Last week’s UCU Congress ended with the conflict between the General Secretary and the delegates unresolved. After an attempt by delegates to take business forward on the last day, the officials walked out once again before noon, prevented Congress business taking place, and did not return. For the third time that week, the President suspended Congress for “half an hour” and walked out along with the rest of the platform, and the microphones and PA were turned off. They remained off for the rest of the day. Nor did the platform return.
This, however, was not the end of the matter.
At root is a dispute that stems from the way that the strikes in the pre-1992 universities were ended. An initial proposal for ending the strikes from the employers – a proposal most of those on the picket lines has seen as a basis for the resumption of negotiations – had been hurriedly presented to the membership for acceptance, without time for branch meetings to be held or there to be discussions amongst the membership. The only voice heard by the membership as a whole was that of the General Secretary, through her email list, and the proposals were accepted. The result was widespread anger and disaffection amongst the membership of UCU.
From their point of view, the leadership handled the dispute over this very badly, with the result that the anger has, if anything, deepened, with delegates returning to their branches and regional committees determined to take things further.
This anger translated on the first day of Congress into a dispute as to whether delegates had the power to call the General Secretary to account. Quite clearly, a large number of delegates wanted to, but in this they were frustrated. On the first day, UCU officials – who all belong to Unite – walked out twice, once in the morning for two-and-a-half hours and again in the afternoon, causing business not to be resumed that day.
The first walk out concerned a motion calling for the establishment of a Democracy Commission. This had been submitted late but was restored to the order paper by a vote of Congress. The officials objected to a clause in this motion requesting the commission to look into what they claimed as the terms and conditions of UCU employees. But there were other motions on the agenda that they objected to as well.
Agreement was reached concerning the motion for a Democracy Commission and also the wording of another motion to be taken later. No agreement was reached concerning two other motions – numbered 10 and 11 – the first calling on the General Secretary, Sally Hunt, to resign and the second merely censuring her. In both cases the movers of the motion offered to have the motion voted on in parts, thus allowing the clauses objected to be dealt with separately, but in both cases the Unite negotiators demanded the withdrawal of the whole motion.
The UCU conference lasted three days – Wednesday to Friday, inclusive – and comprises, in fact, three conferences: Congress, which deals with the overall business of the union, and two sector conferences, one for those working in Further Education and one for those working in Higher Education. Congress is held on Wednesday and Friday, with the sector conferences being run in parallel on the Thursday. The sector conferences, in contrast to Congress, ran smoothly and both unanimously voted in favour of pay campaigns, so not all business was blocked.
But Thursday being taken up by sector conferences meant that negotiations could take place between the Unite branch and the UCU leadership. This resulted in a joint statement which was passed to delegates on the Thursday evening. This agreed that motions 10 and 11 “involve staffing matters that are not within the business of Congress”. In other words, The UCU leadership sees the accountability of the General Secretary as none of the membership’s business.
On the last day, the President of UCU, Joanna de Groot, who chairs Congress, announced that the order of business would be the scheduled business for Friday, with business that hadn’t been conducted on Wednesday fitted in if there was time. Nobody expected that there would be, since business at Congress always overruns, so essentially the leadership were proposing that we resolve our differences by ignoring them.
This had been expected, and, on a point of order, Congress voted to continue where we had left off, discussing motions 10 and 11, after taking some emergency motions. One of these, covering the right of members to hold elected officers to account, included a key clause that “all elected officers of UCU can be subject to criticism by members in relation to their representation of members” was carried after a very heated debate. A further one resolved to hold a recall conference.
Congress then proceeded to discuss motion 10. The President began the discussion, before the motion had been proposed, by reading the joint statement to Congress and then proposing that motions 10 and 11 be withdrawn.
This did not go down well with Congress, with the chair of the Congress Business Committee – the committee responsible for advising the President on the running of the Congress, and normally a conservative body – pointing out that Congress had already voted three times to debate them. The first was when they voted to accept the CBC’s original agenda, with the two motions on the order paper; the second was when they voted against the motion to withdraw them; and the third time was when the order of business was changed at the beginning of day. We were now being asked, he said, to vote on the same thing for a fourth time.
The debate was, as expected, heated. But, in the end, the proposal was defeated. The significant thing is that the number voting in favour of withdrawal declined quite dramatically in comparison to the same vote two days before.
As expected, the officials walked out again, thus leaving the hall with no tellers and no one taking minutes. The President announced a half-hour suspension – emphasising the length of time, because she had been criticised for the length of Wednesday’s suspensions – and the microphones were turned off.
The half-hour suspension took us to almost lunchtime. The microphones were turned on again briefly for one of the platform to announce we would resume after lunch, at 1.20pm.
At 1.20pm delegates returned to the hall, but nothing happened and it was clear that nothing was going to happen. We therefore appointed a chair under UCU’s standing order 16 – which allows Congress to appoint a chair if neither the President, the Vice-President nor the previous President are available. Because it wasn’t clear how many delegates had returned to the hall, we voted not to continue with Congress and debating motion 10, but instead had a discussion on what to do next.
After some debate, a statement was agreed:
We UCU elected delegates voted repeatedly in line with the advice of our Congress Business Committee to hear motions criticising the General Secretary which were in order. Unfortunately the General Secretary and a narrow majority of the National Executive Committee refused to accept the right of Congress to debate these motions. We believe the union members have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account. This is a basic democratic right in all trade union and representative systems (e.g., Parliament). We disagree with the walkouts and reject the notion that the motions include a threat to undermine staff terms and conditions. There is no issue with the conduct and performance of our wonderful and hardworking UCU staff members. To turn a debate about our democratic process as a union into a procedural employment dispute is to evacuate our capacity to act as a political body. We resolve to continue to conduct the campaigns and defence of our members over pay and pensions that we all agree on and also to urge a debate in all branches and union bodies to discuss democracy in our union. We also resolve to continue the motions at a recall conference and not be distracted from the campaign to defend our members’ jobs, pay and pensions.
We also agreed on a hashtag #OurUCU and have set up a Twitter account @OurUCU. The aim, as the statement says, is not to give up the fight to hold our General Secretary to account, but to continue it. As the statement makes clear, we believe that this is essential to to defend our members’ jobs, pay and pensions.