UCU branches should keep pushing for democracy

Submitted by Gemma_S on 5 June, 2018 - 1:55
Image of an empty conference platform with screens showing the text "motion 10"

Comment by a Workers' Liberty UCU member on UCU Congress can be read here.

Jo Grady, UCU activist and Lecturer in Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield, spoke to Solidarity about the USS dispute, UCU Congress and where next?

Solidarity: Where are things with USS at the moment?

In April members of UCU voted to accept the offer that was on the table. This involved keeping the arrangements we currently have for the time being and installing a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) which has equal member representation from UCU and UUK. It was not entirely clear what the remit of that panel would be, and particularly whether it would be able to look at the valuation of the USS pension scheme. This is important given it was valuation which had caused the dispute, as it defined the continuation of the “defined benefit” pension scheme as beyond affordable. A lot of people who voted ″no″ to that offer, of which I was one, wanted more assurances of what the JEP would cover before we approved it. The JEP has been announced and it is due to start imminently (http://bit.ly/2svR4HW). As it stands our industrial action is suspended. The JEP will do it’s investigation and it is due to report to members twice, and make its conclusions by the end of 2018 so it can inform any decisions that are made in March 2019.

Solidarity: What do make of the composition of the JEP?

I don’t know much about the people who have been appointed, apart from Chris Curry who is director of the Pensions Policy Institute and seems a sensible choice from the UUK side. From looking at their biographies the other appointees seem like pretty standard pensions industry people.

Solidarity: You have only recently got involved nationally in the union, what made you get more involved and how have you found it?

I’ve always been involved in my union branch, and when I was at Leicester I was the rep for my department and the secretary of my branch. It was really the pensions dispute, particularly being on twitter which allowed me to connect with more people nationally. At the beginning of the dispute and the run up to the dispute it seemed that a lot of people, for completely understandable reasons, didn’t know that much about the details of the dispute. Along with a few other notable people I decided to get a bit more involved. I’m not officially nationally involved though – I don’t sit on any committees. Its more of an informal national activism I guess is a better description than involvement.

Solidarity: How have you found it being involved in the pensions dispute?

In some ways really really lovely, its been great to realise that there is a massive community of people quite similar to you. I think this was the case for a lots of people during the strike. The strike included a lot of people, not just academics but other university staff, but particularly for academics we are often just in our own offices which is quite an individual activity. I think sometimes a lot of the way you feel about your working environment, about the politics of HE, seem really individual to you. So being part of the picket line or part of a more national movement and seeing that others feel similar, or the same, was a like a bit of a collective solidarity hug. It was really nice. To know you’re not alone.

Solidarity: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the experience they’ve had on picket lines in terms of meeting and discussing with colleagues they work in the same institution as but have never really met. Here was an opportunity to think about their role in the university outside of the category of their job role.

Definitely. As I was so new at Sheffield, I only started in August 2017, I had made some lovely friends in my department but I hadn’t really met anyone outside of my department. Now I’ve got a really lovely friendship group in Sheffield because I joined other buildings′ picket lines. I met the most amazing group of women from the English Department. Also we met a lot of students, because a lot of students joined our picket lines and did solidarity activities. So it wasn’t just rediscovering or discovering colleagues, but a similar process happened with the student body, which was a big surprise to a lot of academics and university staff, but was really nice as well.

Solidarity: What are the main lessons from the dispute so far? What have you learnt from the dispute?

I think one thing is that is has been a reminder of the importance of collective action. That may seem obvious but everyone has talked a lot about the “virtual pickets” during the strike and that in some ways provided a function, but it was the actual physical collective action on picket lines that was most important. I would not normal get up 7am day after day, and people were doing things they would not usually do as part of their schedule in order to be on picket lines with others, in the cold, for several days. I think that shared experience of collective action was quite special. For the first two strike days in February I think its fair to say that nobody had actually seen picket lines of this size before. In previous disputes we’d just had the core members on picket lines, this was just completely different. I think that is something that will stay with people. As a result it has taught people about solidarity that they didn’t know was there before, and particularly engaging in solidarity with other unions.

Solidarity: So you were involved in USS Briefs (https://medium.com/ussbriefs). How did it come about and what role do you think it has played in the dispute?

