After the ballot – where are we now with our USS dispute?

What a fantastic and enthusiastic campaign this has been for our union. We have shown by our sheer determination, organisation and hard work, our ability to force the employers back to the drawing board, and to withdraw their decision to scrap Defined Benefit and impose Defined Contribution on us. Where do we go to from here? Below you will find some thoughts that we hope will be helpful. 

We got to where we are by combining the enthusiasm, commitment, and creativity of thousands of activists with the hard work of UCU staff,  the policy framework established by our lead elected committees, the persistent efforts of branch committees, and the seen and unseen work of negotiators.

While there has been plenty of friction between the different players ( not surprising in a complex dispute ) it is a fact that all have contributed to getting us to a point so different from where we were when the employers looked like getting away with imposing a DC version of the USS scheme.

Students were key supporters of our struggle

It’s important to remember that the proposal which a massive majority of members have accepted was shaped by the priorities made very clear by the branch representatives who rejected an earlier set of proposals emerging from ACAS.

Rather than seeking to add to or alter those earlier proposals  they wanted to focus negotiations on the key objectives of a full review of USS procedures and the defence of a guaranteed pension. Those priorities were taken into negotiations and are embedded in the outcome.

Of course the independent review is just the start of the next stage of our struggle for a better USS.

Support was widespread and enthusiastic

In accepting it members have shown not confidence in their employers (which is not great) but in our own ability to keep up the pressure for members’ interests, including future use of the industrial strength which we (and of course the employers ) now know we have.

Full involvement in the review will need to matched by unremitting vigilance by our branches, our elected committees and our industrial negotiators.

It seems odd and unhelpful that so much of the visible debate about the proposal and the ballot focussed on who said or did what inside UCU, rather than on our dispute with our employers or the interests of members.  In any dispute the participants will have such concerns but do let’s remember that we launched this dispute for a big industrial reason –  to challenge the employers’ outrageous and damaging attack on our pensions scheme which both threatened the size and security of our pensions and also pulled the rug out from under the co-stakeholder structure of USS.

SO – members took action because their wellbeing was threatened but also because this threat was just the latest step in the employers’ wrecking of the collegial and professional respect and co-working which should shape our workplaces, and they did this in the name of managerial authoritarianism and credit ratings. Many activists have said that the attack on their pensions was the last straw on top of a burden of managerialism, disempowerment, precarious wok, and excessive hours. Now they are energised to start organising challenges to this burden in  their institutions. Real issues to take up, not internal wrangles and sectarianism.

We balloted over 53 thousand members, over 33 thousand of whom voted on the proposal The dispute and the ballot involved members: it was about members. and the outcome allows members to continue to pursue the issues which they have said mattered to them.

Together we have achieved something for ALL members in USS whether or not they agreed with every particular view, whether or not they were at rallies as well as striking. There is a crucial link between these two because activists have used  both their power and their responsibility to use their commitment time and energy on behalf of our growing wider membership.

Lots to celebrate, lots to digest, lots to get on with. . .

The USS dispute – some debate on our article

The blog and our article had several thousand hits in the 24 hours following its publication, and since it was published we have received a number of critiques. This is a pleasing sign of a vibrant and democratic union.

Alex Gunz and Adam Ozanne write:

We unfortunately do not have the time to respond to many of these, but dialogue is important so we felt it important to give at least some kind of response.

Several of the critiques have been about typos, run-on sentences, moments of non-clarity and the like. We are aware of these, and apologize for them, but this is something we put together in non-existent spare time to a tight deadline, so one will have to live with them.

Other critiques were more substantive. For the sake of response we’ve chosen the most detailed one we are aware of to engage with. Take a bow Sam Dolan of Sheffield (who has graciously agreed to let us reply back here, and who we have invited to post a response of his own in the next few days).

Most of the points below are from a twitter thread, so bear with us here:

DOLAN: Point 1. O&G say the IDC proposal “would be dead”. But AJ says only that “UUK does not intend to return to the Jan JNC proposal …”

(QUOTES text from the offer saying): “UUK does not intend to return to the January joint negotiating committee proposal to consult on moving to a DC scheme”

REPLY: Nothing in negotiations is ever certain till the ink dries, but our understanding is that DC is not currently being discussed as a live viable option. Maybe tomorrow the economy crashes, interest rates spike, the government slashes university spending, and abolishes tuition, and we are back in a DC world. Maybe if we reject the offer the UUK hawks take over, declare that we aren’t interested in negotiating and roll backwards on us (or maybe not  – anybody pretending to know exactly what would happen for sure, is appealing to facts not in evidence). But we are content that this is a reasonably accurate description of where the negotiations are at right now.

