UCU’s National Executive Committee met for the first time this year on 22nd January for a “briefing” and discussion on the potential for collective action in colleges and universities in defence of members facing the risks of in person activity during the worsening Covid-19 pandemic. We were disappointed that NEC members were not allowed to bring motions or make any policy decisions at the meeting but pleased that we were able to discuss some of our key concerns
The meeting was reminded of legal protections offered in the Employment Rights Act 1976 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 providing individual workers with the right to refuse to work in an environment within which an immediate danger to life exists and imposes a requirement on employers to take reasonable steps to ensure employees’ safety. Referred to in abbreviated form as ‘Section 44 and 100’, UCU has developed a range of draft letters members can use to demand the right to refuse to undertake in-person activities:
NEC members heard a detailed report on how the National Education Union successfully mobilised its members in halting the re-opening of schools earlier in January. As a result Gavin Williamson was forced into a humiliating climbdown and closed schools just one day after opening. The NEU were hugely successful because of the on-going discussions and involvement of members taking place at all levels. The strong leadership shown by NEU and its NEC in campaigning for mass use of Section 44 and 100, by encouraging members and non-members to submit letters to their school Heads, and the co-ordination of this through their branch and reps network, was crucial to this. NEU’s level of organisation is far beyond what UCU is doing. In NEU processes for industrial action ballots have been fast tracked and steamlined, and all NEC members are required to work with local branches to co-ordinate the use of Section 44 and 100 letters and then report back to the NEC, to ensure accountability of elected members. Branches and reps at local levels are organising WhatsApp groups to facilitate immediate communication with members. As a result, NEU have been able to repeatedly call national meetings of thousands of reps at just a few days’ notice and held a historically unique meeting of 400,000 participants.
The briefing also heard from the UCU General Secretary and other officials about the actions the union has taken in supporting individual members; including Jo Grady’s welcome public statements calling on universities and colleges to move away from in-person activities or face industrial action from UCU. These include the success at Northumbria University which was the first union branch in the UK to successfully ballot over section 44 and 100, and at individual colleges, such as New City College, where the UCU branch replicated the initiatives of the NEU and rapidly stopped in-person teaching last week without a ballot. Notwithstanding these individual examples, the overall approach of the UCU leadership has unfortunately been in stark contrast to the mass mobilisation, national strategy and strong collective action taken by NEU. In general, UCU’s strategy has been to focus upon individual rather than collective approaches, placing a servicing rather than an organising model at that heart of our response. We have not matched anything in NEU and more problematically not attempted to emulate their experience. We have struggled to get the nationally elected bodies to meet and members meetings are top down affairs restricting engagement and discussion. Even our NEC emergency meeting was a ‘briefing’, with only a short time for discussion and devoid of any potential for decision making. Astonishingly in the face of the public health crisis, the NEC is not set to meet again until 19th March.
Following the briefings NEC members had the opportunity to discuss the UCU response to the pandemic. Across the NEC there was extensive frustration over this servicing model approach which clashes with the understanding of the lessons taken from the Strike School which recognises the importance of bold, decisive action and the mobilisation of the membership at the heart of our approach to winning demands. It was argued repeatedly by NEC members that this is impacting especially hard on our Black, disabled, women and casualised members, as we are well aware that inequalities have been reinforced due to the Covid crisis. These frustrations were not directed at staff, who are recognised as working as hard as the members in ensuring the union operates in the midst of the pandemic. However, it was recognised that the NEC does need to look at the extent to which our staffing is sufficient for an organising union.
NEC member after member across the board spoke of the increasing dangers of the working environment in both FE and HE, and in our communities, with moving references to the loss of friends, family and colleagues to COVID. Many reps expressed the view that there is no time to wait, and UCU leadership needs to urgently build collective action to assert our right to work safely. Disappointingly the General Secretary made no commitment to take on-board elected representatives’ concerns, focusing instead on the logistical challenges of organising mass online meetings. It is clear from NEU’s experience that not only is such mobilisation possible, it is also essential.
Fortunately, due to pressures from NEC members, both FEC and HEC are due to meet over the next few weeks. These need to move quickly to change the direction of the leadership of the union. While most universities and colleges have very limited in-person activity the current branches resisting job cuts and the return to in-person working show the need for urgent, nationally co-ordinated, robust action by UCU. The terrible deaths of our members, such as Donna Coleman at Burnley College, cannot be allowed to be replicated by our managements which will put ours’, and our students’, health at risk for their profits.