A wrong move at Congress

The decision by UCU Congress to close down debate on, and then back the ‘organisation’ of women involved in prostitution rather than prioritise routes out of prostitution, is an example where those calling themselves the ‘UCU Left’ should be ashamed, says Michael McKrell, who has just retired from the NEC.

 

In 2009 the TUC Women’s Conference debated Motion 40 (The Commodification of Sex) – proposed by UCU – which demanded that Conference campaign to:

  1. i) expose the social causes of prostitution including women’s poverty;
    ii) review the residency status of trafficked women;
    iii) criminalise men’s purchase of sex rather than its sale; and
    iv) ensure that the commodification of sex and the objectification of women’s bodies is shown to be a contributory factor in violence against women.

The motion was carried.

Fast-forward to UCU Congress 2017. Motion 56 motion on ‘Education, sex worker safety and collective organising’ was passed – albeit with a curtailed debate – calling for ‘decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working and improved safety for sex workers’.

I have no doubt that this will be regarded by organisations involved in the fight against domestic abuse and violence against women, such as Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid and anti-trafficking organisations with utter incredulity and dismay. How is it possible that a union which has until now sought to campaign against the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies has now come to adopt a policy which represents de facto collusion in the continuing wave of abuse against women forced into prostitution?

Rather than adopting the position of the TUC Women’s Congress, representing 3 million women, or the position of organisations who deal with the rape, deaths, and abuse of women involved in prostitution, Motion 56 – which was not taken to any of the Union’s Equality Committees before Congress – was pushed to a vote at Congress, debate having been guillotined. We are now stuck with a position that isolates us in the labour movement and effectively means we contribute nothing to the ending of the exploitation of women involved in prostitution.

It was good to see two men – Douglas Chalmers, President UCU Scotland, and Eurig Scandrett, a prominent member of the ‘white ribbon’ campaign in Scotland – speak against the motion. Douglas ably articulated the position of Rape Crisis and other groups opposed to legalizing prostitution. Eurig stated that if student poverty is driving students into prostitution then the answer is to end student poverty, not legalise prostitution!

But it was the deliberate and calculated move to close down the debate that shocked and angered me and which, in my view, brought discredit on the union.

For the only time during Congress the ‘move to the vote’ was called for before HE President Joanna De Groot and FE President-elect Vicky Knight (Chair of the TUC Women’s Committee) could voice their opposition to the Motion. And the manner in which it was done was shameful; it was galling to see a prominent member of the SWP/UCULeft go to the front of Congress where those waiting to speak sat, and say to those in favour of the motion ‘You should close down the debate, we’ve got the votes for it.’

Opponents of the motion had asked ‘where are the Pimps in this motion? Where are the men who buy women’s bodies?’ and had argued that prostitution was part of the cycle of exploitation and abuse women faced and should be worked against, not facilitated.

The answer in the debate, by one prominent member of UCULeft (and NEC member), was that ‘women do not sell their bodies, it’s just like work – which has unpleasant parts to it.’ This is an astonishing statement. Of course, all forms of labour are exploitative and alienating. But are we really expected to compare the everyday experience of workplace ‘unpleasantness’ with the situation in which, driven by economic desperation, women are compelled to endure the systematic use of physical force, threats and use of violence, psychological coercion, and in many cases crippling addiction?

One of the reasons I am angry at those promoting this policy is the callous ignorance of the brutal reality of prostitution, as outlined in The Independent some time ago ; a reality masked by the use of words like ‘collectivise’ and ‘organise’. A question for those who believe we can “support self-organised sex workers in their call for decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working and improved safety for sex workers” is this. Just who are the ‘organised sex workers’ going to negotiate and bargain with? Answer: pimps and gangsters (not exactly renowned for their unimpeachable adherence to fair employment practices) – lumpen criminals who risk nothing themselves but make huge profits from the exploitation of women.  

