It was a good conference for the new union and the left within it. The potential of a union representing 120,000 educationalists organised at the heart of what is fashionably known as “the knowledge economy” could clearly be seen.
It was really inspiring to listen to delegates from across the sectors describing their experiences of what is happening in their particular areas and what they have been doing to resist the government and employers attacks.
The range of motions passed was bewildering and reflected the broad range of activities members are involved in – campaigns over privatisation, Esol, defending adult education, workload, casualisation, national bargaining and pay.
What also I found interesting was that there was very little, if any, hostility to conference spending time debating and discussing political issues not directly connected to conditions of service. Conference overwhelmingly reaffirmed its support for Stop the War and Unite and the debate on Palestine was fascinating and conducted in a serious but comradely fashion.
I was particularly pleased that the further education (FE) sector conference unanimously passed a motion to support the London Region’s FE manifesto, which over 600 educationalists have endorsed so far.
I felt that the conference reflected the general desire amongst public sector workers for unity over pay and privatisation. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka was given a standing ovation by all the delegates at congress, which voted overwhelmingly to support a motion to join the PCS campaign.
Unfortunately the last afternoon session on rule changes was confusing and not well organised by the conference arrangement committee. For outsiders and perhaps for some new delegates to conference looking on at this debate might seem like internal wrangling by different union factions, however it is a very important one.
Quite rightly members argue that the issues raised around the role of regional committees, branches, NEC and national officers is about democracy but it is also about which structures will be the most effective to stop the governments and employers privatising agenda.
The new union has brought together to different traditions of organising. The AUT never organised at a regional level whereas Natfhe did. Too often the debate got falsely polarised around branches versus regions.
The college and university branches are and must be the key organising and sovereign bodies of the union. Our comrades and friends on the left felt let down when, in the run up to the merger, we supported the rule change that allowed delegates to be elected from branches instead of regions.
However there are those within the leadership of UCU who believe that the union does not need an intermediate structure between the NEC and the branches. They believe that the union needs more of a centralised machine where by regional organisers are replaced by national organisers that are parachuted into hot spot areas when necessary and backed up by an army of full time solicitors.
This structure will not only mean a less democratic union it will also not be effective in resisting the employers and government attacks. Strong regions rooted in the branches that monitor what the employers are doing regionally and can coordinate activities to respond to them are going to be vital if we are going to be able to continue to build the new union, which is capable of defending education across the sectors.
This Friday the first meeting of the new NEC has been called. The left on the NEC is in a very good position to develop strategies that makes UCU into feared and respected fighting force within Further and Higher education.