Socialist Worker

UCU union leaders feel the heat at short Congress

by Sadie Robinson in Manchester
Issue No. 2406

The UCU union’s annual congress and sector conferences in Manchester last week were shaped by a debate over what kind of resistance is possible. They took place days before UCU members at Lambeth College began an all-out strike against attacks on their conditions.

Many delegates were disappointed that there wasn’t more time for debate in the two-day event. They passed an emergency motion calling on the union leadership to “immediately extend the booking” to three days for next year’s congress.

The left won significant votes.

In the higher education (HE) sector conference, delegates condemned union leaders for abandoning a strategy to fight on pay. They passed a motion of censure on the Higher Education Committee (HEC) by 89 to 77.

The HEC had moved away from an agreed strategy of escalating strikes and a marking boycott to fight for a decent pay deal. It de-escalated the strikes to a series of two-hour walkouts and the marking boycott never happened.

Eventually workers voted to accept a deal in the absence of a serious fight.

Paul Blackledge from Leeds Metropolitan University moved the motion. He described the HEC decision as a “disastrous shift in strategy”. “We managed to pull off good strikes,” he said of the two-hour walkouts. “But members weren’t buying it.”

Jo McNeill is president of the UCU at the University of Liverpool. She told Socialist Worker, “We ran a members’ survey to find out why people voted to accept the deal.

“We found that most people were not happy with the settlement and were unhappy with the strategy. After our strikes on 31 October and 3 December last year, we were ready to escalate.

“But then the dispute became drawn-out.”

David Hardman, UCU membership secretary at London Metropolitan University, agreed. “Before the dispute was called people were saying, ‘we always have one-day strikes – we need proper strikes’,” he told Socialist Worker.

Divisive

“Then we got two-hour strikes. It was divisive as not everyone was working at the time so not everyone could take part.”

Lesley Kane from the Open University told Socialist Worker, “Campaigns can run out of steam. Once you get the ballot result I think there needs to be action that’s effective within a few weeks. Once it’s dragged on for six months it’s harder.”

Delegates said the retreat over pay had encouraged more attacks. They highlighted planned job cuts at Dundee university and King’s College London. And many argued that the union should lead a national fight to defend workers against national attacks.

In the Further Education (FE) sector conference delegates narrowly voted against joining a planned walkout over pay by other unions on 10 July. Some 47 backed joining the action while 51 voted against and seven abstained.

Richard McEwan from Tower Hamlets College in east London moved the motion. He said, “The next negotiating meeting on pay is 18 June. We need the threat of action going into that meeting.”

Other delegates argued that the union would lose “credibility” if it struck in July as fewer lecturers are in colleges then. Others said if lecturers struck alongside the NUT, the NUT would get all the media attention.

The closeness of the vote was interesting given that striking in July isn’t ideal for college lecturers. It was clear that other delegates could be won to a July strike too.

Yolande Mallet de Chauny works at City Lit in London. She told Socialist Worker, “I don’t think July is the best time. But if you go into negotiations with the threat of a strike in your pocket, that’s better.”

FE delegates passed amendments backing a “campaign of national and targeted strike action” over pay.

They also passed amendments resolving to “coordinate strike action” where possible and to back the TUC demonstration in October.

Delegates passed a motion condemning the below-inflation pay deals that have plagued lecturers for the past four years. The motion said these had led to a 16 percent drop in real term pay.

Sean Vernell, a lecturer at London’s City and Islington College, moved the motion. He said that some 2,000 FE jobs were at risk in the latest round of cuts.

“People say if we pay you more, it will affect jobs,” he told delegates. “But now they’re coming for 2,000 jobs in FE. If you give them your pay, they’ll take your jobs.”

The union leadership lost an attempt to make rule changes in the main congress that would harm democracy and make it harder for branches to operate.

Delegates won a two thirds majority to pass a motion protecting branches’ autonomy and confirming UCU congress as the key body to make rules’ decisions.


UCU round-up

The UCU was the first union to hold its annual conference in the wake of local council and European elections. It passed a motion condemning Ukip as a “racist party” and said that “Anti-immigrant racism must have no place in colleges and universities”. 

The emergency motion said UCU must campaign against “any” party that pandered to “racist populism” and resolved to back the Unite Against Fascism conference on 14 June.

It also backed a planned lobby of Ukip’s conference on 27 September and other initiatives called by the Stand Up to Ukip campaign.

Delegates passed motions condemning zero hours contracts, supporting the right to protest, condemning attacks on welfare and urging campaigning over climate change.

They voted to support the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and to affiliate to Unite the Resistance.


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