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UCU Congress Report From Your Delegates

Congress report from your branch delegates (Catherine Pope, Joe Viana, Jeremy Jones)

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The annual congress is the place where UCU policy gets made – some 500 delegates from FE and HE branches and from regions and other committees debate motions. This year Congress was in Manchester and began on Friday with Higher Education business. This included a number of largely uncontroversial motions, many of which reaffirmed existing union policy for HE. There were motions against performance related pay, the inappropriate use of student feedback in performance management, REF, workloads, casualization and grade drift. Of note for this branch was the motion HE13 calling for representation of the professoriate so that UCU can act for all levels of academic staff, and a request for equality impact assessments of the ESRC decision to focus doctoral training in research intensive universities.

We were provided with an update on progress with talks about USS pension. It was clear that some progress had been made although comparison with TPS suggested that the current offer was less favourable than that proposed for TPS. Our national officers advised us to continue our suspension of strike action to enable the negotiations to continue. A motion was put calling for reinstatement of industrial action and this was passed. All three of your delegates voted against this but the vote for reinstating the action was won by 6 votes. Later on in the evening there was a set of motions about the TPS pension scheme. Your delegates felt it was not appropriate to vote in this debate because this pension scheme is not available to our members. The result of the debate and voting was that UCU is committed to involvement in industrial action in June about TPS and there is to be a financial levy on all members to fund indefinite strike pay.

Saturday and Sunday covered education, equality and strategy and finance business. Again many of the motions on equality and education policy were uncontroversial and were passed with no or minimal debate. We affirmed the union’s opposition to marketization and the cuts, upheld our defence of academic freedom and national pay bargaining. Colleagues at London Met proposed a motion to enable branches to call a ballot without input from the union officials. Michael MacNeil as the paid official for HE reminded us that union officers are legally liable for any calls to ballot and was concerned that legal challenges arising from these actions might prove costly. However this motion enabling branches to bypass the officers was passed.

On Saturday afternoon Sally Hunt our recently re-elected General Secretary talked about the challenges facing post-16 education and the key issues to be addressed by the union. Over the sound of some barracking and noise from a section of the delegates she also spoke about her proposals to reform the union’s structures (by slimming down the national executive committee, using more email/consultative ballots, and changing the way we choose our negotiators).

Later on Sunday in a private session (without members of the press present) we returned to this in our discussion of a series of motions around the General Secretary’s proposals. Our branch had submitted a motion (number 65) to the debate stating our support for these proposals not least because they offered the possibility of freeing up financial resources at local level to support members. The text of the speech made proposing this motion can be found below. We had much needed support in the debate from delegates from Warwick, Essex and Chester but the case against the reforms won out and our motion and the associated changes to the rules fell.

The above account is a very brief summary of some of the key debates and motions. Full details of all the motions to congress and supporting papers can be found on the UCU website.

Below we give some rather more personal reflections about congress.

It takes a very particular kind of union activist to give up three days of their time (especially a weekend in half term) to attend Congress. Nonetheless Congress has representation across all the sectors of post 16 education covered by UCU and is attended by academic and academic- related staff at all levels of the pay scale.

Congress is the ‘sovereign policy making’ mechanism of our union. Every year delegates from branches are sent to propose, debate and vote on some 150 motions. Proposers of motions have 4-5 minutes to state their case, shorter speeches of support or opposition are made and eventually the motion is put to a vote – usually by a show of cards but occasionally (where the vote is close) formally counted. There are complex rules about how Congress is conducted and much of the language and process would be clearly recognisable to the 19th century founders of trades unions (indeed at times it also resembles that other ancient political institution the Houses of Parliament). Newcomers (and there were 100 first time delegates this year) can find Congress bewildering.

Some activists and Congress Delegates belong to political groupings such as ‘UCU Left’ and ‘UCU Independent Broad Left’. These groups tend to take positions on particular issues and the different stances they take are often apparent in the debate. Outside the congress other groups try to influence and inform delegates for example there is a strong presence from the Socialist Workers Party. As delegates from University of Southampton we are clear that we are not part of these groups – although we engage in debate with their members on issues of importance. We feel that it is important that we try to represent what we understand to be the views of our (diverse) membership rather than being tied to bloc voting with a particular group or faction.

