Published: 30th May, 2019
This year’s UCU Congress took place in Harrogate from the evening of Friday 24th May to the afternoon of Monday 27th May. Leicester UCU’s delegates were Gareth Brown, Emi Mise and Nick Adkins – the first time that three delegates were permitted given the recent rise in branch member numbers.
We were joined by 376 other delegates and observers from HE and FE to debate and vote on the reports, rules and policies of UCU.
This years’ Congress was particularly noteworthy as it coincided with the election of the new general secretary of UCU, and we were delighted to hear of the success of ex-Leicester UCU co-secretary Jo Grady.
Jo opened Saturday afternoon’s session with an impassioned speech which was well received by Congress.
Key and recurring themes at congress were around the importance of focussing on casualized and migrant workers. Many motions were passed to strengthen UCU’s position on these worker groups. This was particularly the case when Congress reflected on last year’s two ballots on pay.
The negotiator’s report contained plans for indicative votes on whether to ballot over the pay settlement. However, this was not carried given the strength of feeling for a re-focus on casualized staff, and a concern of ‘ballot fatigue’. However, this decision does not prevent a ballot over pay, indeed a subsequent motion was passed which called “to initiate a concerted campaign to win industrial action ballots for a fight over pay to commence in the autumn”.
Understandably, motions about USS were also discussed at length. A variety of motions aimed to strengthen UCU’s policy of no detriment, to reaffirm the findings of the JEP, questioned the decision of USS trustees, and called for the resignation of Bill Galvin (USS CEO).
A motion was passed that instructed UCU to “enter into dispute and prepare for an industrial action ballot in 2019” given the increased pensions costs imposed in April. We therefore need to evaluate, at committee, how to manage this dispute at branch level.
Also relating to USS was the passing of a late motion in response to Trinity College Cambridge proposal to withdraw from USS, which potentially weakens the fund for remaining members. Consequently, Congress resolved:
The congress notes that the JEP recommendations vindicate our strike and our position of no detriment. A motion was passed to call for the implementation of the 2018 valuation and the JEP recommendations for the 2017 valuation in full.
Congress resolved to draw up a full report on legal options open to UCU, including legal challenges against USS.
UCU rule changes were also discussed at length – this was particularly as a consequence of the setting up of a democracy commission to consider improvement in this area. A proposal to change the formula on which delegate numbers are calculated provoked strong opposition. This opposition, which many saw as a weakening of the influence of small branches, particularly in FE, led to the brief suspension of Congress after a sit-in protest from a mass of FE delegates and their supporters before the motion was eventually voted down near-unanimously.
Other contentious moments included a motion put forward by University College London on academic freedom and gender identity asking congress to condemn actions of trans activists and their allies (such as no-platforming) in opposition to speakers subscribing to dimorphic biological models of sex. A great deal of context was required to understand and make informed decisions on this brief motion and this was elaborated to congress over half an hour of debate with those in favour arguing that this was a simple request to protect ‘gender-critical’ speakers from intimidation and abuse and with those against arguing that the motion was a dog-whistle laden attempt to mischaracterise critique as harassment, thus circumventing rules around protection of trans rights. Ultimately the motion fell – although relatively narrowly.
Finally we are very happy to report that following a passionate speech by a migrant worker delegate, a motion was passed which introduced a “Migrant Members’ Standing Committee” within the equality committee structure. This too was contentious to begin with, with the Black Members Standing Committee (BMSC) expressing concerns that it would double, and therefore undermine, work that it had been carrying out. However, after a series of productive and reassuring discussions between the BMSC and the proposers and supporters of the motion, these concerns were allayed to the extent that it was the chair of the BMSC who took to the podium to second the motion when we came to debate it on the final day of congress. Once set up, this committee will recognize the particular issues of equality which face migrant workers; a consequence for Leicester UCU is whether we should create a parallel structure led by a branch officer. This will be discussed at branch committee.
Finally, two further conferences were agreed; a higher education sector conference on USS and a continuation of the Democracy Commission. Both of these will be held in the autumn of 2019.