Drawing on the Independent report on the effects of the legalisation of prostitution, Megan Murphy writing on the Feminist Current blog pointed out that; “the only thing the Dutch government’s 12 year experiment with legalization succeeded in doing was to increase the market. The illusory labour-based approach, put forth by confused lefties, wherein prostitution is imagined to be ‘a job like any other’ hasn’t worked either…Rather than be given rights in the ‘workplace’, the prostitutes have found the pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who remain too scared to complain. Under the “labour” model, assault and rape is no longer violence against women, but “an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe,”

There’s simply no reason for police to charge men for doing something they feel they are legally entitled to do. Talking about ‘sex work’ as ‘work’ doesn’t help women. It doesn’t help women leave the industry, it doesn’t create gender equality, it doesn’t stop the violence, and it doesn’t de-stigmatize prostitution. Reframing legalization as ending the ‘stigma’ has not only been shown to be untrue, but it distracts us from the reality that violence and inequality doesn’t happen because of stigmatization — it happens because of male power and systemic injustice.

Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings, is quoted as saying; ‘The problem is gender-specific. Men buy women.’ Which is why a feminist approach is needed’’.

Congress Motion 56 is tantamount to an endorsement of capitalism’s relentless drive to commodify every aspect of human relations and to condone the further alienation of the body from the self; the body and its most intimate functions are reduced to a means of production, a machine for producing a commodity in the form of a service – sex – the use value of which is appropriated by the (male) consumer, whilst the exchange value enriches the trafficker and the pimp. The way to tackle prostitution is by eliminating its material basis – the demand by men to pay for women’s bodies; exactly what UCU called for at the TUC Women’s Conference in 2009.

As trades unionists and progressives we should be seeking a way out of exploitative human relations, not facilitating their all-pervasiveness and entrenchment. UCU needs to move quickly to reverse the retrograde step it took at Congress this year, adopt an informed and gender-specific analysis of prostitution and drop this shockingly out of touch position.

Michael McKrell

Retiring NEC member

In the interests of debate, we would welcome any members of UCULeft or the SWP who proposed or backed this motion to write in and let us know what was in their mind when they did so. We’ll publish any contributions.

Contact: unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

Last day of UCU Congress features international solidarity

Congress demanded the truth about the disappearance and murder of Giulio Regeni

In addition to lots of discussion on taking the union forward domestically, the international flavour previously exhibited at Congress continued on the last day.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK addressed Congress, praising the union for the work we continue to untertake internationally, something further reinforced by a video from Huber Ballesteros from Colombia’s Labour Federation of Agricultural Workers who talked of the importance of international solidarity in Colombia’s peace process and in ensuring his freedom.

A photoshoot taken at Congress (see above),  again underlined our demands for a full enquiry into the death of Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni an Italian Cambridge University graduate who was abducted and tortured to death in Egypt. Giulio was a PhD student at Cambridge and had been researching Egypt’s independent trade unions, and the demand for an enquiry follows the belief that the Egyptian police were heavily implicated in his murder.

The morning had seen decisions taken on how to take forward the General Secretary’s suggestion of the day previously that a commission be set up to look at our industrial strategy in the aftermath of the anti-trade union act. An emergency motion was placed before congress and narrowly passed, which limited membership on the commission to those attending the current congress, and agreed to the calling of an additional special Congress to discuss the recommendations.

Traditional timeline of industrial action – but is this sufficient? Some of the issues for the commission to discuss

Congress delegates from the devolved nations had felt forced to raise the ‘devolved blindness’ of some of the resolutions over the period of Congress, including on the last day a recommendation to vote Labour, although this is of course impossible in Northern Ireland since Labour do not stand candidates, and a delegate from Scotland suggested it was totally inappropriate in the Scottish situation. Whether or not we should recommend support to any individual party at all is of course an even bigger question since we are unaffiliated. This followed on from other resolutions passed investigating the creation of ‘one UK Education union’ although the unions mentioned did not operate either in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In a similar vein, motions calling for ‘national’ demonstrations, made devolved nations delegates wonder where the movers had been since 1999. Clearly the disregard of our nature as a union operating over different education and legal systems in different nations within the UK is something that needs resolved in future years.

