Bristol UCU Congress Report 2019

UCU Congress 2019 – a collection of delegates from UCU branches, regional committees and UK-level committees – came to debate and decide UCU policy at Harrogate Convention Centre. University of Bristol UCU had 4 delegates this year, a testimony to our large post-USS strike membership. Our branch delegates were Suzy Cheeke, Jamie Melrose, Paul Ayres and Celine Petitjean. Our incoming branch Membership and Recruitment Secretary Mercedes Villalba also attended Congress as a UCU South West Regional delegate.

Congress got off to a good start from a Bristol point of view when we saw that a photo from our ‘Post Your Vote’ event in February was the Congress agenda front cover.

The year’s Congress took some important decisions on USS and industrial action, on the representation of migrant members, on UCU membership fees and on the union’s position regarding gender identity and academic freedom. Congress also welcomed UCU’s new General Secretary Jo Grady. Jo addressed Congress on the opening day, noting how UCU was ‘one union…from professional services staff to prison educators, from the regions and nations to Carlow Street’ and pointing out ‘it’s time to restore our sense of self-worth and remember how much power and authority we have’ as university and college staff.

The motions that Congress votes on are submitted by UCU branches and regional committees across the UK. They are discussed at full Congress and at the sectorial conferences – the Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) and the Further Education Sector Conference – which make up the second day of business.

It is incredibly difficult to summarise every decision taken at Congress. With over 150 motions, many with amendments, plus several late or emergency motions, Congress packs in a great deal. Suffice to say, UCU is not short of policy or position on a great many important issues for members, whether they be professional service staff, casualised, or on a research or teaching contract. UCU has a list of all the motions on its website – https://www.ucu.org.uk/Congress2019 – and Bristol UCU Congress delegates are happy to discuss further any questions/points members may have. It is also worth noting that a number of motions were not discussed because of lack of time, and also that a number of motions that were discussed are existing policy, that is, already on the UCU statute book.

USS

The headline regarding pensions coming out of Congress is the decision to ballot members over strike action in the event that USS employers, represented by Universities UK (UUK), do not agree to pay 100% of the scheduled October contribution rises. If UUK does not pick up the tab by Saturday, 1st June, UCU plans to initiate ‘an immediate campaign for industrial action, highlighting USS’s destructive role, with a ballot commencing 1st September 2019 which will give UCU negotiators the necessary leverage to save the USS defined benefit pension with no detriment to members’.

In addition, delegates voted to confirm UCU’s general position as regards a lack of confidence in USS leadership, our support for UCU trustee Jane Hutton and our opposition to Trinity College’s decision to exit the scheme. Congress also decided to run an industrial action ballot on equality, casualistion, workload and pay in the autumn, around the same time as the USS ballot.

Rule Changes

A dry topic perhaps, but incredibly important. For example, following Congress, UCU’s governing National Executive Committee (NEC) will now have two reserved seats for migrant members, a new standing committee and conference for migrant UCU members.

Members are reminded of the UCU Democracy Commission set up last year and whose interim report formed a good many of the proposed rule changes.

A majority of the rule change motions were remitted (not discussed but handed onto UCU’s NEC to decide, or to the planned Democracy Commission-themed Congress in November) because Congress 2019 ran out of the time: there was a good deal of contentious debate about one motion which endeavoured to make UCU UK-level representation fairer and more proportionate to branch membership. In doing so, though, it controversially halved Further Education delegate representation at Congress.

Those motions that were not remitted included proposals to transfer decision-making powers away from existing NEC committee such as UCU’s Higher Education Committee and Further Education Committee during industrial action, and to branch delegate dispute committees: no decision on any aspect of the conduct of the dispute could be taken without the approval of the dispute committee constituted for that dispute. The last proposal was not carried, having failed to secure the ⅔ Congress majority needed for any rule changes.

Workloads, Casualisation and Gender Pay Gap

On these important issues, UCU confirmed its general position: securing better terms and conditions for members on precarious contracts, closing the gender pay gap and fighting the exploitation norm of current HE workload.

For example, HESC committed to call on research funders to support 12-month minimum research staff contracts. UCU is also committed to push for collective agreements regarding the use of casualised contracts. Congress also voted to reduce subscription fees for those earning between £10K and £14,999 – £10.92 to 4.41 per month, and to slightly cut subs for members earning between £15K and £29,999. Congress also encouraged branches to follow in the footsteps of Bristol UCU and submit a ‘Close the Gap’ gender pay claim with UCU regional and national support. Congress reaffirmed UCU’s commitment to ‘reasonable workload allocation’ for all university staff – academic and academic-related. Mental health services were also debated with UCU committed to ‘campaign for better resourced counselling services’.

Also in HESC, we just about had enough time to emphasise UCU’s ‘campaign for employing institutions, possibly through UCEA, to agree not to return submission of compulsorily redundant staff’ in REF2021.

Equality

One of the most discussed motions at Congress was HE23 ‘Academic Freedom to Discuss Gender’. Brought to ‘re-affirm our commitment to academic freedom…and to the right of academics to participate in political debates’, the motion was opposed on the basis that it sanctioned trans-exclusionary or transphobic viewpoints and discriminatory practice. The motion fell.

Over the 3 days, Congress committed itself:

  • to campaign against the ethnic pay gap
  • organise and facilitate LGBT+ awareness raising actions within HE
  • to develop anti-racist materials aimed at exposing the far right to staff and students
  • to develop a campaign countering use of non-disclosure agreements involving accusations of sexual harassment

The proposal to expel UCU members ‘found guilty of sexual harassment’ was remitted for further consideration, the reason being that ‘by whom?’ needed to be more clearly specified.

Solidarity

UCU Congress called for a boycott of the University of London following the call by outsourced workers at Senate House. UCU also showed its support for the schoolchildren’s climate change strike, for a National Education Service and for victimised members of staff Tony Brown at UCL and Lee Humber at Ruskin College.

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