UCU Congress 2018: Delegates’ Report

UCU Congress this year did not go smoothly.

There have been many reports published already, including in the press, about what happened at Congress. Some of the substance of it is quite complicated, but in short: Congress was unable to debate motions that were on the agenda due to walkouts by UCU staff. Business was suspended on the first day and again on the last day (the second day is taken up by what are called the sector conferences, one for HE and one for FE, and those went very smoothly). We did not hear the majority of Congress motions that we were there to discuss on the first and third days.

(Before we go any further, you might find this explainer of UCU’s democratic structures useful. It’s by Rachel Cohen of City University and published by the ever-wonderful USS Briefs.)

So, what happened? The contentious motions included one that we submitted as a late motion calling for a democracy review (which was passed at one of our local EGMs), a motion of no confidence in the General Secretary (motion 10), and a censure of the General Secretary (motion 11). Unite, which represents UCU employees, produced a leaflet that was handed out to delegates on arrival to Congress arguing that debate on these motions represented ‘an attack on [their] trade union rights’ and the agreement that they have with UCU – on the grounds that these motions were critical of UCU employees – i.e. the General Secretary – without due process.

Our democracy review motion did not originally appear on Congress agenda due to Congress Business Committee ruling that it was ‘not Congress business’. We successfully challenged this decision and, after securing a 2/3rd majority vote from Congress (necessary within the rules to order a late motion back onto the agenda), our motion was admitted back on the agenda for discussion. This is when the first walkout happened.

Congress was suspended while the movers of the relevant motions discussed things with Unite reps. As a result of those discussions, we agreed to amend parts of the democracy review motion (which later passed in this form). Delegates from the other branches involved also spoke to Unite reps. You can read full accounts from Exeter (no confidence in the General Secretary) and KCL (censure of the General Secretary) of their experiences, including the pressure that they were put under to withdraw their motions.

Business was briefly resumed (and some excellent motions were passed) before a second walkout after Congress voted to hear motions 10 and 11. No further motions were passed that day. When we reconvened on Friday after the sector conferences on Thursday, we were again asked to vote on whether or not we should hear motions 10 and 11. Again we voted to hear them, and again UCU employees walked out. Congress was suspended again, and it was then announced by a member of UCU staff (the Chair did not return) that Congress was closed.

We share the view of delegates from Exeter and KCL that motions which were submitted in line with formal procedures and deemed legitimate by the Congress Business Committee, the body that orders the agenda, should have been heard. Delegates from those branches had no mandate from their members to withdraw their motions, and plenty of Congress delegates who did not support the motions did support keeping them on the agenda. The fact that the General Secretary is an employee does not override the fact that she is elected to represent the members of the union and is therefore accountable to them; she has a right of reply in Congress debate. We would have actively welcomed any intervention from her at any point in the process of discussing whether or not the motions should be heard. The General Secretary did not intervene at any point, despite being invited to by one of our delegates.

It is our view that neither motion 10 nor motion 11 would have passed straightforwardly had they been heard at the time they should have been. It is also our view that those members who were unhappy with the General Secretary before Congress are likely to be considerably more unhappy now. We believe that forcing the closure of the sovereign policy-making body of a trade union to prevent debate, discussion and public accountability for elected representatives is a very serious matter. We respect the right of any trade union to act in the best interests of its members, but we also believe that the General Secretary is accountable to the membership, including at Congress. As delegates we were broadly in agreement that we would vote for motion 11, which called for censure, but not for motion 10, which expressed no confidence in the GS and called for her resignation. In the light of the disruption this week, which surely could have been avoided had the GS been willing to face the scrutiny these motions represented, we are now minded to consider the matter in a different light.

This is a necessarily simplified account of what happened at Congress – there are many more details to share about how Congress was chaired, how senior UCU members responded to events, how delegates were prevented from proper discussion during suspension and so on. We would like to discuss these issues at our next meeting, and to update you on the motions that were passed at HE sector conference, many of which will be very significant over the next few months. You can read all of the motions that were passed here, and we strongly recommend that you do.

There were excellent discussions around building our campaign on pay. There was much discussion around USS pensions and the JEP. We submitted a motion on strengthening of the Superannuation Working Group, which was well received and overwhelmingly passed. Our amendment to motions relating to potential industrial action over pay, calling for the co-ordination of industrial action with FE and with other trade unions in other sectors, was welcomed by the delegates. Unfortunately we have to report that due to the disruption of full Congress our motion on local government austerity and our amendment on sexual harassment in education institutions were not discussed.

In her address to Congress, the General Secretary told us that membership of UCU has increased by 16,000 in the last year. She spoke, repeatedly, about how this has been a ‘turnaround’ year for UCU. We strongly agree. The membership is bigger, and more active; it has been transformed by the USS dispute and the FE fightback. Branches up and down the country are doing amazing work. As a branch we will continue to fight for a more democratic, member-led and campaigning union. This Congress should have been a celebration of our achievements, as well as a chance to strategise around the huge challenges we are facing together. Instead it was derailed, and ultimately we believe responsibility for this lies with the General Secretary.

An emergency motion for a recall Congress was passed on the Friday, which means that Congress will resume at some point to discuss the remaining business, including Motion 10 and 11. Our AGM takes place on Thursday and we’d urge you all to come along, whatever your views about the General Secretary. This amounts to a crisis moment for UCU: we need your views about where we go from here.

Emma Nagouse
Jess Meacham
Sam Marsh
Sam Morecroft

SUCU Congress delegates 2018