UCU Left voting advice for the 19 April Special Higher Education Sector Conference

We might agree with the sentiments of motion HE1 (‘Solidarity, struggle and reconciliation’), but the assumption that disagreement per se is damaging is wrong, and patronising to reps. Debate is the lifeblood of a democratic union. All industrial action requires members to be argued with to go on strike or take part in a Marking And Boycott (MAB). The ‘resolves’ section is thus misguided and impractical. 

Second, once motions of censure and no-confidence in the GS are ruled out of order by CBC (B8-11) then HE1 and HE23 should also be out of order. HE1 appears to be a coded attempt to see off a vote of no-confidence in the General Secretary and should be remitted, or opposed if remission is lost. 

Support HE2 on USS and 4 Fights. This is the key debate. The strategic strength of coupling the 4 fights and USS disputes – uniting pre and post 92 sectors across the generational divide – cannot be overstated. The brilliant ballot results announced on 3 April, with higher percentages for action in both campaigns on a record turnout, are of paramount importance in this debate.

Oppose HE3 which proposes decoupling the 4 Fights from the USS dispute. This repeats superficial observations about progress in the USS dispute, concluding that 4 Fights and USS campaigns must be decoupled. We know from recent experience that strike action cannot be turned on and off like a tap, and from past experience that decoupling action on 4 fights and USS reduces the effectiveness of both.

Oppose late motion L1 which aims to halt the MAB. Our starting point is that members have just voted, in a ballot that closed on 31 March, 89.05% in favour of strike action and 91.61% in favour of ASOS for the USS dispute, and on 4 Fights, 85.65% and 89.92% respectively. They did so understanding that this could only mean a MAB in the third term. Remarkably, L1 sets a ‘reject’ threshold of 66.67% of all members (not just those who voted): far higher than the anti-trade union laws! The e-consultation presented members with two options: to ‘note’ or ‘reject’. L1 conflates ‘note’ (progress made in negotiations) with ‘accept’. And it’s wrong to state that action to-date has “delivered results on all four claims”. L1 also ignores what we know to be true: that serious industrial action drives recruitment and builds union density: ‘recruitment drives’ disconnected from action do not.

There are three motions which attempt to use strike action to back up the MAB. However we should avoid the risk of allowing this strategy to be misinterpreted. Depending on how HE4 and its consequentials are interpreted, we should support HE5 in preference to HE4. HE4 is a restatement of the proposal from last year’s Special HE Sector Conferences, which is explained more clearly in HE5. However, last year those HE4-type motions were interpreted by the officials as calling 10 days of strike action (and only 10 days) independent from the MAB. This is not what the motion says of course, but HE5 is clearer.

Listen to the debate. If HE5 supersedes HE4, then vote for both HE4 and HE5. If they are not agreed to be compatible, vote for HE5 in preference to HE4. Support HE6.

The 4 Fights dispute is addressed in HE7 and HE8, which we recommend delegates support. The anti-casualisation element of 4 Fights is rightly foregrounded by HE8, which makes the inclusion of concrete proposals to address insecurity a prerequisite to settling the dispute.

Motion HE9 has been overtaken by events, but otherwise resolves “to use the 2020 offer from UCEA on casualisation, workloads and pay inequalities as a template for an agreement […]”, which is helpful, and “to begin immediate preparations for a marking and assessment boycott to escalate the dispute to improve the pay offer”, which takes the decoupling of the USS and 4 fights disputes as a starting point. HE9 should be remitted or opposed if remission is lost.

The future of the USS dispute is examined by motions HE10, amendment HE10.A1, and HE11. In particular, HE11 prioritises benefit restoration over the reduction of contributions, the former benefitting all staff, and the latter, the employers (as contributions are split 66% / 33% between employers and staff). Both HE10 and HE11 should be supported.

Oppose amendment HE10.A1. At a glance this adds helpful clarifications, but it replaces ‘Conferences believes a satisfactory resolution of the USS dispute requires’, which restates negotiation boundaries, with ‘Conference believes restoration of trust in USS requires’, removing any relevance to the conduct of our industrial dispute.

The next group of motions (HE12 through HE15) consider how to deal with offers from the employers. Support HE12, HE13 and HE15. However, delegates should remit or oppose HE14, which does not add to policy but creates an ambiguity about what a ‘significant improvement’ might mean. The motion says any offer that is a ‘significant improvement’ on the March 15 offer should be put to members whether or not that offer is an improvement on subsequent offers. Suppose it is agreed to put out an offer of 6% for next year and that is rejected by members. Should we then consult members over a further offer of 5.5% or 6.1%? 

We can’t address this problem by passing a motion at SHESC and gaming every possible scenario in advance. Instead we need to support motions HE16-19 on ensuring that we strengthen our democratic structures at branch level, so that reps and members can discuss any offers in branches without premature e-ballots and start-stop action, and HEC can meaningfully engage with branch reps. 

