Report on UCU Congress 2018
Craig Gent and Tor Krever
It is difficult to know where to begin in relaying the events of this controversial Congress, but we will do our best to give a full account which gives members both an exposition of events and an account of our own actions as Warwick’s delegates.
Due to a growth in membership, this year Warwick was entitled to three delegates to congress, up one from its previous two. Your delegates were Myka Tucker-Abramson, Craig Gent and Tor Krever. Unfortunately, Myka had to tend to an unforeseeable family emergency and, although initially hoping to join the Congress part-way through, she could not attend in the end. Craig and Tor were present for the duration. Congress is split into three days, the middle day providing the separate HE and FE sector conferences, and the first and last day being Congress proper, which is the supreme policy-making body on matters not particular to either sector. This year the Warwick delegation took one motion to the HE sector conference, which called for the scrapping of the new Office for Students. Craig presented the motion on behalf of Warwick, which passed without opposition.
This year there was no other discussion at branch level regarding upcoming motions, so as delegates we maintained a position of acting based on branch policy or where no clear policy exists, being guided by what we interpreted to be the mood of the branch based on the various meetings we have attended in the past year. Where neither offers guidance, delegates rely on their personal judgement, but thanks to the flurry of meetings that occurred around the strike we felt reasonably well informed of the lay of the land in the Warwick branch.
Before we get to the events of Congress (on the first and third days), we should say that the HE sector conference (on the second day) unfolded fairly smoothly with most motions passing and most amendments passing as ‘strengthening’ amendments (i.e. amendments seeking to strengthen a motion, not undermine or diminish it). HE11, which advocated the removal of the entire USS board of trustees, was remitted to the national executive committee, with many speakers (including our own Justine Mercer in her capacity as a Midlands regional representative) pointing to the hard work of the UCU reps on the board, including Warwick’s
own Jane Hutton. HE22 was also defeated, which advocated the return of the 2013/14 two-hour strike (colloquially known as the ‘fag break strike’) to the industrial action repertoire. Significant
motions were passed regarding lecture capture technology (advocating an explicit ‘opt-in only’ position), transparency on the USS joint expertise panel, and a motion authorising UCU
negotiators to adhere to a principle of denying the UUK position that USS is in deficit and not acquiescing over rescheduling. As you will appreciate, a lot of business was dealt with so a full
breakdown can be found here: https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9502/Higher-Education-Sector-Conference-2018
First, it is important to note that, before and despite various adjournments, some important motions were passed. These included committing to a proportional structure for subscriptions
(which currently penalise lower earners in percentage terms) and a movement towards a progressive subs structure. Motions were also passed on improving the transparency of the HE committee, FE committee and NEC during disputes, as well as the use of non-statutory ballots, and advocating the use of ‘plain English’ to aid accessibility regarding the union’s processes and structures. Most significantly, B19 called for a democracy review commission along the lines of last year’s commission on effective industrial action. As members will by now be aware, many more motions did not get discussed, but on the final day an emergency motion passed
which called for a ‘recall Congress’ to deal with business which was left over from this Congress. We do not yet know when this Congress will be scheduled.
Now for the controversy. Numerous accounts of Congress have now circulated, many offering at best partial narratives, some using inflammatory rhetoric and leveling inappropriate and unsubstantiated allegations against other delegates. In offering our own account below, we have sought to remain measured and non-partisan. It is perhaps important to note that neither of us belong to, or identify with, any factions within UCU.
A draft Congress programme was circulated several weeks ago including the motions which would subsequently prove controversial. We received no indication of any problems or likely
difficulties at Congress and, on the basis of conversations with numerous other delegates last week, nor did others.
On arrival at Congress on Wednesday morning, delegates were handed leaflets signed by the ‘Unite committee for the UCU staff branch’, arguing that if a selection of motions were allowed to be debated, it would “breach agreements between Unite and UCU which protect employees’ dignity at work and right to due process.” For those who are not aware, UCU employs various full-time officials and they generally help staff the Congress in a support role, acting as tellers, minute-takers, etc. These staff are organised in Unite.
