By Rhian Keyse, UCU activist
The University and College Union (UCU) is currently holding its annual congress in Manchester. This year’s meeting comes in the wake of historic industrial action in defence of the USS pension scheme, which saw an unprecedented 14 days of strike action across 65 post-1992 universities. The union has seen record growth, with a membership increase of 16,000 between May 2017 and May 2018, much of which can be attributed to the depth of feeling around the pensions dispute. The membership surge, and the momentum of industrial action, has seen the union revitalised at the rank-and-file level, with new national networks of activists being set up. This is reflected by a cursory glance at the motions to be discussed at this week’s congress, most notably a motion of no confidence in the General Secretary, proposed by Exeter UCU, and another censuring the General Secretary for the conduct of a branch delegates’ meeting on 28 March, at which the pensions dispute was discussed.
The criticism of the national leadership’s conduct of the industrial dispute may seem surprising given that the strike action was called off after a national ballot of members in which 64% of members voted to accept the employers’ proposals. However, there has been growing discontent in some sections of the union, with some rank-and-file members of the union expressing serious concerns about the way in which negotiations with Universities UK, the employers’ body, were handled. The first offer tabled by the employers saw demonstrations of incredulous rank-and-file members outside UCU’s London Head Office on 13 March, in advance of a special meeting of branch delegates and UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), at which the deal was roundly rejected. The second proposed deal was put to meetings of branch delegates and the HEC on 28 March. The decision to put this proposal to the ballot of members is mired in controversy, with several delegates present questioning the transparency of this decision, and the lack of democratic process within the meeting itself.
The conduct of the ballot itself was also questioned. An open letter from rank-and-file activists noted that, despite no recommendation from UCU’s Higher Education Committee on how to vote, the General Secretary sent four emails to members, along with links to the e-ballot, strongly advocating acceptance of the deal. One of these emails, according to contributors to the USS Briefs blog, ‘misrepresent[ed] the views of any UCU members who may wish to reject the proposal’. It is worth noting that only one communication setting out a case for opposing the proposal was sent out, just 24 hours before the ballot was due to close. Additionally, within a fortnight of the ballot closing, concerns were raised about the Joint Expert Panel to be set up as part of the agreed deal, which is mandated with an independent review of the USS pension valuation at the heart of the industrial dispute. Details emerging suggested that the Panel would not be accountable to the UCU membership, would not be elected, and would operate under strict confidentiality, thus compounding concerns over accountability and transparency.
These concerns over democracy and transparency at the heart of UCU are the main motivation behind the motions of no confidence and censure which will be discussed at UCU congress on Wednesday. The Exeter UCU motion of no confidence argues that there are ‘serious issues of accountability’ to be addressed, and that there is a ‘democratic deficit in the union…manifested through a continuous pattern of unilateral, undemocratic action’. The motion further suggests that the leadership of a trade union exists to ‘pressurise employers to accept the will of members, not the other way around’, reflecting concerns that UUK proposals were presented to members as a fait accompli. The motion of censure from KCL UCU agrees that the union should be ‘member-led’ and calls for ‘clarity, transparency and accountability’.
Whilst one could read the inclusion of motions of no confidence in, and censure of, the general secretary as indicative of deep divides or crisis within UCU, they are in fact symptomatic of a newly revitalised union with an engaged membership. Whether these motions pass or fall, it is obvious that UCU’s rank-and-file is increasingly willing to challenge the status quo and to question the decisions and strategy of the national leadership. This tendency can only be a good thing for building a union which is democratic and serves the needs of its membership, rather than one which accepts top-down edicts. The new networks forged in the crucible of industrial action have served to bring together socialists and rank-and-file activists with an interest in a member-led union which serves the needs of all those it represents. However the votes go on Wednesday morning, we must continue to make the arguments for a stronger union which makes positive demands for improved working conditions for all higher and further education staff, rather than reacting to circumstances presented to us by the employers. Fighting the increased casualisation and marketisation of higher and further education depends on this.
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