Report from #UCU2018 Congress

Many members will have heard rumours about what happened at UCU’s national Congress this year. Not least from the voluminous information on social media (e.g. the hashtag #UCU2018). And even if you missed it on social media, members will have received Sally Hunt’s email in which she provides a brief, and perhaps confusing, picture of what occurred.

Below is a report from Rachel Cohen, an outgoing member of the National Executive Committee and a member of the City UCU Executive Committee.

What is Congress?

There are three days of UCU national meetings. The first and third are Congress and involve everyone. The second day splits into Sector Conferences, one each for HE and FE (HESC and FESC). Congress focuses on internal union matters and whole-union issues, such as support for equalities. The HESC and FESC focus on action within our sector, including industrial disputes over pension and pay.

Congress is attended by delegates from most branches and regions (the number of delegates who goes is in proportion to branch size). Branches can submit motions to Congress in advance on any aspect of UCU activity. The Congress Business Committee (CBC) determines whether motions are appropriate within Congress standing orders and if they are they are scheduled on the agenda. Congress delegates then vote on these (some require a 50% majority to pass; others – typically those involving a change to rules – two-thirds). If passed they become policy. Congress is chaired by the UCU President, at UCU2018 this was Joanna de Groot (following Congress it passed to Vicky Knight).

Full information on the motions submitted to and passed by Congress is here:

What happened?

The first thing to say is that Day 2 was not disrupted and delegates debated and agreed some really important things relating to our ongoing USS dispute, imminent dispute over pay and equalities and much more. Moreover, the motions from City about increasing transparency in UCU were also passed. More on this at the end – in the section on reasons to be optimistic.

Both days 1 and 3 were, however, suspended multiple times. And, eventually, at 1.18pm on day 3 (Friday 1st July) delegates were told that Congress was over. This caused considerable dissent and the majority of Congress delegates signed a statement #ourUCU.

The main cause of the disruption were two motions, 10 and 11, submitted by the University of Exeter and Kings College London branches, and ruled onto the Congress business by CBC. These, respectively, asked Congress to ‘call for’ Sally Hunt to resign, and sought to ‘censure’ her for the ways in which she reported the 28 March branch delegate meeting in all-member emails. It was almost incredible that motion 10 (call for resignation) would pass, but possible that motion 11 might. Had they passed they would have no constitutional power within the union but would have indicated members’ dissatisfaction with aspects of the General Secretary’s representation and leadership.

Delegates were not, however, able to debate either motion, despite voting four times (by increasing majorities) for the right to do so. Instead the staff employed by UCU, who work to support the Congress, including acting as tellers, and who are represented by Unite, staged a walkout and were joined by the General Secretary and the entire Presidential Team. They argued that because the General Secretary is given a five-year contract of employment once elected (n.b. something also true of MPs) criticism of her representation of members amounts to (as Sally Hunt has argued in her email on Monday) ‘very serious disciplinary penalties on an employee of the union while denying them the due process’. It was further claimed that this threatened the livelihood and wellbeing of the union’s employed staff. Yet, the only staff-member referred to by either motion was the General Secretary, who as well as being elected is also UCU CEO and line manages all staff.

Importantly, in the General Secretary’s framing of events, no distinction is drawn between a) disciplining an employee, which might occur if, for instance, work is not completed or if there are accusations of bullying towards another staff member, and b) political discussion of the adequacy, or otherwise, of an elected officer’s representation of members. Delegates rejected this conflation and voted for an emergency late motion (L8), which reaffirmed that ‘all elected officers of UCU can be subjected to criticism by members in relation to their representation of members’ and that ‘we cannot allow motions voicing dissent with the GS not to be debated.’

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of what happened was that delegates from Exeter and Kings, including new UCU members and first-time congress attendees, several of whom are on casualised contracts, were repeatedly pressured to withdraw motions their branches had voted on and mandated them to speak to and which had been submitted almost a month previously, according to the rules. This caused understandable, but avoidable, upset.

