UCU Left report on Friday’s NEC

UNITE dispute means NEC is paralysed by its inability to instruct the General Secretary to settle the dispute and fails to look outwards. 

Unlike the first meeting of the HEC which dealt with all business, the first meeting of the NEC has been paralysed by its inability to hold the General Secretary to account. Unfortunately it was a very inward looking meeting and failed to orientate the union in a way that can meet the huge challenges facing the post-16 education sectors. 

The NEC by rule (28.2 and 29.2) has responsibility to instruct the General Secretary in relation to staff issues. The UNITE staff union’s dispute over racism, bullying and the breaking of the procedure agreement led to the abandonment of the second day of UCU Annual Congress and has now led to the halting of NEC members ability to instruct the GS to resolve the dispute.

A union that fails to have influence in the wider social and industrial environment it operates within, building confidence within its branches and the rank and file, inevitably begins to focus on control over internal structures. It is therefore no surprise  that the series of complaints that should have been resolved swiftly, robustly and internally in order to avoid a dispute, has now spread into the functioning and representation of the wider union.

Moreover, UCU’s retreat from UK coordinated industrial action over pay, jobs and conditions to a focus on local branch-level action will weaken rather than strengthen the national union. In doing so it leads to the General Secretary suggesting that an incoming Labour Government, under Starmer’s leadership, will repeal anti-union legislation in its first 100 days including the 50% threshold for ballots. It was optimistically suggested that this will open the door to a new era of industrial strength. We hope it does, but it only will if trade unions continue to fight for members – improved pay and conditions will not simply be granted from above.  

It was welcome to hear that the Labour Party has approached UCU to hear our solutions to the crises. We need to take any opportunities that we can to shape educational policy under the incoming government. In order to do this we need to build pressure on them to act, we cannot trust them to carry through on their words and platitudes. It was disappointing that the Congress decision to call a national demonstration in the Autumn term was not part of the GS report, and that that section was timed out before NEC members could ask about this. 

The right wing of our union places the paralysis of our union within a narrative of a dysfunctional NEC impeding the completion of ‘important’ union business. However, by ‘important’ they mean managing bureaucracy and avoiding urgent political questions, such as responding to racism in the forthcoming UK elections or motions from branches.

Very few decisions were taken on how UCU will take forward its important work. A motion was unanimously passed on organising against the CASS report by working with trans-led organisations and to pressure the government to improve trans healthcare. The second motion that was passed originally called to support the work of Stand Up To Racism in opposing the rise of the far-right in the UK. UCU is affiliated to Stand Up To Racism, the organisation that is at the heart of building opposition to the far right in the UK. However, the right in the union wants to over turn this affiliation through amending motions rather than taking the decision to Congress, and so the motion was amended which removed naming SUTR. Nevertheless, NEC did support that UCU members should campaign against the Reform Party and, importantly, to support, mobilise and publicise the counter demonstration against the nazi Tommy Robinson on 27th July. We hope this happens and that we see many UCU members with their banners alongside the rest of the trade union movement to oppose the far right. 

Many other motions fell due to time constraints – these covered issues such as defending the student protests. This was an important motion as we have seen hostile management actions and horrendous police aggression against student encampments, particularly at Oxford and Newcastle. 

There was very little discussion on Palestine, despite the overwhelming support at Congress for UCU to take action to provide solidarity and build the movement to oppose the war. 

Another decision that was taken was to move, in principle, to a hybrid Congress in 2025. At Congress 2024 a change in the standing orders was passed that enabled NEC to consider moving to hybrid Congress. We must ensure our democratic structures and conferences are open to all members, and for some, being able to join online will improve their ability to engage. However, the paper that was brought to NEC had very little detail on how a hybrid Congress would work. This is deeply concerning for issues of democracy and equality. 

Being part of a trade union is about feeling the sense of collectivity and solidarity. Attending in person meetings can enable members to meet others from across all our sectors and nations. For many, particularly women with caring responsibilities, it is very hard to take part in an online conference. If members are not encouraged to attend in person, it may seem an easy option to join online so they can continue with their day-to-day duties. However, this can lead to feeling isolated and disconnected. Moreover, disabled members at Congress and NEC spoke of the need to make Congress more accessible. We need to be finding ways to ensure people feel welcome and that Congress has an accessible and family friendly atmosphere, rather than feeling that Congress is not a space for them and that they need to join online. 

What is clear from Friday’s NEC is that the national leadership and the right in the union are unable to meet the challenges that we face. We must build a stronger rank and file movement within the union that can create the conditions to push back against this bureaucratic inertia.

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