The remaining motions, with the exception of HE25, address the various abuses of UCU democratic structures and rules that have occurred over the course of this dispute. The following motions should all be supported:

  • HE16 – Democratise Branch Delegate Meetings
  • HE17 – Elected negotiators and democracy
  • HE18 – Observe UCU’s democratic rules and structures
  • HE19 – For democratic control over disputes

Motion HE20 argues that existing UCU policy against the use of informal e-polls or consultative e-ballots should be respected.  The wording suggests that input by HEC and sufficient time for discussion in branches and BDMs might make such e-ballots acceptable. 

We need a proper debate about the use and misuse of e-ballots in our union. We have witnessed the GS and her team putting out consultative e-ballots as a bargaining ‘ploy’, to retrospectively justify standing down ‘pauses’ in industrial action, and to twice canvass support for ending action and putting out offers to members. These e-ballots were put out to members, not just without HEC input into the questions asked, but without reference to HEC, HE officers or elected negotiators.

UCU has clear policy (the Commission for Effective Industrial Action Report adopted by Congress 2018) limiting the use of consultative e-ballots to ‘a campaigning tool which carries the relevant officers/committee’s recommendations as opposed to a passive surveying of members’ views’ (Recommendation 11). When HEC (or any other committee charged with this purpose) considers an offer from the employers to be sufficient to put to a ballot of members, HEC must always specify its voting recommendation (Recommendation 8). Although the wording could be clearer, we recommend a vote to support HE20.

Support HE21, in solidarity with members pressured to reschedule classes, and HE22, which expresses concern at many of the problems with the way the disputes have been conducted by UCU HQ.

The arguments about the first e-consultation on USS and the ACAS-negotiated 4 fights statement are revisited in motion HE23. It is surprising that a motion to censure HEC has been permitted for debate by CBC but not motions criticising the GS.

This motion should be opposed, for the simple reason that it attempts to rewrite history. First, the processes mentioned (e-poll, BDM) are constitutionally informal and ‘advisory’, whereas the elected HEC is charged with making decisions, including on the basis of information that is industrially sensitive and not shared with members. Second, the questions asked of members and their framing were not agreed by HEC or HE officers, despite UCU policy and HEC passing motions that insist that they should be. Third, the specific e-poll mentioned (with a double-barrelled question) was seen by reps as such a serious misuse of process – and an attack on branch democracy – that the Branch Delegate Meeting became extremely heated. Fourth, the motion misrepresents the decision of HEC, which was not to refuse to consult, but to not rush out a poorly-constructed consultation at the same time as conducting industrial action. Vote HE23 down, which is a poorly-worded attack on basic trade union democracy and accountability at branch and HEC level. 

Support HE24. Though we might quibble about the impact of strike action being ‘uncertain’, we are in favour of encouraging students to pressure university management.

Many branches will be concerned with punitive pay deductions for taking part in the MAB. HE25 proposes seeking favourable legal advice on this threat, which in some institutions has spread to include demands to reschedule cancelled lectures. The best remedy to punitive deductions in any institution is a rapid escalation to all-out strike action at a national level (a tactic which HE5 explicitly supports). However, that is not an argument to oppose the motion, as legal arguments can be an important factor in bolstering members’ confidence.

Summary of voting recommendations

HE1 – Solidarity, struggle and reconciliationRemit / Against
HE2 – USS and Four FightsFor
HE3 – Composite: Decoupling the Four Fights from the USS disputeAgainst
L1 – Marking and Assessment Boycott – Four FightsAgainst
HE4 – Supporting a marking and assessment boycott (MAB)For
HE5 – Industrial action: MABs, strikes, and BDMsFor (in preference to HE4)
HE6 – Responding to 100% MAB deductionsFor
HE7 – Winning Four FightsFor
HE8 – Composite: The ever-increasing casualisation and insecurity in HE needs addressing urgentlyFor
HE9 – Consulting on UUK offer and escalating dispute with UCEARemit / Against
HE10 – Restoring trust and value to USSFor
HE11 – Restore USS benefits in full before contributions reductions are consideredFor
HE12 – Meaningful, democratic, transparent and informed consultationFor
HE13 – Informed decision-makingFor
HE14 – Formal consultation on offers if the disputes continueRemit / Against
HE15 – Taking democratic control of our disputesFor
HE16 – Democratise Branch Delegate Meetings (BDMs)For
HE17 – Elected negotiators and democracyFor
HE18 – Observe UCU’s democratic rules and structuresFor
HE19 – For democratic control over disputesFor
HE20 – Respect the union’s existing policy against the use of “consultative” eballotsFor
HE21 – Solidarity against discrimination and victimizationFor
HE22 – Negative Impact of short notice consultation on strikeFor
HE23 – Censure HEC for 17 March DecisionAgainst
HE24 – UCU to encourage students to pressure management during strike actionFor
HE25 – Challenging the legality of pay deductions for ASOSFor

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