UCU Congress 2019: A Report for Members of University of Birmingham UCU

Over the recent bank holiday weekend, our branch delegates James Brackley (outgoing President) and Nick Hardy (Pensions Officer) and travelled to Harrogate for UCU’s annual congress. Congress is where local branches such as ours have the chance to shape UCU national policy. Nick has kindly written a report which captures the major development, and importantly, how the motions our branch had submitted fared on the congress floor.

What happened at Congress: a brief summary

 

  • Birmingham UCU Dubai ‘boycott’ motion remitted for future debate
  • Birmingham UCU motion to fight short-term contracts carried
  • Birmingham UCU motion to improve membership data systems for industrial ballots carried
  • Other branches’ motions to establish more representation and support for migrant (EU and non-EU) staff carried
  • Motion for industrial ballot over pensions starting in September carried
  • Motion for industrial ballot over pay, equality, and anti-casualisation starting in the autumn carried
  • Election of Dr Jo Grady as General Secretary of UCU breaks records for turnout and share of votes

Report

Congress is our Union’s sovereign decision-making and policy-setting body. It meets at least once every year, and it provides the only formal mechanism for branches like ours to have a direct input into policies that affect the whole Union. This year, Congress took place in Harrogate from Saturday 25 to Monday 27 May. The branch elected and sent two delegates: James Brackley (President) and Nick Hardy (Pensions Officer). The branch also submitted three motions, and two amendments to motions from other branches. Our motions and amendments had been agreed at members’ meetings in the branch in the period leading up to Congress.

We’ll start with the bad news: unfortunately, we did not have a chance to debate our motion HE42, defending LGBTQ+ rights, workers’ rights, and academic freedom in relation to the University’s Dubai campus. We were keen to extend our local boycott (which is an exercise of academic freedom rather than industrial action) of the Dubai campus to the whole Union, but we ran out of time to debate it. The motion has been remitted to UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), which comprises elected reps who meet on a more regular basis than Congress. Sadly, this means it will get much less publicity than if it had been discussed at Congress, but it does at least mean that the motion will still be moved and hopefully passed under the supervision of our Pensions Officer Nick Hardy, who was just elected to the HEC.

More happily, all of our other motions and amendments fared a bit better. James Brackley moved two amendments (HE2A.1 and HE3A.1) to improve our branch and other branches’ efforts to get the vote out for strike ballots. However, the motion to which the first amendment was attached was remitted to HEC, where it will be supported by Nick Hardy, while the motion to which the second amendment was attached fell, despite the amendment itself passing.

The first proper motion we debated (HE15) was moved by Nick Hardy: it requires UCU to demand in future rounds of national bargaining with employers that they work with research funders to eliminate contracts under 12 months. The motion was passed comfortably, partly because a similar but even stronger motion in favour of 24-month-minimum contracts had passed just before it. UCU’s national demands around job security have been toothless in the past few years, much more so than demands made by individual branches like ours. The upshot of these two motions is that we will have a real chance to improve job security for everybody in the Higher Education sector, especially if we take industrial action over them. There will doubtless be opportunities in any future agreement to carve out exceptions for any researchers who really benefit from shorter contracts, but the branch felt it was worth establishing longer contracts as a simple benchmark.

The second motion we had a chance to debate (58) was also moved by Nick Hardy, and passed unanimously with no opposing speakers. It requests UCU HQ to update its membership data management systems in order to speed up the process whereby branches update their own local membership lists, and help them exclude members from industrial ballots if they are unable to participate, e.g. if they are on research leave or parental leave. It isn’t the most exciting motion, but it could make a massive difference to our ability to organise for industrial disputes and take action to improve our working conditions.

There were three further developments not relating to the branch’s activities at Congress which are worth reporting. First, there was a raft of motions to establish better representation for migrant staff in UCU. In particular, Congress voted to set up a special national committee for migrant staff which will meet regularly and coordinate UCU’s action and campaigning on behalf of its EU and non-EU members.

Secondly, we voted on two motions (L5 and HE4) that will almost certainly see the whole Union proceed to industrial ballots over pensions, in September, and pay, probably later in the autumn. Congress chose to prioritise the pension dispute because the future of the USS pension scheme is in the balance: USS’s managers and our employers are refusing to implement the findings of the Joint Expert Panel, and doubling down on a valuation methodology and governance framework that have seriously discredited by a number of extremely troubling developments and revelations both before and after the Panel reported. As Congress debates recognised, it has become clear that neither employers nor USS can be trusted to act in members’ best interests without the stimulus of a credible threat of strike action. As far as the pay dispute is concerned, the Union is now committed to an industrial campaign in the autumn, although the timing and precise nature of that campaign remain to be decided. Whatever happens, the branch will be ready.

Finally, Congress heard a speech by its newly elected General Secretary, Dr Jo Grady. Jo Grady is the first member of UCU, and the first person with direct experience of working in Higher or Further Education, to lead the Union. She was elected the Friday prior to Congress with a record-breaking turnout of 20.5%, up on 13.7% in 2017. She also enjoyed a record share of the vote for a three-way election, with 48% of first-preference votes and 64% of overall votes after two rounds of votes had been counted. Jo had been one of the two candidates formally endorsed by the branch’s Committee, and we were delighted to be present for her first address to the Union.

Nick Hardy, Pensions Officer

You can follow Nick on Twitter @NJSHardy.

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