Towards the end of Congress, an important debate was closed down by movers of a controversial motion which proposed our support for ‘the decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working’

This is of course against the position of the TUC women’s conference, and that of Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid, and all UK Anti-Trafficking organisations. Rather than all speakers being able to speak on this, the movers suggested in mid debate that ‘the vote be put’ (the only time this happened in Congress), resulting in a vote being taken (in support of this controversial motion) without the benefit of all those sitting ready and willing to speak being able to do so. Not the best moment for democracy, and a terrible signal to women trapped in prostitution and who are not looking to ‘collective working’ but to routes out of this dreadful exploitation.

Other key resolutions were passed which will help shape our work positively over the coming year and can be found here on the UCU website. These included:  on racist interference in elected roles;  developing our anti-casualisation campaign (including a road show); the future of TUC education; work related stress; bilingualism of documentation for use in Wales; Electronic meetings and tele and video conferencing; developing the equality agenda; the disability pay gap and abortion rights.

The union will have its hands full, (in a good way) over the next year, in helping implement these decisions, and we hope the UCUAgenda blog will help as part of a forum to discuss how best to do this.

To take part in this debate, or to add your voice – please send comments, or articles to: unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

The NEC will have its hands full implementing the decisions of Congress – a good position to be in

Vote for a strong team of Pension negotiators

Pensions are a crucial issue for all of us, and the USS pension continues to be under attack – which is why we need competent, and combative negotiators to work on our behalf, negotiating the best improved deal from the pension authorities.

We strongly urge delegates to vote for the following candidates, who can be relied on to negotiate effectively for our interests.

We ask delegates to vote for Renee Prendergast and Amanda Williams, for the USS negotiating team.

Renee Prendergast is chair of UCU in Northern Ireland. She is a member of Queens University Branch of UCU.

Renee’s message to delegates is:

I am a Reader in Economics at Queen’s, Belfast with over twenty years’ experience as a Local Association Officer in AUT/UCU. I am an experienced negotiator on the whole range of local issues including UCU Recognition and  Procedures, Framework, Charter & Statutes and Local Regulations as well as being elected twice as a UCU National Negotiator on Pay.

The role of USS negotiator is a specialist one involving a steep learning curve over complex issues for which my professional training as an economist is helpful. Currently, I am a UCU alternate on the USS JNC and have undergone training for this role. Being a negotiator on USS at this crucial time means putting knowledge before slogans and examining detail forensically. Our priority going forward must be maximising the retention of defined benefits within USS and making it as good, if not better, than TPS.

Amanda Williams is a member of the NEC and a member of the University of East Anglia branch.

Amanda’s message to delegates is:

We need a USS negotiating team whose members complement each other.  We need shared values but distinctive skills and expertise.  My values are a commitment to:

  • the basic principles of Defined Benefit schemes to counter the ideologically based attacks they suffer, and
  • ethical investment in line with the social values of a trade union.

I am currently a member of the NEC, of SWG and on the USS Advisory Committee. I am a Chartered Accountant and Chartered Tax Adviser.  I trained in audit (including work on pension scheme audits).  Now I’m a Lecturer in Accounting.  I bring an auditor’s professional scepticism linked to commercial awareness. As a local negotiator the most public success was the university’s reversal on 100% pay docking after we obtained a mandate for local strike action.  But the most important team successes are behind the scenes, getting policies on key issues like FTCs and redundancy avoidance.

Saturday session starts Congress off

Congress observed a minutes silence in relation to the Manchester bombing

Congress started in a dignified manner with a minutes silence in memory of those who lost their lives in the Manchester bombing and then following a welcome address and speech from President Rob Goodfellow, moved into a discussion of international campaigns and solidarity work.
Vice President Vicky Knight then kicked off with a motion reminding delegates of successes we had achieved in solidarity with colleagues facing persecution abroad, with this motion being followed by others on Trump’s visit, against repression in Turkey, on the elections in France and other issues. Steve Boyce who represents prison educators in FE made a very moving speech on the dreadful persecution facing gay men in Chechnya. Other motions covered threats to the Central European University in Hungary, and on Israel refusing entry to pro-boycott U.K. Academics.

