The University and College Union (UCU), which organises teachers, researchers and some support staff in further and higher education, held its annual congress earlier this month. Two rs21 members who were delegates report on the key debates.

Manchester UCU strikers solidarity rally – pic by Manchester rs21

UCU Congress is frequently lively, with tensions that have been simmering over the previous 12 months being aired, and this year was no different.  Though still held online, this year’s was closer to being in-person than anything we have had since the pandemic began, and more representative as a consequence.

Challenges to the General Secretary

With two live and long-running disputes in Higher Education (HE) – on pay and conditions, and pension cuts – it was no surprise that these dominated proceedings at this year’s Congress. Jo Grady, the union’s General Secretary (GS) faced very specific opposition both in Congress itself and in the HE Sector Conference, stemming directly from the way the two disputes have been handled.  Alongside this were broader issues on decision-making and democracy.

This began with a debate that concluded business on the afternoon of Day 1 on two motions entitled, The General Secretary’s Responsibilities in disputes and Democracy in UCU and censure of the General Secretary.  The first was a late (ie emergency) motion.

Both mentioned specifically the GS’s interventions in the disputes – at odds with democratic decisions that had already been made – in which she expressed her preference to do nothing further in relation to either dispute until academic year 2023/24. An email to all members had declared her clear preference for a different strategy to the one voted for, and was seen by many members as significantly undermining the action they were undertaking.

Motions of censure are often less about winning and more about initiating debate.  That was the case in 2018, when a similar motion was on the Congress agenda, alongside one calling for a Vote of No Confidence in the then GS, Sally Hunt.  This provoked the stalling and eventual abandonment of Congress, but crucially not before a motion was passed calling a recall Congress to deal with remaining business.

While it is hard to say for definite, many believe that the censure motion would not have passed at the first 2018 Congress.  However, Hunt’s use of UCU staff as a shield to prevent debate rallied support behind the motion, so that when it was heard at recall Congress, it passed comfortably, setting the scene for her resignation on health grounds several months later.

In her inaugural speech to Congress in 2018, Jo Grady specifically said she would never use staff as a shield from criticism and, to her credit, she did not.  However, in her right to reply to these motions, she was completely defensive, showing little, if any, understanding of why these motions had been tabled.

While the motion of censure narrowly fell, the one on the GS’s responsibilities passed.  The GS is now instructed to respect the decisions taken by the democratic bodies of the union, ensure that those decisions are implemented in full and in a timely manner, and refrain from interventions in the course of a dispute which contradict the democratically-agreed strategy and undermine the confidence of members in it.

Critical Decisions on HE Disputes

Day two was HE and Further Education (FE) Sector Conferences and the former was dominated by the two disputes (the authors were HE delegates, so don’t feel competent to comment on the FE conference).

Two motions in particular passed which determine next steps in both disputes. The first was to initiate a ballot over the summer to allow maximum action at the start of the 2022/23 academic year, a point of considerable leverage as it may encourage students to defer and thus hit universities financially. The second motion focussed on a later ballot, with a mandate stretching until next summer and with it a comprehensive industrial strategy to win both disputes.  While there are some tensions between the two motions, they are not in contradiction and a good synthesis between the two would form the basis of hard-hitting action over the next academic year.

The case for aggregated ballots (meaning balloting all members in HE as one unit rather than separately by college/branch) won out. This has often been a proxy for factional arguments within UCU, specifically between UCU Left (the largest left alliance within UCU), who see disaggregated ballots as a necessary tactic for now, and UCU Commons (a newer left grouping supportive of Jo Grady), who advocate aggregated ballots by default. However, this time the substantial case for aggregation came from branches who recognised the need for a change of tactic at this point while fully aware of the implications.

The fact is that members have been demoralised and demotivated by fewer branches achieving the 50% threshold demanded by anti-TU laws in disaggregated ballots. While this has undoubtedly been at least partly caused by badly-timed ballots of insufficient duration (contrary to what had been agreed democratically), it is necessary to deal with the situation as it is, not as we’d like it to be. In that context, an aggregated ballot on a long window could be a game-changer and the risk associated with it, while still considerable, now has to be weighed against the risk of diminishing returns from disaggregation.

The challenge will be the ballot window.  What was called for was a ballot starting ‘as soon as possible in June to as late as possible in September’, but we are now in mid-June and it has not been announced. Part of this is predictable bureaucratic inertia, but it cannot be reduced to that alone.  There will be consequences if this is again kicked down the road so far that it becomes unviable. Members are not simply waiting on stand-by. The damage caused by poor strategy over the last 12 months needs to be repaired.

Another key decision was around how decisions are to be made.  There were two motions on this specifically stressing that branch delegates need to be at the heart of key decisions.  Both passed with good majorities. Combined with the motion on the GS’s responsibilities, these should create more transparency and accountability but the test of this will be in how this plays out in practice. Ensuring that these changes are meaningful and actually shift power towards members will still need to be fought for.

Equalities Wins

Day three was full Congress again and a potential flash point around trans rights. A key motion had clauses removed from it, following legal advice, deleting references to opposing ‘”gender critics” and transphobes’, and, ‘solidarity with student protests against “gender critical” views’. Despite this, there were still a few voices against the motion, though notably subdued compared to the last time this was a substantive topic at Congress.

It was important it was passed, even in its diminished form, and it did with a huge majority. It still welcomed the founding of the Feminist Gender Equality Network, set up to counter anti-trans propaganda, and made reference to the misappropriation of academic freedom (which we see coming not just from the transphobic but from reactionaries and the far-right more generally).  Other motions on LGBT+ inclusion got similar large majorities, as did motions in support of abortion rights, defending migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.

Ukraine Motions Not Heard

A sizeable chunk of business was lost due to lack of time, including motions on the war in Ukraine. This would likely have been another heated debate, specifically in terms of how to relate to other parts of the anti-war movement. One of the motions faced an amendment seeking to delete any references to NATO and support for Stop the War and CND. However, this debate did not take place.

All unheard motions have been remitted. This means that they will go to the National Executive (or subcommittees of) who can choose to progress them but only if they align with existing policy. This is unlikely to be the case in terms of Ukraine, leaving UCU without any resolved position, though the National Executive may seek to resolve this nonetheless.

The Year Ahead

The upcoming 12 months will again be dominated by the two national disputes in HE. Winning the aggregated ballot over the summer is going to take a lot of hard work, rebuilding from a weakened position and re-energising members with the confidence that we are the union and we can win. The motions passed at Congress improves the terrain we do this on, but they are no silver bullet. These disputes are with HE employers and will be won in our workplaces when we take decisive action together.

All motions, and whether they passed, fell or were remitted, can be found at https://www.ucu.org.uk/Congress2022

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