It would be safe to describe Congress 2018 as eventful.
It has already been much discussed (not always accurately) on social media and has received some coverage in the press. It is not easy to describe: much happened; some things that were supposed to happen did not happen; procedural expertise was sorely tested.
Congress 2018 was unable to complete its business. Considerable time was lost on the first and third days. The nub of the controversy concerned two motions: one calling for the resignation of the General Secretary Sally Hunt; the other for her censure. Those branches bringing the motions were understandably determined that motions passed by their branch meetings be discussed by Congress.
The staff of the union, who are members of the UNITE union, deemed the motions an infringement of the employment rights of the General Secretary on the grounds that the General Secretary is employed by the National Executive Committee not Congress, and that due process for making a complaint about her conduct had not been followed. The staff exercised their rights as trade unionists and withdrew their labour leading to the suspension of Congress.
Considerable business was, nonetheless, conducted, particularly in the Higher Education Sector Conference on the second day. Many motions were concerned with the USS dispute. Congress collectively was keen to establish ‘red lines’ on what would constitute an acceptable outcome of the Joint Expert Panel, to create special machinery – the calling of Higher Education Special Conferences; the creation of a National Dispute Committee to oversee national negotiators, separate and distinct from our existing Higher Education Committee – to consider its results – and to determine next steps, and to publicise as widely as possible its workings.
It might be best to describe this as an interim report, as a motion was passed authorising a special one-day conference to undertake the unfinished business of Congress, including the two motions that proved especially controversial.
The dispute over the two motions concerning the General Secretary led to a number of votes as to whether Congress should debate those motions or not. In these instances, we – along with many though not a majority of delegates – voted not to debate those motions. Our view was that constitutionally Congress is a policy-making forum, not a body that passes judgment on the conduct and integrity of other parts of the democratic machinery of the union, whether that be the General Secretary or, for example, the National Executive Committee. We also wished to ensure there was an opportunity to discuss the many important policy motions, not least on equality issues, brought to Congress that were not in the end discussed.
This was a disappointing Congress in terms of its formal business. We, like many other delegates, wished to celebrate the great collective action in which we all participated, and to shape future policy for an enlarged and reinvigorated Union to address fundamental questions, such as eliminating the gender pay gap. There were some excellent fringe meetings on, for example, governance and precarious work, where we had discussions we hope to build on in our forthcoming branch conference. It was heartening to hear in conversations with other large branches of their successes during and after the strike, and to make valuable connections.
Regardless of the debates at Congress, we remain committed to local action on such issues as gender pay equality, mental health issues for staff and students, and casualisation of employment. We will be holding a conference next week to address these and other pressing matters. We hope you will all attend to voice your views.