The Congress finally ended after the staff walked out and the Chair suspended congress for half an hour. The standing orders of Congress state (#33):

“In the event of grave disorder the Chair may suspend a session for a period not exceeding 30 minutes. Any subsequent decision to suspend Conference during the same session shall be open to challenge in accordance with Standing Order 26.”

The Chair did not, however, return and so could not be challenged. Instead a senior member of staff declared that Congress was ended and turned off all microphones and AV equipment.

At this point the majority of delegates, from across different/no factions elected a new Chair, incoming Vice-President Nita Sanghera, and collectively agreed the ‘Our UCU’ statement, below:

We UCU elected delegates voted repeatedly in line with the advice of our Congress Business Committee to hear motions criticising the General Secretary which were in order. Unfortunately, the General Secretary and a narrow majority of the National Executive Committee refused to accept the right of Congress to debate these motions.  We believe the union members have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account. This is a basic democratic right in all trade union and representative systems (e.g., Parliament). We disagree with the walkouts and reject the notion that the motions include a threat to undermine staff terms and conditions. There is no issue with the conduct and performance of our wonderful and hardworking UCU staff members. To turn a debate about our democratic process as a union into a procedural employment dispute is to evacuate our capacity to act as a political body. We resolve to continue to conduct the campaigns and defence of our members over pay and pensions that we all agree on and also to urge a debate in all branches and union bodies to discuss democracy in our union. We also resolve to continue the motions at a recall conference and not be distracted from the campaign to defend our members’ jobs, pay and pensions.

Throughout the three days of Congress the General Secretary was present but chose not to speak to delegates about this issue, despite being explicitly asked for her perspective. The email sent on Monday 4th June was therefore the first comment from Sally Hunt. This is especially disappointing, since an all-member email prevents members from engaging in the two-way dialogue that is possible at Congress.

Was there anything to be optimistic about?

Despite the upheaval described above there were some very good things that happened at Congress.

  1. We voted to hold a Democracy Commission to review and proposed changes to our union. This is clearly timely and will hopefully avoid such things happening again.
  2. We voted for motions, including 9 and L1 from City, that will increase the transparency and accountability of decision making in our union.
  3. We voted to make our subscription rates more progressive this year and in future years, including a an amendment from City which reinforces this.
  4. We voted for a Higher Education Sector Conference with decision making powers to discuss the report from the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) on USS, when this reports (probably in September). That will put members and branches in the driving seat in determining future action. We also voted to push for greater transparency from the JEP as it does its work.
  5. In line with City amendment HE1A.2 (which also passed) we voted to rename the HE Pay Claim the HE Pay and Equality Campaign and several motions argued for a focus on casualisation, equality and workload, and to decrease pay differentials as we pursue this in the autumn. This provides UCU with a way to fight for our most precarious members, many of whom were on the picket lines this spring defending a pension scheme they are not currently paying into.
  6. Positive commitments to take collective action on pay and were voted on in FE and on the defence of workload and contracts in post-92 institutions.
  7. Finally, the upheaval at Congress produced #ourUCU, a coming together of members united in their determination to make our union more democratic and transparent. While, therefore, the struggle to assure open debate, produced chaos and upset at Congress and was distressing for many, in the long-run it may herald the start of a better and stronger union, in which the many new members who have joined are more invested and more ready to fight for the future of education.

Further reading:

There have been various other delegate reports from Congress. I especially recommend this one from Novara Media:

Or you can listen to a couple of podcasts about what happened? and where next? featuring delegates who were at Congress (inc me in the second one). Sound quality is not perfect, but you get a good sense of what went on.

To find out more about the ourUCU statement, its signatories and the ongoing fight for democracy in UCU please follow @ourUCU.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in some background reading on how UCU works, before all of this kicked off I wrote a longer piece for ‘USSBriefs’ on UCU’s national democratic structures: A case for reform