USS briefs was a product of the “virtual pickets”, of the online UCU community generated by the USS strike. I hadn’t even met some of these people that I corresponded with on a daily basis, and I still haven’t met some of them. During the dispute everyone is on strike has a lot of spare time, and academics in particular are not very good at not doing anything! But doing our research was not an option because we were on strike, so lots of people started researching pensions instead and people became mini-specialists in USS. I was connected with these people over the internet because we were trying to create better information, to just try and understand pensions better. We thought there was an information deficit in the dispute, and we knew there would be a ballot at some point and we wanted to fill that vacuum and help members make better informed decisions. We discussed what areas we thought there was information lacking, and if there was expertise in the group we commissioned ourselves to write briefs, and where we did not have the expertise in-house we approached people who could write something fairly quickly and had evidence that they could support their brief with.

Solidarity: What do you make of what has happened at UCU congress?

My initial reaction is that I’m incredibly disappointed and quite depressed about the state of democracy within our union. The two motions that were deemed to be contentions were one calling for a vote of no confidence in the general secretary and the other censuring the general secretary for conduct during the dispute. Just to be clear motions can only be submitted by being passed by a branch, and then they have to go through the conference business committee, so there are several layers of checking and democracy before it is discussed at conference. Regardless of whether you think Sally Hunt is doing a good job or not, the fact is that those motions were passed by branches and Conference Business Committee approved them. If these motions were not appropriate for Congress then why did Conference Business Committee allow them to go ahead? These motions referenced the general secretary, however at congress the general secretary’s employment conditions were conflated with those of all staff for the union, and that was the problem. If you’re a member of staff of the union and your job security was threatened by congress you may be alarmed by that, but this wasn’t the case. I think you had take a very particular misreading of those motions to think that was the case.

So conference imploded, and several walk-outs by UCU staff and elected officers meant that despite congress voting to hear these motions several times the motions were never heard. Congress was finished early as a result. I don’t know what you do as a union when your general secretary is actually walking out of congress rather than staying and listening when your members have a legitimately and democratically expressed motion. Unite members are entitled to exercise their right to walk out, but I think the role of the elected general secretary was to stay in that room. Sally Hunt has said that part of what she does is listens to people, but that is exactly what she didn’t do.

Solidarity: Sally Hunt has said in an email to members that she considers she should not be open to being recalled after she was elected a year ago. What would be your answer to that?

I think whether it is MPs, or in student unions, or trade unions, I’m always wary of people who think that democracy starts and ends in the ballot box. Even if the motions had passed the result would not have been her immediately being removed from office; congress doesn’t have that power. To not take part in those discussions, but instead to close congress down, I just don’t see that as a tenable position for a general secretary to take. If you are a strong leader you can have uncomfortable conversations with the people who elected you.

It is not personal about the general secretary, the general secretary could be anybody and doing a good job or not. But the point is what happens when you want to challenge them?

Solidarity: What do you think should happen next?

The last few months have demonstrated to members that they need to pay more attention to the democratic structures of their union, and I include myself in that. A lot of people got interested in the UCU through the USS dispute had no idea about the structures of the union and how to get involved in them. We’re probably now going to see people get more involved. That is something I am already seeing happening, people putting themselves forward for NEC, HEC, and the Superannuation working group. People who a year ago were not in the union, or who were but were not looking to get more involved. We’ve got a lot of members who are precariously employed who don’t think the union represents them very well, who are getting involved. Whenever new people get involved in a union, or other group, it is always going to be a disruption to the status quo, but thats right I think.

If you’re new to UCU there is talk all of the time about factions and it can be confusing. Rank-and-file groups which have appeared are helpful because lots of members don’t have a clue what is going on with the traditional factions in the union.

Solidarity: Now congress has been shut down, and the vote was passed for a recall Congress, what should those branches who are in opposition to the leadership do next?

I don’t just think it is about opposition to the leadership and would be careful about framing it that way. In Sheffield our branch doesn’t have an official position on the leadership, what we have is a position about greater transparency and democracy in the union. I think that is what is concerning most members. It is really unclear to lots of members as to how these motions have been deemed not ok for discussion at Congress, and we don’t have any proper reasons as to why this is the case.

Many of us don’t know what to do next. Individual members need to communicate with each other about what problems we think exist. But also branches need to coordinate better for change. The motion from Sheffield UCU for a Democracy Review (previously ruled out of order as an Emergency Motion, but reinstated by Congress) was passed by Congress. We need to make sure engaged people are elected to the committee that does this, and hold the UCU to account to make sure it is carried out. In previous disputes people have felt angry, but have become worn out and the impetus has been lost. Branches should keep pushing for the democracy in the union that they want.

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