The main debate of the morning was perhaps the debate regarding the results of Brexit, together with consideration as to whether we should support Freedom of Movement in the post-Brexit era. Discussions here were in the main very measured, and were all collegiate, with Freedom of Movement being endorsed, but a proposal to support the holding of another referendum to consider Brexit terms being rejected.

The short video below perhaps gives a flavour of some of the issues raised.


Other motions were passed on Scotland’s ‘Just Transition’ approach to sustainable environmental and economic change, on climate change and airport expansion, on air quality and finally on motions on job sharing and also the National Pensioners’ Convention.
Prior to a private session where issues relating to finance were dealt with, Congress heard an address from General Secretary Sally Hunt who talked of the challenges facing the union, and the need to build both FE and HE sectors in order to face the challenges of the next five years. Sally’s speech was covered in TES here.
Motions throughout the rest of the day addressed the business of the UCU’s Education Committee, passing policy on amongst other issues, Apprenticeship reforms, Academic Freedom and Prevent together with anti-racist and anti-colonialist education.
Towards the latter part of the afternoon a video address from Mesut Firat the General Secretary of the Education and Science Workers Union of Turkey alerted delegates to what could be done to help colleagues there.

Overall a good natured and useful day, with some real differences, but also the ability to argue those and resolve them constructively

Friday night debate – Strategies to build the union

Friday night of Congress started off with a fringe meeting looking at how to ensure that the union dealt with a wide range of issues in its campaigning and practice over the next year. Speakers from the devolved nations were Ann Gow from Scotland (UCU Scotland’s incoming President), Renee Prendergast, NEC representative from Northern Ireland who were joined by Vicky Knight, UCU’s incoming President Elect, and national negotiators Jo McNeill and Sean Vernell, with Mark Abel, a representative from the local (Brighton) branch also joining the debate.

A whole range of issues were raised during the meeting, which started with Jo McNeil who argued that in the face of the Trade Union Act, we could still have wins – she thought the NSS boycott had been extremely successful, and solidarity was key, an injury to one was an injury to all. She suggested we did not have a strategy for industrial action.

Ann Gow, President elect, UCU Scotland, drew on Scottish experience

Ann Gow took a different angle, talking of the lessons of Scotland, pointing out that it was a nation and not a region, and consequently worked in a different manner, education, being totally devolved to the Scottish parliament. UCU Scotland negotiated directly with government and in working with all parties in opposing the vested interests of University principals, had been successful on issues such as Governance of universities and also in achieving and retaining Scotland’s no tuition fees policy.  UCU Scotland came together however, with the universities on areas of common ground such as dealing with Brexit and had signed a common cause statement with them and NUS on this. The union also worked with the Universities to lobby the Scottish government on the budget for the university sector. In general UCU Scotland acted as a ‘branch led union’ which talked publicly ‘for the university community’ – not leaving it to university managements to claim this crown. This meant members identified with the union, and thus when industrial action was necessary then it got support. We had had serious industrial action – but this was where it was merited. Current priorities were gender pay and anti-casualisation.

Taking an angle that chimed with the points Jo McNeil had made, Sean Vernell suggested that Corbyn could win and the 9th June might see a Labour government elected. He then suggested the audience should remember the TV drama ‘A very British Coup’ and that we should be ready to defend a radical Labour government. He thought that the union wasn’t yet ready for that type of action and we needed to use the congress to build for this. He felt the concept of local or national was a false polemic, it was always both. Using a phrase that quite a few others  were to repeat during the meeting, he stated ‘You cannot casework yourself out of a crisis.’ He believed getting a 50 percent turnout in ballots was achievable and that ‘we have never had a real campaign’

Renee Prendergast suggested we drew on best practice wherever it arose

Renee Prendergast, looked at the specifics of Northern Ireland, and talked of how a successful union would learn from its different component parts. Regions, nations, and action locally could give positive examples. She believed that local and national issues were both important, although in practice some national actions had not been as successful as local ones. Today’s successful local actions could lay the basis for successful national actions – but that would be in the future.

