to censure the General Secretary over her role in the HE dispute. (Censure means formally criticise.) A motion of ‘no confidence’, which is more serious, fell by only 27 votes. Before Congress met, eleven HE branches had submitted motions of either censure or no confidence.
Delegates criticised the continual undermining of the HE disputes through pausing strikes at key moments, ignoring HEC decisions and blocking democratically elected national negotiators from key decisions.
FE delegates shared these concerns. As one put it, ‘We in FE are heading into a dispute on a national level next year. We do not want a long-drawn-out dispute which is paused at key moments when we should be escalating to win.’
The General Secretary was allowed a 15-minute right to reply after the debate but before the voting took place. She admitted mistakes had been made and spoke about how we need unity if the union is to move forward to beat the employers.
At the end of the debate, Congress voted to censure her. The fact that the ‘no confidence’ motion fell indicates that delegates were prepared to give the General Secretary a chance to rectify the way she has handled the disputes.
Congress has made a decision. It is not one that UCU Left agrees with, but we need to draw a line under this debate and move on to winning the ballots in FE, and pursuing the MAB. We will also need to reballot in HE to maintain our mandate. This raises the prospect that we could see a united post-16 strike over pay and conditions in the autumn.
But on her part the General Secretary must make good on her promise to learn from the mistakes that have been made. Any recurrence of attempts to undermine democratic decisions will lead to members calling our elected leadership to account again.
Worryingly, on the last day of Congress the outgoing President said that some of the speeches in Saturday’s debate had been misogynistic, i.e., sexist and abusive. This is a surprising claim, firstly because the debate was witnessed by over 300 members, and secondly because if the chair (the President) felt this, she should have intervened at the time! In fact, the debate was characterised by a high level of care by all delegates. Delegates were very careful to focus on the actions of the General Secretary rather than making remarks directed to her personally.
The debate is not about personalities, but who controls the disputes. Members are putting themselves on the line when they strike or MAB, and they expect their union leadership not to leave them high and dry.
The best solution is to organise. Members in disputes need to continue to strengthen union democracy, and in particular to organise real, functioning strike committees – regular decision-making meetings open to every striker or MABber – in every institution participating in the dispute.
What kind of democracy do we need?
The other big debate about democracy, which was reflected in both the HE Conference and the full Congress, concerned e-ballots versus deliberative democracy.
Some delegates argued that electronic surveys and polls reached more members than branch meetings or strike committees, and therefore were either superior, or should be used in addition to other forms of decision-making. These arguments were voted down, primarily because delegates have witnessed how such e-polls can be misused in the HE disputes. If they run in parallel with branch meetings, how do you integrate possibly different results? If they run as a separate step, do they lead to delay and inaction?
Changes to union rules
Congress 2022 last year had established a committee to review Rule 13, the UCU procedure for dealing with complaints against union members, in response to concerns about the fairness of the procedure. This year, Congress voted to bring in a new procedure, which establishes a new body, the Conduct of Members Committee, to deal with these complaints. This body will be comprised of members elected by Congress, increasing lay member involvement in internal processes that were previously highly centralised. Congress’s wish to democratise union procedures should be seen as part of a more general will to improve democracy and accountability within our union, also seen, for example, in motions such as those to establish strike committees.
UCU Left supported the proposals from the Rule 13 Commission and opposed an Open University amendment, which was passed, which established a different panel for gender-based violence and bullying which would have only a single UCU member and two external members ‘qualified in survivor-centred complaint investigation and resolution.’ We consider that these are very serious issues, but opposed the creation of a separate procedure. We also believe that UCU needs to be accountable for the behaviour of its members and take responsibility for sanctioning them when required.
Having a separate procedure for gender-based violence raises the issue of separate procedures for racially-motivated violence, and violence against disabled and LGBT+ people. It is also not clear whether any citation of bullying in a complaint would cause this alternative procedure to be selected. This is a debate we will have to return to.
In an historic vote, Congress also agreed to rule changes that permit postgraduate research students (‘PGRs’) to become UCU members on an equal basis to staff, even if they were not employed at the time. Although delegates were made aware of some issues of implementation – primarily, access to legal support and industrial action ballots (like retired members, student members can’t lawfully vote in statutory ballots) – these were not considered insurmountable, and the principle of inclusion was paramount.
Another rule change clarified the role of national negotiators and their reporting responsibilities.
After a thorough debate, delegates voted for two motions on Ukraine. Both motions took a clear position of opposition to the Russian invasion, demanded Russian troops leave, condemned all manifestations of imperialism, and called for peace. The first motion called for the British government to stop sending arms to Ukraine, opposed NATO expansionism and called on UCU to support demonstrations called by the Stop the War Coalition and CND. The second motion called for UCU to campaign for safe routes for all refugees and asylum speakers, for the cancellation of Ukraine’s national debt, and tasked the UCU with developing programmes of practical solidarity work.
Congress was persuaded by those who argued that the war was escalating in violence and weaponry, with an arms race of ever more high-tech weapons being deployed on both sides, risking prolonging the war, killing tens of thousands of working-class Ukrainians and Russian soldiers, and increasing the likelihood of a nuclear conflagration.
Congress also voted to support the ‘Right to Boycott’ campaign, a new campaign being set up to oppose Government plans to make Boycott Divestment and Sanctions policies of public bodies illegal. Already this topic has caused the union to become legally defensive, despite the union winning the famous Fraser vs. UCU legal case. Congress voted to reinstate, and then support, an amendment to the motion which reminded members of existing policy towards academic boycott of Israeli institutions and their academic freedom right to decide who to collaborate with.
Along with other motions in support of the Palestinian struggle and in solidarity with the people of Sudan, these motions were overwhelmingly supported.
In a series of debates, Congress reaffirmed its commitment to trans and non-binary solidarity and LGBT+ rights. It also took forward proposals on sex workers’ rights, and sexual and gender based violence training, including in the internal UCU complaints procedure. A range of motions on disability advocacy and support were passed, including supporting disabled students and campaigning against Cost of Living and cuts in disability entitlements.
A motion on reparations for slavery that had fallen off the agenda last year was brought forward in the agenda and supported overwhelmingly.
Finally UCU voted to campaign against the various new far right extremist groups who have been given a platform to attack refugees by the Government’s brazen scapegoating.
Solidarity with UEA and Brighton branches
Congress unanimously passed motions of solidarity with two branches suffering serious redundancy threats at the moment – University of East Anglia and University of Brighton.
Delegates heard that the attack at Brighton University, involving the threat to over 100 academic jobs, was also a deliberate assault on the UCU branch there with the aim of driving through further changes in breach of the post-92 national contract. Four members of the branch committee are on the ‘at risk’ list, including the Chair, who was also recently re-elected to the union’s NEC.
Congress agreed that the struggle at Brighton should be declared ‘a local dispute of national significance’ and the branch should be provided with the resources it needs to resist this serious attack.
Branches in London and the South East, and some from further afield, committed to sending delegations with their branch banners to the ‘Save Brighton University – No to mass redundancies’ demonstration called by Brighton UCU for Saturday 10th June.