What happened at the recall HE Sector Conference

What next for UCU?

Whatever happens next, Tuesday 24th February 2015 will likely go down as a pivotal moment in the history of UCU. On that date, and after more than twenty HE branches had passed motions calling for a sector conference to debate the Pensions disputes, UCU held a special HE Sector Conference of branch delegates. This was the first time since the start of the dispute that ordinary members delegated by branches had been allowed a say in the conduct and strategy of the dispute.

The great divide

The meeting exposed a massive gulf between two different camps in the union about what to do when the employers (or in this case, the employers plus the USS trustees and city bankers) go on the offensive over members’ terms and conditions.

·       On the one side is the position of the majority of the union leadership, and the Independent Broad Left (IBL) faction that attempts to organise them. They say that members won’t fight to defend their pay and pensions, or that if they take industrial action, the action will not be sufficient to influence the employers. Consequently we must prioritise entering negotiations with the employers over all other considerations. They consider their approach “pragmatic”, “realistic” and “responsible”.

·       On the other side are those representing the ranks of ordinary members, including the UCU Left, who believe that with proper leadership and targeted industrial action we could have won much more. This side of the debate united those who (rightly) simply refuse to give up, with experienced local reps and branch officers who have won often bitter local disputes. We recognise that members are furious at the way the deal was sold to them in the snap e-ballot in January, and that the union never even explained to them what their proposed Plan B, should they decide to reject the offer, would consist of. They were abandoned to a Hobson’s choice – accept the rotten deal or jump into an abyss of unspecified national industrial action.

The outcome of that vote was inevitable – but it is difficult to see why members would vote for volunteering a pension cut unless they were misled! The vote, which combined several propositions, could equally be seen as a vote of no confidence in the national union’s leadership. The union now faces a huge crisis of credibility, and those who keep repeating the line that “this was the best that could be achieved” will merely alienate members and encourage resignations.

This so-called “pragmatism” is really a policy of surrender. In a situation of an employers’ offensive, where institutions like Queen Mary, Warwick, SOAS and their ‘competitors’ have begun to fire and hire staff to improve REF scores and chase a high-tuition-fee marketplace, this “strategy” is equivalent to the captain of the Titanic “pragmatically and responsibly” engaging with an iceberg.

The employers came to take 20-27% off our pensions. The result of the dispute is that the UCU negotiated this down to 10-15%, but not by making the employers pay a penny more! Instead, they negotiated for us to increase our payments! Current CRB members have to pay 23% more in contributions for an improved return (improved, if they never enter the Defined Contribution, DC, section). Current Final Salary members have to pay 6.667% more for the privilege of having our “Final Salary” frozen at April 2016 salary levels. This outcome was inevitable because negotiations in the absence of credible industrial action and mobilisation of members placed no pressure on the employers to pay more or to join us in arguing to change the artificial deficit prediction.

The DC element will become the mechanism for undermining the entire USS scheme. Those on higher salaries (including VCs and Senior Management Teams) will be dependent on it, so they will become politically disinterested in defending the standard scheme. It individualises pension provision, making it harder to fight for improvements. And in the long run it will cost the employers less – 12% instead of 18% – and the threshold can be easily moved by another “deficit” scare in the future. The next valuation of the scheme in 2017 means the next round of pension cuts will not be far off.

The question of whether and how UCU is prepared to resist employer attacks on our sector is now the key debate for our union. The HESC outlined the contours of that debate in a clearer way, among a broader layer of members, than ever before.

What happened at the Conference?

UCU Special Higher Education Sector Conference on 24th February was finally called in response to motions from over twenty branches demanding accountability and answers to the debacle of the USS dispute and attempting to re-establish democratic control over our union’s leadership.

A new layer of activists questioned the direction of our union and was appalled by the capitulation and lack of leadership by the majority of the UCU HEC and senior officials. That the negotiators could maintain they had stuck to UCU policy while accepting a Defined Contribution pension scheme (something even they described as a ‘Trojan Horse’), was recognised as complete nonsense.

This is just one example of where the leadership simply ignored UCU policy that was supposed to constrain their actions. There is a serious democratic deficit in our union whereby members’ decisions in elections and ballots and votes at national Congresses and Conferences can be selectively ignored by an IBL majority on the HEC.