Vicky Knight talked of the continuing unacceptable gender pay gap

Vicky Knight, current UCU VP and chair of the TUC Women’s Committee outlined the horrific situation women still face in terms of gender pay inequality pointing out that the gap is such that it was equivalent of women working all year, but only being paid up to October, and that the World Economic Forum suggested at current rates it would take 174 years to close the pay gap.

Mark Abel, from Brighton branch, referred to recent industrial action in the university, and how this had been achieved successfully.

In the discussion from the floor, Douglas Chalmers President of UCU Scotland suggested that there was a weakness in reducing what had been suggested by several speakers as ‘national action’ to strike action alone. Successful national action could be something totally different. He suggested that the gains Scotland had made had indeed been through national action, but not necessarily involving strikes. Rather the union had taken the ‘high ground’ and had been active on all sorts of democratic issues, which had won wide public support and support from union members thus achieving the basis for being able to run successful campaigns involving industrial action on the occasions when it was necessary.

Another contribution from President elect Joanna de Groot argued that we had to work smart as well as be strong, and we needed to think through how we worked. There was a huge range of actions we could use to win, so thinking smart about what better delivered jobs, pay deals, gender pay audits etc was crucial. We should work through this bit by bit, but as part of a UK wide strategy.

Other, interesting contributions from a range of strategic and political positions were also made, with the meeting going on for 30 minutes longer than had been planned.

Overall, the debate and discussion was an indication of some of the differences that do surface at Congress between UCU members who perhaps equated a successful union to one that above all saw industrial action – normally strike action – as the touchstone of success, and another, perhaps broader view that believed that the union had to be less ‘economistic’ and more strategic. A more strategic union, working to achieve success would use a whole range of methods, which above all could unite members, making the union a dynamic one which could actually be effective in the post TU Act era.

Last day… but not least

Broadcast logo

Friday’s copy of Broadcast can be downloaded here

Although this is the last day of Congress, it’s by no means the least important. As well as giving Congress the chance to demonstrate UCU’s solidarity with  Malia Bouattia, president-elect of the National Union of Students, and the first black and the first Muslim to hold that post – in which she has already suffered Islamophobic media attacks, and totally unjustified allegations of antisemitism, there are also important issues of rules and finance to be decided upon.

It is not our intention on the issues of finance and rules to give voting advice on all motions – although we point out some issues in Broadcast relating to some of the proposals before congress. We note that it’s to the credit of the Treasurer and the staff advising her that the finances are in a robust situation and this should be acknowledged and applauded. With some exceptions we would simply advise listening to the arguments in the debate.

One motion, however, which we suggest must be passed is 55, on model branch rules, (with or without amendment 55A). There have been bitter arguments on this topic at previous Congresses, and now we are essentially back to the situation at merger. These are of course, only model rules, and a number of branches may need to seek variations. But, given the current climate, we believe it is essential for the union’s protection that all branches have rules of this nature in place, and that they are lodged with the national office.

On the other hand, motion 56 from Yorkshire & Humberside Regional Committee would set a dangerous precedent with regard to the status of elected members of our national committees. The rules state that members must be, or have recently been, in qualifying employment in order to be nominated for the NEC. They do not require NEC members to resign if they subsequently retire – and that is because they are elected to represent a constituency of members who are employed, and they could themselves become re-employed. In the HEC, there has been a convention that members in USS branches do not vote on TPS matters, and vice versa; but the arguments for that are not strong, since all HE constituencies comprise members in both pension schemes – who are disefranchised if their elected HEC member cannot vote. Motion 56 would extend that disenfrachisement, and it would be the start of cake-slicing: for example, should only NEC members from the various equality strands be allowed to vote on matters relating to those strands? We think not.