The UCU staff leaflet indicated that staff objected to four motions, B19, 7, 10 and 11, and indicated that “if these motions are debated, Unite will need to hold immediate emergency meetings to consider [the branch’s] response to this attack on [its members’] rights.” They felt that motions B19 and 7 called into question the work of UCU staff, contravening an agreement between UCU and Unite that UCU’s democratic bodies should not criticise the work of paid staff outside of their employment procedures (such an agreement also exists in NUS). Meanwhile, motions 10 and 11, brought by Exeter and KCL, called for a vote of no-confidence in the general secretary (and her resignation) and a vote of censure in the general secretary, respectively. Both motions called into question the general secretary’s claim that during the strikes a majority of branch delegates wanted to put UUK’s offer unamended to an e-ballot of members, arguing no such vote had taken place during the relevant meeting with branch delegates and, moreover, that no minutes or official record of that meeting had been kept on which such a claim could be based or supported.
It is important to understand here that the general secretary holds a unique position within UCU. She is an employee of UCU, but unlike other professional staff she is elected by members: indeed, she is the only elected full-time official of UCU. She is also a member of Unite. The Unite position was that the general secretary, as a paid member of staff, should not be subject to these critical motions which, in their view, constituted a form of disciplinary action without due process and in contravention of her employment rights. The motions’ movers, on the other hand, asserted their right to hold the union’s most senior elected official to account in the union’s supreme legislative body. This tension became an important focus of the whole Congress, and we will return to it below.
Motion B19 was passed by Sheffield at an EGM in April and submitted as a late motion. It had been ruled out-of-order by the Congress Business Committee (CBC), which manages the
Congress/conference agenda on the basis of the union’s standing rules. At Congress, the movers of B19 challenged the motion’s exclusion, indicating that it was not their intention to criticise staff and that they did not think the wording of the motions represented a threat to staff conditions. As one of the first votes of the day, the motion was voted back onto the agenda by Congress. (It is completely normal for the CBC’s decisions to be challenged at the start of Congress and several other late motions which proved entirely uncontroversial were also voted back onto the agenda). Upon the result of the vote, UCU staff walked out of the conference hall to hold a (Unite) union meeting.
The Chair, Joanna de Groot (UCU President), invoked standing order 33, which allows her to suspend Congress for 30 minutes in the event of “grave disorder”. She, along with the rest of the ‘top table’ — including Sally Hunt (General Secretary), Douglas Chalmers (UCU Vice President), and employees Paul Bridge (director of HE) and Paul Cottrell (head of democratic services) — left the room. The audiovisual equipment was turned off, and pandemonium broke out. There was a lot of shouting in the conference hall, with several delegates using emotive language to argue we should stand in solidarity with Unite workers against these motions the same as we would stand against unscrupulous employers alongside our own members. Several of these delegates gathered outside the conference hall chanting and holding placards accusing delegates of bullying UCU staff. Others, still inside the conference hall argued that UCU has to reserve the right to review our own democratic structures and criticise our elected officials. Many were simply bemused, wondered how things had escalated so quickly at around only 10:30 in the morning.
Congress reconvened over an hour later, at which point we were informed that the movers of motions B19, 7, 10 and 11 had held discussions with Unite representatives and that the movers
of motions B19 and 7 were willing to withdraw the language which had caused concern to the Unite members. In B19, this included language stating that “Congress notes . . . most senior full time officials of the union are appointed rather than elected” and the resolution that the proposed democracy review include “discussion of the appropriate number of full time elected officials and how elected representatives are to be held to account”. Motion 7, like B19 duly passed by its branch (Oxford), sought clear procedures for the conduct of non-statutory ballots, noting several “procedural questions arising from the national e-ballot (4-13 April)”. Staff felt that these amounted to criticisms of the staff of carried out the ballots (although CBC had found the motion, in ordering it on the agenda, unproblematic).
With the problematic language removed, both motions B19 and 7 were deemed acceptable by staff and were passed, both Warwick delegates voting in favour.
On the afternoon of the first day, we arrived at motion 10. This motion had been brought by Exeter branch, passed in an EGM, and subsequently approved by the CBC as appropriate for the Congress agenda. It was addressed specifically to a single member of staff, the general secretary, calling for her resignation. The President, Joanna de Groot, told Congress that a majority of the NEC (a slim one, we were told by some members) had taken the view that the motion ought to be withdrawn, and it was put to a vote. 123 voted to withdraw, 144 voted against withdrawal, and 17 abstained. At this point, the staff walked out for the second time and the audiovisual equipment was once again turned off after de Groot suspended Congress again under standing order 33. At around 5:30pm, the President returned to say Unite had declared a trade dispute with UCU and had called for a meeting of the joint negotiating committee (JNC) which mediates between Unite and UCU. Congress was not suspended again but the President left and the audio was again switched off.
