UCU Higher Education Sector Conference 2020 Report

Members pay and pensions are under threat but is UCU’s leadership capable of resistance?

The Higher Education Conference, originally timetabled for May 2020, finally took place in an interim form, with a truncated set of motions and restricted opportunities for speaker’s contributions, on December 15th. Nevertheless, the fact it took place at all, after the cancellation of the originally timetabled virtual conference in October is important. The labour movement is rapidly getting familiarised with video conferencing technology and this time the conference, organised on Zoom, worked better than previous attempts. However, the limited opportunity to discuss and debate, due to delegates having to register to speak in advance, and the voting taking place afterwards are areas that need further consideration.

Overall, the outcome of the voting does not indicate that delegates are yet convinced that the threats to pay and pensions are as serious as the left are arguing or that UCU is yet capable of mobilising a UK-wide fightback. A key motion (HE2) from Yorkshire & Humberside Region on USS to start a campaign for industrial action was remitted by 51 votes to 49. Its two amendments to identify how a strategy could be developed have been marked as lost, but presumably should be also be remitted.

USS is under threat yet again, as USS probably wants to end the Defined Benefit (DB) scheme and employers are not prepared to unite with UCU to defend it or may even support moving to Defined Contributions (DC).  The strategy that the USS crisis ‘will only be resolved through constructive negotiation’ proposed in L1 from Sheffield, which was passed, is insufficient.  It will our willingness to act rather than negotiation on its own that will alter this dynamic and allow us to win.  Voting for a ballot would have shown employers and USS that we are serious and willing to take action as necessary to defend USS pensions.  Remitting HE2 has done the opposite and given totally the wrong signals.  We need to ensure a special HESC, as agreed by the meeting of branches many months ago and implied in HE1, takes place at the end of January/early February to change this.

Similarly over pay, delegates voted in favour of HE5 Sheffield UCU’s motion (by 72 to 43 votes) on multi-year pay deals, which in the current economic climate would likely mean multi-year pay cuts. It is clear that an undue pessimism from the leadership of UCU, particularly in their interpretation of last year’s 22 days of strike action, weighs heavily on activists and particularly those whose involvement in the union structures originates in the pre-92 USS disputes. Our strikes demonstrated that the union can defend members, can unite its differing sectors and interests together and do have power to disrupt the sector. Our actions continue to see membership growing as those previously not engaged in a trade union see the potential to challenge what is going wrong in the sector. In particular the link between the #FourFights pay campaign and the USS dispute was symbolic of our recognition that unity is strength and no section of the union will be ignored. That we did not win immediate tangible gains has however led many to draw pessimistic conclusions about the inability to fight for change. This ignores the fact that fighting for our rights is hard work and may require several rounds of industrial action.  It would be wonderful, but unrealistic to expect only resounding victories.  We need to keep on when we have setbacks or even defeats.  If we give up at the first hurdle our employers will walk all over us, we will lose UK-wide bargaining and the USS pension scheme. This is why the conclusions of UCU’s Commission for Effective Industrial Action was a rejection of the tokenistic strategies of the past (click here).

This pessimism was also reflected in motion HE4 Queen Margaret University which sought to suggest that the post-92 interests over pay were subsumed into the pre-92 interests over pensions. Post-92 institutions UCU branches are, as pre-92 institutions were over USS, being transformed by strike action. It is instructive that Brighton, Northumbria and Manchester Met, to name a few, are branches leading industrial disputes in Higher Education and smashing through the anti-union ballot thresholds. Importantly, delegates rejected HE4 by 47:66 votes indicating that a willingness to unite the union still is evident. For similar reasons delegates voted unanimously for HE12 University of Winchester, defending members in the Teachers Pensions Schemes in post-92 institutions from rising contribution levels.

HE6 on Local Agreements from the HEC and motions HE8-11 covering causalisation, academic related staff and researchers respectively were also passed overwhelmingly. These together called for the impetus built up around the #FourFights pay inequality elements to be built into local negotiations and not to be abandoned. While delegates may not yet have the confidence to initiate industrial action now these motions suggest there is no appetite to abandon demands for equality in the union. This was also the case for HE13 on supporting Black researchers through mentoring and monitoring of career paths. Other motions debated included HE7 on the use of domestic flights and climate change which was remitted, largely for its minimalist approach to tacking climate change and two further motions on USS from the Higher Education Committee D43 and D44.Both discussed the damaging impact on UCU’s voice in the Trustee Board the adoption of Master trust regulations have and the motions sought to find mechanisms to remove the Defined Benefit scheme from these regulations. D44 was passed awhile D43 was lost by 43 to 49 votes.

Despite some pessimism at UK level, UCU is organising ballots for industrial action in dozens of branches over conditions at work, health and safety in response to Covid-19 and redundancies.  Heriot Watt’s excellent ballot result made their management step down, Northumbria University has now beaten their record for the highest turnout and Brighton has had their first days of strike action.  We need to build on this strength and confidence at branch level and transfer it to a UK-wide campaign on pay, equality, anti-casualisation and pensions.  We can still win and cannot afford not to.  If we do not all members will be affected, but the most disastrous impacts will be on younger, casualised, Black and minority ethnic, Disabled, women and LGBT+ members.

The union finds itself organising ballots for industrial action in dozens of branches over conditions a work, health and safety over Covid-19 and redundancies. This is a time when members are demanding a co-ordinated UK-wide response. UCU HEC is failing to develop this strategy and it is therefore up to activists to build that solidarity and unified response. On the 16th January the UCU Solidarity Movement holds their next conference. This can act as a major staging post in the rebuilding of the confidence and militancy UCU needs. Every activist should seek to build this conference.

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