This sector conference was called after at least 28 branches passed motions requisitioning a special meeting (20 branches’ motions were officially accepted). This is nearly half the branches involved in the USS dispute.
The original aim of the conference call was to pin down the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) and ensure that it was, in a real sense, transparent and accountable to members.
However due to the delay in accepting that the 20-branch threshold had been passed at UCU head office, the meeting eventually took place on 21 June, three weeks after UCU’s “ordinary” sector conference at Congress. Nonetheless the meeting was packed out by delegates from across the country. The same spirit that took the union through 14 days of strike action was evident in the room.
Disturbingly, a set of motions on JEP transparency (and in particular demanding UCU panel members do not sign non-disclosure agreements, or “NDAs”) were ruled out of order because “the decision had been made by members in the ballot”. Yet confidentiality was not even mentioned in Sally Hunt’s lengthy UCU ballot letters asking members to vote Yes. Sector Conference voted to overturn CBC and hear those motions, most of which were passed.
In addition to demanding JEP transparency, the conference also demanded answers from the JEP. The conference passed motions to demand that the JEP model alternative valuations relaxing the various constraints that USS had imposed (the infamous ‘Test 1’ and ‘de-risking’ among them) to publish the results, and to publish any additional assumptions. Similarly a motion from Warwick listed questions that the JEP needed to answer.
Sector Conference voted against any consideration of ‘Collective Defined Contribution’ schemes either by negotiators or by the JEP. These are Defined Contribution schemes available in other countries but where the investment risk is shared by all scheme members. Like individual DC schemes they still involve the transfer of risk to pensioners. Currently in the UK there is no legal framework for these schemes. For both these reasons UCU should not pursue them.
Other motions passed included planning bi-annual delegate meetings to review JEP progress at sector conferences during the dispute (with a consultative ballot of members to relaunch a dispute triggered if progress was deemed inadequate or problematic), and further refining the terms of reference of the USS Dispute Committee (essentially, the same principle).
Notably, UCU agreed a carefully-worded motion from Brighton that allowed branches in post-92 universities with USS members to have a say and involvement in campaigning over USS. The current voting policy (‘convention’) of pre-92 university delegates voting in a USS dispute with Universities UK is maintained, but the motion encouraged ways for UCU to consult with members through other means. Following intervention from the floor, and in an important moment of unity, both pre- and post-92 delegates were allowed to vote on this motion.
There was some considerable discontent that only 2.5 hours had been allocated for the event, to which 27 motions had been submitted. Inevitably, five motions fell off the agenda due to time constraints. These were all remitted to the HEC.*
This meeting built on the successful Sector Conference at Congress and further strengthened union members’ ability to hold the JEP and our negotiators to account while they make crucial decisions which will determine the future of our pensions. The stakes could not be higher and delegates recognised the seriousness of the task ahead.
The situation could not be clearer. If the JEP is unable to present a solution to the USS JNC that reduces the projected deficit, and thereby eliminates the cuts in benefits or increases in contributions planned, UCU now has all necessary mechanisms to restart the dispute.
*Motions 1-12, 14 and 15 were passed, and motions 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 were remitted to the Higher Education Committee. The delegates from Strathclyde representing motion 19 sought its withdrawal but was prevented from doing so, and this will need to be addressed at HEC. Motions A, C, D, and E were voted back onto the agenda and passed with some amendment.