Report from UCU Congress, 29th – 30th May

Mo Pamplin and Rachel Cohen attended the UCU National Congress in Manchester at the end of May as City’s branch representatives. The annual congress is the union’s primary decision making body and sets the direction for the National Executive Committee for the coming year. The event also includes the Higher Education Sector Conference which gives higher education branches the chance to debate sector-specific issues. Congress covers a dizzying number of motions, amendments to motions and proposed rule changes which delegates have a chance to debate and then vote on. This ensures that rule changes and proposals are democratically and transparently decided. A full run-down of the agendas and voting results is available at http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6887. Here is our summary of some of the most important results.

HE Pay

It was agreed that we would not have got a 2% offer had there not been industrial action. As such the importance of the threatened marking boycott, in particular, was highlighted. Nonetheless there was a lot of frustration about the ways in which the pay campaign had been run. Motions were passed censuring the HEC (Higher Education Committee) for the ways in which the negotiators’ agreed plan of action was overturned and a relatively incoherent set of actions (including the two hour strikes) put in its place. Specifically several motions focused on the need for national and coordinated actions to defend those branches where punitive pay docking was implemented (and people docked a day’s pay for taking 2 hours of action). Interestingly, after the ballot in which the final pay offer (1% 2013/14; 2% 2014/15) was accepted overwhelmingly the University of Liverpool UCU branch conducted a survey of their members (who had been docked a full day). Their members, as elsewhere, had voted overwhelmingly in favour of acceptance but also almost universally were not happy about the offer. Rather their acceptance was because they did not believe that UCU would coordinate successful action and they were scared about further repercussions. Another notable contribution highlighted the fact that within the NUS support for the pay campaign had largely emphasised the equality demands being made (and inequalities in pay within the sector). As such the fact that the agreement had not dealt with these issues may make the securing of future NUS support more difficult.

An additional motion was passed agreeing that future HE pay campaigns should be fought on the basis of social justice, countering the perception that such campaigns focus solely on increasing lecturers’ already high salaries. It was argued that campaigns for fair pay in HE should focus on low-paid junior academics and academic-related staff, as well as more senior academics, particularly in comparison to the pay of senior management and VCs. Several motions emphasised the importance of the union’s more systematic collation and publicity of information on VCs pay and especially perks!

REF

Several motions were passed that highlighted the discriminatory and distorting effects of REF. One of the consequences was the appointment of ‘star’ academics in the pre-REF period, many of these appointments occurred without advertisement and without attention to equal opportunities. Other consequences include the moving of some staff to teaching-only contracts and the potentially distorting effect of REF on research. UCU will be monitoring the consequences of REF within departments and institutions and developing a pre-emptive response to future REF-exercises. More pointedly, Congress passed a motion to ‘abolish REF’ – meaning that UCU is committed to campaigning against the next research audit and for an alternative mechanism for distributing funds.

Casualisation

There were several motions passed that highlighted the growth of casualised contracts (e.g. fixed term teaching only) and especially zero-hours contracts (for hourly paid staff) and UCU’s opposition to these forms of destabilising employment. For instance the importance of ensuring that staff are paid on spine and that staff are not employed on zero-hours contracts. The need to involve casualised staff in campaigning and on all the union’s local and national structures was reiterated in several motions. An example was given of a very successful campaign led by Fractionals for Fair Pay at SOAS, in which hundreds of mostly postgraduate teaching staff refused to do marking where they weren’t specifically paid for it, has resulted in compensation of about £150,000 for these workers as well as new structures of agreeing terms. Key to this campaign is that it was led by the postgraduate workers themselves and they decided and set their priorities.

Collective Pay Bargaining

A motion to modify the UCU’s rules on national collective pay bargaining was rejected. The motion’s proposers put forward the view that with many institutions at different levels of financial health, it would be sensible to adopt a national minimum level for pay and benefits, and allow institutions in stronger financial positions to pay more; i.e. not to allow financially weaker institutions to hold back pay offers elsewhere. Congress voted to reject this motion on the basis that to do so would mean an end to collective pay bargaining and allow institutions to make local pay agreements that would undermine the collective strength of the union and its negotiators. This might also lead the way to deals in which some branches were offered higher pay deals in return for the end to increments.