This year it was clear that there was a significant, but minority voice at Congress who supported the General Secretary’s proposals. However there is also a large opposition the use of consultative email surveys/ballots to gauge the views of members . This is predominantly from, but not limited to, UCU Left. These surveys, whilst not substituting for other democratic processes, are often useful in taking the temperature of our members’ views to inform our decisions and strategy and as a local branch delegates it was useful to know that when consulted in this way members of this branch overwhelmingly supported all the proposed changes to union structures.

We believe that we had a mandate from you try to get Congress to support these changes. We did not succeed on this occasion. Sally Hunt in her speech reaffirmed her desire to listen to union members and make the union fit for purpose. We will be seeking your views on how you would like the branch to procede.

Over the three days of Congress the quality of the debate was often low and the pattern of voting was often rather depressing. That said there were important issues – motions on anti-casualisation stand out as important. Some of the best debate occurred outside the voting hall, in the fringe meetings (your delegates attended meetings on casualization and NHS reform), in the Developing Activists Network (DAN) event where we previewed a film about the Southampton Union Cities project and in the meal breaks where we sat with colleagues from branches across the UK and shared stories about negotiations, disputes and casework. We were also privileged to hear a moving and uplifting speech from Dr Beltran, the Columbian education trades unionist talking about union oppression, education rights and international agendas.

Over the coming weeks this branch will need to consider its responses to the new policy made at Congress 2012. We will be actively seeking your views. At the end of the day UCU is you – its members. We have been deliberately honest about our views of Congress 2012. We need you to help us shape local branch policy to meet the challenges ahead. Please come to the AGM on 28 June 2012, and do let us know if you would consider being our delegate to Congress or other national meeting of the union over the coming year.

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Motion 65 UCU Congress 2012

Congress notes that in the increasingly difficult times facing the post-16
education sector we need an effective union structure and processes which
represent the views of our members and respond to their needs. The General
Secretary has proposed to:

1 reduce the size of the National Executive Committee to a maximum of 40 and
use the savings to improve services for members and branches.

2 give members a right to be directly consulted on a final offer from employers
before the union decides whether to accept it or reject and escalate action.

3 allow members to elect lay national negotiator posts

Congress supports these proposals.

 

Speech made by Catherine Pope, proposing motion 65:

 

Congress, we are a democratic organisation. We represent members across FE and HE. We represent members with diverse and conflicting political views.

I have been in this Union since my first job some 25 years ago. I love this union – it has protected me, supported me, developed me and thousands of others like me. I am proud of the things we have achieved locally and nationally.

But sometimes this Union and Congress drives me crazy. And I know my members back at University of Southampton feel the same. Our ways of doing business were designed for 19th Century political debating chambers and industrial workplaces, and we need procedures that are fit for purpose in the 21st century. We have a clunky, centralised over large executive – much as I admire and respect the individual members of NEC – and not nearly enough support locally, on the ground, where we need it. We fail to make use of new ways of communicating and interacting with members despite using these technologies in all other areas of our lives. This motion is about inclusion – about listening to our members.

These are difficult times for HE and FE. Free access to education is being eroded. Staff – at all levels are overloaded. Academic freedom, our pensions and terms and conditions are under attack. Commercialism and marketisation threaten our members’ vocational and educational core. Union case work is increasing and we need to respond locally and nationally to assaults on our profession. We need a strong, agile, responsive, union if we are to face the challenges.

Congress is great. We have important debates and make policy. But we are here as democratically elected representatives – our job is to help shape this union and make it work for all our members. The majority of our members want a union structure that enables us to meet the challenges we are facing. The proposals to change the way we do things will allow us to do that. Congress – whatever your personal politics – I urge you to do what you do best – to represent our members and deliver a union structure that is fit for the fight ahead of us.

I urge you to support this motion and the associated rule changes.

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