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A ‘somewhat tumultuous’ UCU Congress

Published: 3rd June, 2018

UCU conference 2018 was somewhat tumultuous. What follows is our account of what transpired. A collective statement, signed by both of us along with a great many others, which has already been widely circulated, can be seen here.

In short, the events were quite shocking, but perhaps not that surprising. UCU employees including the General Secretary (GS) walked out of the conference hall twice on the first day, in both cases causing Joanna de Groot, UCU president who was chairing, to suspend the congress, saying it would be impossible to continue discussion without the tellers. On the first occasion, a number of delegates also walked out in support of UCU staff, yelling that to not support them was shameful. Many others (including your delegates) remained in the conference hall to discuss what had happened.

On the third and final day of procedings (the middle one having been, technically speaking, an HE sector conference rather than congress and having passed without incident) there was a further walkout from which neither the staff, nor the chair returned. At this point Paul Cottrell (UCU’s head of democractic services) made an announcement on behalf of the chair that congress would be discontinued.

The reason for these walkouts was a set of motions (four of them) which were critical of democratic processes within UCU, or of the conduct of the GS, Sally Hunt. Two motions – neither with references to or criticisms of Sally Hunt – proposed changes to democratic processes in order that more member involvement, consultation and transparency might be acheived during disputes. A third asked for censure of the GS and another was a vote of no confidrence that asked for her resignation. All four motions had been debated and proposed by the branches from which they respectively emerged. The UCU staff’s Unite branch claimed these motions were attacks on their members’ working conditions – a bizarre interpretation categorically rejected both by the motions’ proposers and by the majority of UCU delegates present. On the second occasion (at the end of the first day) Unite members declared themselves to be in dispute with UCU.

Agreements were reached to amend the wording of the two motions on democractic processes and these were subsequently debated and passed by safe majorities. All attempts to debate the remaining two motions, however, were blocked. Proceedings at times became farcical. Much of the substance of what was at stake was discussed in the guise of procedure. Whilst the motions themselves were never put to the floor, what was debated – and voted on several times – was whether these motions could be debated. On the morning of the final day, the chair of Congress Business Committee (which proposes the agenda, what motions are and are not admissible) took the podium to express his frustration. He pointed out that Congress had on three occasions expressed its wish to debate motions 10 (which called from the GS’s resignation) and 11 (which called for her censure): therefore, we should get on with it!

When we did – at long last – get to the point where these contentious motions would be discussed, UCU staff plus the GS walked out for the third time. This prompted the UCU president to suspend conference for the third and – as it turned out – final time. The president, along with other senior figures (e.g. vice-president Douglas Chambers), then followed the GS off the stage and out of the room. UCU rules allow the chair to suspend Congress for 30 minutes. When the chair declined to resume proceedings after this period, many delegates attempted to continue without her. But with no amplification (appeals to the convention centre staff to keep this system turned on were unsuccessful), this proved nigh-on impossible. These delegates instead discussed and agreed the statement below.

It’s worth pointing out that, in our opinion, had it been debated on the first day of Congress – as per the original agenda – the motion calling for the Gen Sec’s resignation would have been defeated, whilst the motion calling for her censure might have narrowly passed. In which case, business would have proceeded. By the third day, however, the mood had hardened against UCU’s leadership. Many delegates somewhat ambivalent about the Gen Sec – but of a mind to be sympathetic – had become angry at her refusal to accept any criticism and to stand up to jusify her conduct. Many – regardless of their views at the opening of Congress – were similiarly furious at the way in which UCU employees sabotaged UCU members’ attempts to exercise democracy and accountability in the union.

It is still not entirely clear what happened here and may never be. The UCU employees stated that their action was taken out of concern for a fellow employee’s employment rights. However, it also seems relevant to us that there is a hierarchical relationship between UCU’s GS, on the one hand, and other UCU employees, on the other. In employer-employee negotiations at Carlow Street, for instance, the GS sits on the employer side of the table.

We leave Manchester uncertain as to the future of UCU but convinced that this very difficult congress has represented a pivotal moment.

Gareth Brown (branch co-secretary), and
David Harvie (communications officer)