On the day, the right wing managed to hold off the challenge from the left.

If Motion 2 had passed, UCU would have had to restart the USS dispute and reballot members for industrial action. This could have forced concessions from the employers but was lost by 44 votes to 30. Let us put this in context. Never before in its entire history has UCU (or its predecessor unions AUT and NATFHE) ever come close to restarting a national dispute after it had formally ended! The fact that the vote happened at all, or was so close, is a reflection of the fact that very many ordinary members believe that the dispute was improperly shut down.

Motion 1, criticising the leadership of the USS campaign for the abandonment of the democratically agreed strategy was lost 36 to 41. Motion 3, on re-stating our policy to respond to punitive deductions in pay by employers during industrial disputes with national strike action, was lost 50 to 57 votes (this vote included post-92 delegates) and finally Motion 4 demanding democratic decision making is restored was lost 34 to 40.

The narrowness of these votes shows that in Higher Education the influence of the existing leadership around the IBL is now facing a huge challenge. They are squeezed between increasingly aggressive employers who call their bluff, and members who demand better. Anyone who wants to see a national union that fights seriously to defend the interests of its members and to defend the HE sector must draw some key lessons from this conference. But it also shows that the Left is not currently strong enough to wrest control back to put members back in control of their union.

The so-called “pragmatic” camp of our union, led by the IBL, promotes the idea that we can’t defeat the employers, so we negotiate the best deal we can – and then abandon our fight. As one delegate from Queen Mary objected, when rejecting the idea the union had been “dealt a weak hand” responded “we didn’t even play our cards”. Members were never mobilised or engaged for industrial action and were only treated as a stage army for two weeks in October.

The politics of the IBL, echoed by some of the UCU’s national officials, comes from a pessimism over the possibility of winning potential improvements for members. If employers are aggressive or intransigent, we will have to concede.

This is not just a question of national disputes. When translated to the institutional level, it means officials being encouraged to go direct to management to broker deals, undermining local branch leaderships that want to fight job losses, and presenting cuts as ‘partnership’. Where members are organised effectively they can retain control of negotiations and candidly report back to members through branch meetings. But where members are less well organised, or local reps are persuaded that they should accept the line coming from HQ, the national picture of secret negotiations and rotten deals can be reproduced.

Let us recognise where we are. The fact that we failed to restart the USS dispute is a defeat, but we now have an opportunity to work with the layer of activists to rebuild our union from the grassroots. At the heart of this approach must be a demand for democracy in our union and accountability of those elected to positions of leadership.

The first step is to campaign against the introduction of the Defined Contribution element in the USS pension scheme during the 60-day consultation USS now has to legally undertake with all members of the scheme. We have to argue that this was imposed in negotiations by the employers in the teeth of opposition from UCU. We do not accept that members voted for this, not least because it is impossible to value it!

But we cannot just campaign. We have to get organised. No-one can have confidence that a leadership which described final salary pension schemes as a ‘relic’ will defend a Career Average scheme, let alone roll back these cuts.

We need to organise a network of members who want to see a fighting, democratic UCU. Such a network will genuinely be a broad-based coalition of members with a variety of different ideas. At the core, will be those committed to a Left politics of anti-austerity, resistance to injustice, discrimination and inequality. But such are the times that many people who don’t even think of themselves as “left wing” are allied to such a project. As many new delegates found to their surprise, merely being prepared to fight hard to defend your pension marks you out as “left wing” in the era of cuts and austerity! To defend basic social-democratic gains of the last fifty years from a set of employers and managers who care for corporate finances but not a fig for academic values, we need to organise a much bigger and stronger side in the argument for the future of our union.

Along the way we will have to unite against every attempt to divide us. We must maximise the turnout for the demonstrations against Pegida in Newcastle on the 28th February and the European day against UKIP in London and Glasgow on 21st March.

In UCU Left we are trying to build this necessary defence within our union. This Conference showed that UCU Left represents a different perspective can unify the left in defence of our members pay, jobs and conditions. UCU Left is not a luxury in UCU, instead it is a necessity. We welcome all activists who care about the future of their union and their sector to join UCU Left as a matter of urgency.

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