But when discussions did take place, there was a strong mood to escalate struggle in both the Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) sector conferences.
HE delegates passed a series of motions and amendments to defend their USS pension scheme—in the teeth of opposition from union officials and the right.
Workers in over 60 universities held 14 days of strikes earlier this year to defend the scheme. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt pushed a deal to end the strikes that removed an immediate threat but gave no long term guarantees.
Instead it has set up a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to look at the scheme’s future. Delegates demanded more transparency and more say over the JEP.
They instructed the union to call a Special Higher Education Sector conference for USS branches in September or October to review its work.
Delegates authorised UCU negotiations to say there should be “no deterioration” in pensions. They should not accept the scheme is in deficit.
A motion demanded that any resolution to the pensions dispute “must have the full consultation and endorsement of the UCU membership”.
And it called for a “review of UCU governance to expand democratic processes”.
All of this reflects discontent and anger over the way that the union’s leadership has handled the dispute and the desire to transform the union.
HE delegates voted to call for the government to underwrite the scheme.
A composite motion highlighting the democratic deficit in the union was also passed. It put demands on how the expert panel now looking at the scheme should progress.
And it demanded that the union set up a committee to which the UCU’s panel members will report, instead of negotiations being kept secret.
A late motion on the USS dispute that opens up the possibility of further strikes was also passed. It resolved to “call for a return to industrial action if any future proposals are not substantially better than the proposal rejected” on 13 March this year.
Carlo Morelli is on the UCU’s national executive committee and a UCU Left supporter. He told Socialist Worker, “The right in the union, supporters of the Independent Broad Left (IBL), almost made their position explicit.
“Some argued that we can’t say the scheme isn’t in deficit. Others said we shouldn’t tie negotiators’ hands by insisting that pensions can’t get worse.”
Carlo said such arguments “open up a race to the bottom on pensions”.
HE delegates also called for broader action on pay.
A motion resolving to ballot members for industrial action over pay was overwhelmingly passed.
Another motion committed the union to build a pay campaign “around the use of escalating strike action”.
Workers will need to keep organising to defend pay, pensions, conditions and education.
Pay action gives new hope in Further Education
In the UCU Further Education conference, delegates passed motions and amendments calling for more strikes over pay. One amendment said local college strikes over pay had “laid the basis for a national campaign”.
Many delegates from colleges that have struck over pay spoke. Richard from Tower Hamlets College in east London said the strikes had “involved members in a way we haven’t seen before”.
Margot from Croydon College in south London described how workers there had taken five days of strikes. “It’s about our self-respect,” she said, telling delegates that the action “galvanised” people.
She added, “This isn’t over. But we want to see this spread.”
Workers were buoyed by the fact that the bosses’ Association of Colleges had backed down on a threat to refuse pay talks while strikes continued.
Andrew Harden, UCU’s head of FE, said the AoC had “done a complete backflip” after a threat of more widespread strikes. He added that it was “hard” to know how to respond to new offers.
“We can settle for less than we might have if we stuck out for more,” he said.
Dave Muritu, a delegate from Sandwell College, spoke about a pay deal that had been agreed there after strikes. “Our deal is 6.25 percent over three years, maybe 6.5 if the college grows enough,” he said.
“I’m pleased but it still represents three years of pay cuts.” Dave argued that the union should “get a national campaign back on track so we can get more”.