USS

Congress voted to approve the report of the Superannuation Working Group which included recommendations for the ongoing negotiation strategy on pensions. These include proposals to continue with the objective of closing the gap between the new Career Revalued Benefits (CRB) section of USS and and the existing Final Salary section, by seeking comparability with the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. The recommendations also approved the objectives of negotiating for a lump sum for CRB, and tiered contribution rates dependent on salary.

Membership

A new one year ‘starter’ membership was agreed. This would allow anyone to sign up (for the first time only) for £1 per month. After 12 months this would roll-over to the normal fees. The object was to remove the barrier to joining, especially in the run-up to action. It was expected that most people would, however, simply continue as members after the initial period.

Outsourcing of Email

A motion was passed to encourage branches to review their contracts with Microsoft in light of recent NSA revelations and to seek alternative viable provision where possible, as well as to look to provide open source solutions.

Immigration and Tier 4 Monitoring

Congress reaffirmed existing UCU policy to oppose the monitoring measures of Tier 4 students and to coordinate with NUS how to campaign against discrimination against these students. The HE Department will provide guidance to branches about responding to management processes with regard to these issues.

UKIP

A late motion was tabled to censure UKIP and other anti-immigration racist parties. This motion, which was passed by a large majority, urged branches to campaign against UKIP, the scapegoating of immigrants, and UKIP members’ right-wing positions on gender, sexual equality and workers’ rights. It was noted that the TUC have already produced some excellent myth-busting materials on UKIP and anti-immigration policies.

Abolish OFSTED

As in 2013, Congress voted to support campaigns to abolish the education inspection agency OFSTED.

Length of Congress

Although we got through all the congress business, and there was sometimes disagreement and debate, this tended to be very circumscribed. For instance any motion would be proposed, (occasionally) opposed and (very rarely) there would be one additional speech for/against. This meant that we rarely got below the surface and most obvious arguments. It also meant that those speaking tended to come from the most active branches from where the motions had been submitted. In previous congresses debate had tended to involve more people and was more likely to involve people responding to what others hand said in the hall. As such it felt more like we were collectively arriving at, or changing, opinions within the congress. Additionally there were some motions that, because of time constraints, were simply moved formally and passed with no motivation/discussion. Many people noted the absence of debate and discussion and as such a late motion was submitted and passed to re-establish a three (rather than two) day annual meeting. This may or may not be possible next year (in Glasgow).

Fringe meetings

A number of fringe meetings were held on both days and City’s reps were only able to attend a small number. At the academic-related meeting, reps from Liverpool, Strathclyde and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine related their experiences of recent campaigns and the roles played by academic-related staff. At Liverpool, UCU conducted a wide-ranging campaign emphasising the impact on all staff of a move by management to impose contracts with inferior working conditions on around 3000 staff. Academic-related staff were instrumental in the success of the campaign. Reps from Strathclyde and the London School emphasised the impact that academic-related staff can have on actions short of a strike, because of (relatively!) well-defined duties and working hours. At the fringe meeting on the media, there were long discussions about the (increasing) difficulty of getting trade union messages on the media. But people in the audience also highlighted the stories that they had managed to get covered locally. At the anti-casualisation fringe meeting there were speakers from SOAS and lots of stories about what was happening around the country. People were encouraged to join the anti-casualisation network, seek legal advice/experience from the anti-casualisation email list and from UCU nationally, and to encourage postgraduate students to work with one another to develop local campaigns that are suited to their specific circumstances (for instance at SOAS the academic focus on development studies enabled organisers to politically motivate pg tutors).

Reflections on Congress from a First-timer

It needs careful preparation and concentration to participate fully in Congress. All paperwork is distributed ahead of time, so that delegates can read and digest all the motions and rule change proposals before voting. Attempting to read and understand the ramifications of a motion while listening to the debate and anticipating how any amendments will affect the motion’s meaning and effect simply results in exhaustion. However, sitting with regional comrades helps a first-timer to understand voting tactics and gives an opportunity to ask questions. Participating in Congress was, for me, immensely satisfying as I felt that I was contributing to the future direction of the union nationally and it gave me a wider perspective on the debates which, here, we experience locally. Moreover, it emphasises the fact that there is a sustained attack on workers’ pay and conditions not just here but nationally across the sector, and that trends such as casualisation, job insecurity, low pay and private-sector management styles are widespread. Of course, it also mobilises the union into a concerted response.

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