As always – points of view on the above are welcome. And if anyone would like to submit a ‘think-piece’ or opinion piece on something that they think should be part of the ‘UCU Agenda’ – please do so to: unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

Build the Fight against the HE Bill and an effective fightback in FE

Fight vs HE Bill

Download Thursday’s copy of HE Sector Broadcast here and Thursday’s copy of FE sector Broadcast here

The determination of our union to fight against the Green Paper/ White Paper/Bill has already been shown at several fringes during congress, and 13 of our motions today in the HE Sector conference will look at how best to oppose this, and ultimately defeat it.

There are clearly some good motions here which will take the fight forward by developing the understanding of our members, students and the wider communities, and clearly there is everything to play for. However we suggest that there are a couple of points that conference should be wary of endorsing as they lack the specific details needed for a successful fightback – we give our suggestions in Broadcast.

It is to be expected that not everyone will agree on the strategy and tactics necessary to successfully win a substantial pay increase, and this disagreement shows in the resolutions tabled.

Members need to be congratulated however for what they have done so far, and given every encouragement to engage in tougher and sustained activity and sanctions, should they prove necessary.

However, what is most important is that Conference comes out of this debate with a united policy to take to both the employers and members. Statements which demean in members’ eyes the leadership of the HEC and the negotiators, and the action that members are already taking, actually undermine the union’s ability to pursue the dispute successfully. 

Today’s opinion piece in HE Sector Broadcast – on Health Educators is by Paul Errington a Health Educator himself at Teeside and an incoming member of the NEC.

Turning to the FE conference it is clear that the high quality motions on many of the issues from the 2015/16 pay claim, through the blight of the gender pay gap –  and the absence of equality monitoring on to the devastating effect of the area reviews, the cuts to ESOL, the Prevent agenda, and the de-professionalisation of the lecturer’s role, all show that our members are active and concerned on these key issues affecting the sector. It promises to be a high quality debate on these questions. The pay issue is one where differing opinions on the way forward exist. We suggest that calling for ‘national’ strike action on the question of ‘pay’ over and over again is however, the wrong strategy – it’s misleading and counterproductive. There is a way to organise, build and support confident, campaigning and unified branches and FE Sector Broadcast suggests some ways we can achieve this.

Elsewhere in each Sector Broadcast you’ll find the Independent Broad Left Network’s general take on some of the other key issues Congress looks at today. As a network, we don’t have a ‘party line’ on policy, and unlike Monty Python neither are we looking for the Holy Grail. So let us know what you think – e-mail unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

 

Congress 2016 – A Time of Danger, a Time of Opportunity

Liverpool ArenaLiverpool Echo Arena and BT Convention Centre (El Pollock) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Download Wednesday’s  copy of broadcast here
Congress is meeting at a time when the Conservative government is clearly experiencing a whole range of crises – something that means both dangers and opportunities for the trade union movement, the UCU included.

Dangers, because the Trade Union Act, despite concessions still sets out to weaken our movement, dangers also for UCU members in FE, because of the area reviews and mergers being rolled out. And dangers for HE members in the Green Paper/ White paper proposals.

But there are opportunities too, because the government is in crisis as shown by the dearth of new ‘big ideas’ in the recent Queen’s Speech, and even in the concessions forced within the anti-TU Bill.

All these, and more, show that the government is weak and that means opportunities for the TU movement, but only by working in a strategic way to overcoming our weaknesses.

In today’s Broadcast read Joanna de Groot’s opinion piece on the importance of implementing our policies in a way that involves members,  plus ‘A view from Scotland’ by UCUS President Douglas Chalmers, plus ‘Northern Ireland at the Crossroads’ – an opinion piece from Mike Larkin,  NEC member for HE in Northern Ireland.

As well as that, you’ll also find the IBL network’s general ‘take’ on some of the issues to come up today. Let us know what you think – unionadmin@ucuagenda.com