It is worth noting that over the course of these events on the first day, the conversation on the Congress floor quickly turned from whether or not to vote for/against these motions, to the wider principle of whether they ought to be debated at all . The Exeter (motion 10) and KCL (motion 11) delegations both said they had not been approached about the motions prior to Congress, despite the agenda and motions having been published several weeks earlier. Only once they had arrived were they informed of national officials’ disapproval, at which point they faced significant informal pressure to withdraw even before the chair read our the NEC’s position.
They made it clear to Congress that they were not in a position to unilaterally withdraw the motion: their branch had followed UCU’s rule, with the motions debated and passed convincingly at quorate branch meetings, submitted in time and ruled onto the agenda by CBC far in advance of the Congress; regardless of their own opinion on the matter, they had no mandate from their branch to withdraw the motions they had been sent to present for debate.
As Warwick delegates we discussed the motions on the first morning of Congress. Without a clear steer from the branch we felt that there would probably not be majority support for a vote
of no confidence in the leadership (whether on political grounds or strategic grounds) and intended to vote against. We were undecided on how we should vote on the motion of censure, feeling that such a motion would probably have more support in the branch but perhaps something closer to 50/50. We did not reach a conclusion but we discussed either both abstaining, voting one for and one against, or one for and one abstention. In the end we did not
need to decide, as discussion of the motions itself became the subject of debate. On this we took a strong view, feeling that even if we did not intend to vote, for example, for no confidence,
there was an important principle at stake — i.e. that the membership, via Congress, should have a right to debate as a political and democratic body, and to scrutinise the elected
leadership if it wants to. For what it’s worth, our sense was that on the first day a motion of no confidence would likely have fallen, while a motion of censure might have been carried by a narrow margin.
After the HE sector conference, Congress resumed on the third day. The CBC presented its view that although day one had been extraordinary in many ways, it did not warrant a deviation
from normal procedure, which in this case meant debating motions 49 through 70 as normal, and returning to any leftover business from day one at the end of the day. This was challenged and Congress voted to discuss several emergency/late motions submitted to CBC during the course of the previous two days, and then return to motions 10 and 11, followed by the day’s business as planned. Joanna de Groot indicated she intended to read a statement from the JNC regarding motions 10 and 11 but Congress voted to postpone the reading until we reached motion 10 on the agenda. The emergency/late motions were debated, the most significant of which included a motion providing detailed guidance on establishing the aforementioned, and now-adopted, democracy review, a motion calling for a one-day ‘recall Congress’ to discuss lost business from this Congress, and a motion affirming of the right of Congress to criticise its elected representative and the principle that the union cannot allow motions voicing dissent with the general secretary not to be debated. We, along with a majority, voted in favour of these motions.
At this point we then returned to motion 10, or rather motions 10 and 11, as the President sought to treat the two together (a problematic conflation of distinct motions raising distinct
issues). The President read out part of the JNC statement, which was approved by the Unite representatives and (we were told by NEC members) a narrow majority of the NEC and once again requested that Congress withdraw motions 10 and 11 and refrain from debating them. We have attached a copy of the statement.
Following this, a large number of delegates sought to intervene with procedural points and points of information (requests for information). A number of delegates observed that the controversy could likely be defused were the general secretary, Sally Hunt, to address Congress and respond to the criticisms raised by the motions in question. She was asked if she had an opinion on whether the motions should be debated, but declined to reply.
In our opinion, although the statement states its aim of highlighting a conflation between Congress as the supreme policy-making body of the union and the role of the NEC as the body responsible for staffing and employment matters, the statement goes on to conflate and confuse the sets of responsibilities it says it is delineating. As Tor raised in a point of information, if Congress is not responsible for the employment of UCU staff, and if that responsibility rests solely and ultimately with the NEC, then surely any statement arising from a Congress debate can only be symbolic and political, rather than carrying any legal consequence for the general secretary’s employment rights. The President dismissed the question and offered no answer. To our mind, on the basis of the President and NEC’s own stated position, there is no sound rationale for why Congress should not be able to debate the performance of the political leadership of the union, the implication, we feel, being that the aversion to having this discussion is itself, regardless of appeals to legal proceduralism, primarily political.
