My First UCU Congress
One of our Sheffield UCU members attended their first UCU Congress this year, and wrote the following reflection on their experiences. If you are interested in attending UCU Congress 2021, or in getting more involved with local Sheffield UCU branch work, or just want to ask us more questions about what ‘getting more involved’ might mean, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I thought it would be terrifying, but it wasn’t. I’ve never been to Congress before. In my mind, the now legendary meeting of 2018, where UCU leadership repeatedly walked out on motion debates leading to an early termination of the meeting had set the mental bar for it; somewhere between wild and lawless. Congress was not for the faint-hearted and certainly not for newbies like me.
But, turns out when you have an encouraging set of co-delegates, an online meeting and a lively and entertaining WhatsApp group, anything is possible. So I went. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a bit nervous. Sheffield Branch Committee members are universally well-informed about everything. This is undoubtedly a very good thing, but it can also be a little intimidating. I wasn’t sure of the format, whether I would be expected to speak, whether I would understand anything that was going on, or whether anything I thought about proceedings and motions would be sensible. As Congress progressed though, I found that I relaxed into it a bit, realised that those speaking were not all highly confident public speakers and that my opinions were just as valid as anyone else’s, even if they were sometimes not quite so well-informed. I came to learn a bit more about UCU and how things work, and that aim was more than fulfilled.
Congress is essentially a series of motions, proposed by branches and detailing suggestions and ideas for activity and action that UCU should take. They are presented by members with the opportunity for others to speak either for or against. In the online version of Congress, no voting takes place on the day, and instead we were asked to note how we would vote. An in-person Congress would have taken speakers on the day but in the online version speakers had been asked to register their intention to speak ahead of time. It did not make for the easiest of processes but was probably as satisfactory as it gets in order to ensure that proceedings ran smoothly. Motions were really varied with some concentrating on the interests of particular membership groups, others on union procedures and some much more localised and personal. If you’re interested in learning more, the full list of motions is on the UCU website. Overwhelmingly, the impression I came away with of a group of people who really cared about how they and their fellow workers are treated and how we treat each other. The discussion between Sheffield delegates on our WhatsApp group was really helpful, interesting and supportive. I learnt as much from that as I did from proceedings on the floor.
That’s not to say that the gathering was without controversy. A lengthy preamble to one of the motions, delivered by UCU’s in-house lawyer to set out the legal implications of a positive vote, provoked some interventions which required robust chairing. There were also some unpleasant transphobic objections to a couple of the motions, thankfully countered by the majority of delegates. At one point during the second day, it looked like a delegate would be removed from proceedings for refusing to retract a statement about a UCU staff member. Listening to those speaking for and against motions gave me a really fascinating insight into the politics of UCU and made a lot of things that had previously seemed quite mysterious make sense. The range of people that UCU includes gives rise to wildly differing opinions about a whole host of things and understanding that in a bit more detail is really helpful when thinking about how to go about things at branch level.
The next Congress is in May and we’ll be asking for delegate nominations shortly. I’d really encourage you to think about standing. It was (genuinely) an interesting and lively experience with a supportive group of people from the branch. I got to see some of the workings of UCU, both positive and negative, learn from branch colleagues. I was also really proud of those from Sheffield who spoke to our branch motions with such passion and grace. Unions really are the sum of their parts, and as members we can make a difference.