rs21 members in UCU report on the recent Congress of the Further and Higher Education workers union which saw strong support for Palestine but ended with key issues yet to be resolved 

Picket outside the venue on day 2 of the Congress

This year’s UCU Congress was held in Bournemouth, 29-31 May.  It was overshadowed by two internal disputes, one in relation to the Black Members Standing Committee (BMSC) over institutional racism, the second with the Unite branch representing staff over a number of issues but, crucially, one of these also being institutional racism.  

The latter manifested itself as a strike of the second day, knocking out the two sector conferences which deal with specific HE or FE business, and which saw Unite and UCU members protesting together outside the venue. The General Secretary’s decision not to give her annual address in person (issuing it as a video instead) was also undoubtedly influenced by awareness that some delegates were intending to visibly walk out at that point on the agenda.

The first day of Congress was relatively plain sailing with almost all motions passing either in original or amended form. Challenges to the agenda were mostly successful, with motions and clauses which had been ruled out of order on procedural grounds being voted back on.  Most crucially, many of these related to Palestine solidarity and similar, all of which then carried.

When it came to the motion on Ukraine, the debate was robust but civil.  A proposal to take it in parts from one of our members carried, with a clause to affiliate to the USC taken separately.  While that clause was ultimately retained, an amendment which had been voted back onto the agenda passed, adding a call for an immediate ceasefire and removing a call for military aid.

The second day, which would have been the sector conferences, began with a ‘picket’ by Unite, with many UCU members joining in solidarity.  This was followed shortly afterwards by a very well-attended rally, where we heard from both Unite members and members of Black Members Standing Committee about the terms of their overlapping disputes, and the poor responses from UCU management.

The third day (second day of Congress) began with further challenges to the agenda, including taking a motion on tackling institutional racism earlier than scheduled.  An attempt to gut it of a clause demanding the end of “dismissal-related procedures against black staff” failed and the motion was passed in full.

Just before lunch, Congress was addressed in a powerful speech by Husam Zolot, the Palestinian Ambassador. A standing ovation followed. There remains a stark disconnect between this and the ‘legal advice’ (which has not been shared) that prevents BDS motions being implemented in full.

‘Advice’ that we could not talk about the Unite dispute, some of which we had heard on the first day, intensified on the third with the ridiculous assertion that offering solidarity to Unite would be triggering and disrespectful to other staff. Delegates had also become aware that senior managers, in the guise of their GMB branch, had also emailed NEC members condemning Unite’s strike action.

Unlike the first day, it was clear that we were not going to get through all the remaining business on the agenda.  This was both due to legitimate delays and others less so.  Rule changes and a number of Equalities motions in particular were remitted to NEC (despite it having no authority to deal with the former). A key motion to call a Special Congress on UCU Democracy was also amongst those remitted.

There was a marked difference between last year’s Congress and this one.  Last year saw many fractious exchanges, particularly between those closest to the General Secretary and those who make up the affiliated and unaffiliated left of the union. This year, the majority of delegates were of a similar mind.  Last year the General Secretary, with an election ahead and a Vote of No Confidence on the agenda, was combative, with her troops rallied in her defence.  This year, in the reality of a much reduced majority in the election and internal turmoil within the union, she was largely silent, not even giving her expected address.

What happens next is important.  Higher Education Committee will determine if and when to call a Special Higher Education Sector Conference to deal with the business lost and it is likely that Further Education Committee will do similar.  In terms of sectoral and industrial issues, there are key decisions to be made, ones that cannot be kicked down the road (which some would clearly like to do) until next year.  Members are under attack now and we need to be fighting back collectively, not just one branch at a time.  Unite have been very clear that they support special conferences being called and maintaining solidarity with Unite is now a central consideration.

While both the dispute with Unite and that with Black Members Standing Committee remain unresolved, UCU is much weakened in the eyes of the employers and within our movement.  In votes taken, and in their presence and contributions at Fringe events, delegates made it clear that the current situation cannot continue. Only actions which have the full confidence of members and staff will suffice.  Yet, there is little sign that the senior management of the union grasp this so it will be up to us to make them.

 

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