Ultimately, the President asked Congress if it would take another vote on whether or not to withdraw the motions. At this point the chair of CBC protested, arguing that Congress had clearly voted on at least four occasions to hear the motions (the approval of the agenda, the request from the NEC following the first walkout, the challenge to the agenda on day three, and the late motion establishing the right to discuss motions of dissent with the general secretary), and that it was not legitimate to keep asking delegates to reconsider. At 11:44, motion 10 was ready to be debated. At 11:47 UCU staff walked out for the third time. And at 11:48 Joanna de Groot suspended Congress for 30 minutes under standing order 33
and audio facilities were again turned off. Lunch (12:00 to 1:00) interrupted the 30 minute adjournment but by 1:00 most delegates were back in the hall. At 1:14, Paul Cottrell (head of democratic services) came to the stage and the microphones were was turned back on. He told delegates that staff were unwilling to return and said Congress could not continue. De Groot did not return. At 13:18 the suspension expired but de Groot was not available to chair. It is
important to note that the President had only suspended Congress under order 33 and that after 30 minutes she was required to hear challenges to any further suspension. She had not closed congress.
Therefore, under standing order 16, Congress sought a new chair, but the Vice President (Douglas Chalmers) and Immediate Past President (Rob Goodfellow) were not available either. Congress therefore appointed Nita Sanghera (Vice President-elect) to the
Chair, and new tellers were appointed. She requested audio facilities be switched back on, as did other delegates, but a handful of vocal supporters of the general secretary appeared to be stopping other delegates from making the requests. Several of these supporters called remaining delegates scabs for trying to continue with Congress. Concerns were raised about health and safety particularly in relation to equalities (e.g. the hearing loop, which many delegates rely on), and remaining delegates were mindful of staying within Congress rules despite the difficult situation, so Congress resolved to close.
Most of the delegates, ourselves included, remained in the room and decided to agree and sign a joint statement, which was published under the hastily agreed moniker ‘Our UCU’ (see @OurUCU or #OurUCU on Twitter). 148 delegates signed on leaving the hall. The statement can be found here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1iFQDA3dv4tjp1_m6fsZXlmK4DKidFaTBlfhtf2gk7ZE/edit
It is our understanding that the number of delegates who signed the statement indicates that the room remained quorate (especially given many of the general secretary’s supporters were also
in the room up until that point). Finally, it would be remiss of us not to mention that we think there was a strongly political dimension to the debacle at Congress which transcends the immediately technical questions of what can and can’t be dealt with at Congress. It is our view, in short, that many of the technical maneuvers (particularly relating to the meta-discussion of motions 10 and 11) were used to
obfuscate political interests on the part of those who occupy the leadership of our union. We respect that members will make up their own minds about how to interpret events, but for those who are interested, Craig has written a political analysis which Tor has endorsed: http://novaramedia.com/2018/06/04/ourucu-the-real-culmination-of-the-ucus-turnaround-year/
It should also be stressed that we are unaware of any delegates, including the movers of any motions, who expressed criticism of any UCU staff other than the general secretary. Everyone with whom we spoke declared nothing but admiration for the staff and respect for their right to organise. Criticism was directed squarely at the general secretary and her refusal to engage with and respond to motions critical of her and, increasingly over the course of the three days, at the President and other senior officials who, at the very least, appeared to seek to stifle democratic debate.
Since the close of Congress, we have read numerous accounts on social media and elsewhere. Some differ little from our own, while others bear little resemblance to what we witnessed. It is to be expected that UCU members will react strongly to such controversy, but we are troubled by those accounts that seek to slander delegates supportive of open debate as scabs or their actions as bullying staff. Likewise those attempts to dismiss all criticism of the general secretary as factional plotting. It is our understanding that both major factions within the union opposed, at the very least, motion 10. As we observed above, the actual substance or merits of this and other controversial motions quickly fell to the side: what is clear is that a large majority of delegates opposed efforts to stymie open debate.
In the interests of transparency, neither of us are members of any faction within the union. This was Tor’s first time representing Warwick as a delegate and Craig’s third. Prior to Congress we
had only met on the Warwick picket line. Despite the challenging circumstances, it has been a privilege to represent our branch, and we will be happy to answer any questions to the best of our ability.