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#WeAreTheUniversity 3 – Report from Congress

Congress is the policy making body of UCU – each year we send delegates from our branch to this meeting which encompasses one day devoted to Higher Education sector business (with a parallel FE conference for delegates from colleges, prison and adult education branches) and two days of whole union business.

The format of the meeting includes updates from key officials and motions put forward by branches, national and regional committees. Motions are voted on in branches or relevant meetings and are included following review (and compositing – joining together similar motions) by the Conference Business Committee (CBC). Motions are proposed and seconded with short (5-3 minute) speeches and then debated with approx. 3 minutes per speaker followed by a vote. Motions that are carried become UCU policy to be enacted by officials, committees and members going forward.

This year approximately 300 delegates attended. This branch sent 3 delegates, and our past-president attended as a member of the national executive committee (NEC). The full list of motions can be found here: https://www.ucu.org.uk/Congress2018#motions

Some of you will be aware that congress was disrupted on Wednesday and Friday due to some controversial motions, notably motion 10 calling for the resignation of the general secretary (Sally Hunt) and other motions that called for debate about democratic structures, and which appeared to criticise national union officers. Union officials, who belong to the Unite trade union held emergency meetings in response to these, which meant that Congress business was suspended as we had no minute takers, legal advice or tellers to support the meeting. Congress was asked to accept orders of business prepared by CBC (there were 4 of these in all as late and reintroduced motions were added and the running order amended) and this provided a chance to decide which motions we would debate – in essence a vote about whether to debate the contentious motions. The CBC agendas were carried.

It was clear that some delegates from both HE and FE felt strongly that the national leadership of the union had not pressed hard enough in recent disputes (the USS action in HE, but also pay and redundancy issues in FE) and that there needed to be better communication and accountability to ‘rank and file’ membership. Some of the motions on these topics were debated and several of these were passed.

On Thursday there was a full day of business and a number of motions in the HE Sector conference were passed – such as HE14 asking for a campaign for all VC and Senior management pay to be pegged to the average wage in the institution, and for it to be, at a maximum, 10 times the lowest paid contracts within the institution, and a number of motions in the main congress relating to union strategy and equality issues.

On Friday we returned to main Congress business with the two motions (10 and 11) that had led to the withdrawal of staff on Wednesday. There was another further debate and a statement from the staff union but the plan to debate these motions was agreed. At this point the staff withdrew and Congress was subsequently closed. Following this, approximately 100 delegates decided to stay and hold an alternative congress. Your delegates decided that they would not participate in this, the status of this meeting being unclear.

There are a number of accounts of what happened already published on social media and some coverage in national media (see below for examples) and there was significant twitter traffic during the congress, some apparently from people not in attendance.

https://michael4hec.wordpress.com/2018/06/02/what-happened-at-ucu-congress-2018
https://exeterucu.wordpress.com/2018/05/30/exeter-ucu-delegation-response-to-events-at-ucu-congress-30th-may-2018/
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/03/unions-falling-membership-gig-economy
https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/sally-hunt-clings-ucu-leader-congress-curtailed

I have attempted to write the above as factually as I can, recognising that any account is subjective and influenced by one’s own position and views. What follows is a more personal view.

I had hoped that Congress would be a chance to celebrate the success and strength of our trades union which has grown nationally by 16000 members and, in the pre-92 Universities, has engaged in the largest and most sustained industrial action to defend pensions this year. I felt this was an opportunity to thank our national leadership – paid and voluntary officials – for these achievements. I was disturbed by the polarisation of some of the debates and upset by the failure to undertake Congress business. Whilst I agreed with the sentiment of some motions calling for more discussion of tactics, and I agree that there are lessons to be learned and criticisms to be made (and I am open to this myself as a member of your executive), I am less convinced that the nineteenth-century oppositional debate format of Congress is the best place for this. One motion that was passed was to set up a commission to review some of these issues which might be a better forum for such discussion.

Delegates to Congress represent particular kinds of members (often those more active in branches, many from smaller branches, and not least those willing or able to give up 3 days of a half-term week) and I therefore wonder if this group adequately represents our broad and diverse membership. As someone who has attended Congress on a number of occasions I was aware that, despite claims that there were more new delegates and ‘younger’ attendees, there were still a majority of speakers who might be regarded as ‘regulars’ who have been members and activists for many years. I also know that many members of this branch do not wish to be visible or active in the union in these ways. It seemed that much of opposition to the leadership came from members and supporters of UCULeft, a subscription organisation within UCU whose supporters include members of “ the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Labour Party, other left groups, and non-aligned activists in our caucuses” (quoted from their website). I have always been wary of factions in the union and have not joined UCULeft or other groups such as ‘UCU Independent Broad Left’ for that reason.

It is for our branch to debate our position going forward from this Congress. For myself I am taking to heart the comments offered by fellow activist Anya Cook who wrote recently:

I should be setting a precedent for how I want our members to engage and I, myself, must model kindness and gentleness if they are to be the benchmark for my own political and trade union engagement… I need to find a way to keep hold of the ‘non-politicised’ left; those who don’t identify with ideological frameworks and positions.

I hope we can use the upcoming AGM on 15th June to seek your views about some of the issues raised by the Congress motions and the events last week. I hope we can, as we usually do here in Southampton, find a way to do this that is constructive and collegiate. Finally, I want to reiterate my personal support for, and heartfelt thanks to, our regional and national paid officials who have provided excellent support and advice for our members and representatives for casework and local negotiations.

Catherine Pope

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