DOLAN: Point 2. O&G write “the 2017 valuation would effectively, be put on hold while an independent expert panel reviews USS’s valuation methodology and its claims that there is a deficit.” But UUK just say this:

QUOTES: “maintenance of the status quo… until at least April 2019” and “we are committed to maintaining a meaningful DB pension offer at this valuation. Longer term we would like to work jointly with UCU to consider other risk sharing alternatives”

REPLY: People seem to think nothing is allowed to happen before April 2019 but that’s not strictly true, the USS Board can make changes whenever it likes. Realistically these changes get made by the tax year for obvious reasons. Still, it was nice to have this deadline codified.

For what it’s worth, our understanding of the current deal is “No Change until April 2019 and then only change justified by a valuation methodology sanctioned by the expert panel, establishing the size of the cake, and JNC, how to divide it up.” Now it’s true that’s not written in stone, but at this point the pressures are generally more political than they are legal. If UUK suddenly announced draconian cuts in April 2019 while the independent report was still pending, they would have to know that this would spark a wave of anger, and this would lead to more strikes of the exact kind they are now making all these offers to try to defuse.

DOLAN: Point 3. O&G write “That independent panel of experts would review USS’s valuation methodology in time to conduct a new valuation before April 2019“. But there is essentially nothing about timescale in the UUK text, or in Sally Hunt’s email, AFAICS (corrections welcome).

(QUOTES pt 5 of the agreement): “the panel will make an assessment of the valuation. If in the light of that contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements.”

REPLY: Again, it will be up to UCU to make sure the panel completes it’s work by then, and if not to make sure UUK don’t try anything too silly in the interim.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not particularly clear what rule you could negotiate now to steer around this. For instance, let’s assume that the employers guaranteed not to change the pension plan until the independent committee completed its work. That would create an incentive for UCU to drag its feet and make sure the review took forever, so that we could keep the current deal alive for as long as possible. As much as we don’t trust UUK, they probably don’t trust us all that much either, and so are unlikely to agree to something which could create that dynamic.

Now maybe you could come up with something more elaborate to side step around all of these issues, but that would take time, and would probably STILL be open to future abuse by someone clever enough. So regardless of how many months of intricate negotiations you conducted now to get a perfectly clear wording, its implementation would still likely depend on the balance of power between our ability to strike, and their build-in powers as employers.

DOLAN: Point 4. O&G write that “any scheme implemented after April 2019 should be broadly comparable to the current DB scheme and to the Teachers Pension Scheme …”. But …

QUOTES: “4. UUK agree that any scheme implemented after April 2019 should be broadly comparable to the current DB sceme and to the Teachers Pension Scheme our colleagues in post-1992 universities and schools benefit from.”

DOLAN: From 1/85th to 1/57th? It is essentially impossible that the USS scheme will be “broadly comparable to” the TPS, unless there is some radical Deus Ex Machina from Government.

Here is what UUK actually say:

QUOTES: “6. … agree to continue discussion on the following areas: … role of government…”

REPLY: The TPS’s apparently fantastic accrual rate of 1/57 is not directly comparable to our rate of 1/85 because unlike the TPS, our plan grants us an additional lump sum payment when we retire that is 3 times the value of our annual pension. Calculating whether you are better with a slower accrual + a lump sum on retirement vs. a faster accrual with no lump sum is an exercise that we leave to the actuaries (though we suspect it depends heavily on interest rates and how long you live after retirement). But let us stipulate, for the moment, that overall the TPS plan is the better one. How is it a bad thing that a committee examining our pensions would use this as a comparison point? Even if it could never quite be reached, that would put upwards pressure on the value of our pensions instead of downwards pressure. This is why the union has been insisting for years that TPS should be considered as a comparison, and UUK has argued that it should not be. The concession that it should be is a good thing for us!

DOLAN: Point 5. “UUK and UCU would also agree to explore alternative ways of sharing risk.” But risk-sharing wasn’t mentioned at all in the UUK offer text? So point 5 looks like a backward step.

REPLY: When they talk about exploring other models, such as Collective DC, what they are talking about is ways of sharing risk (recall, CDC removes risk from institutions, but shares it among many members)..

DOLAN: “…In summary, this is unsatisfactory. I really don’t know what I am voting for – or against. Clarification is needed, from UCU central, from UUK, and from the USS trustees too. Key Q: What is the timescale for the JEP, and can/will it affect the valuation before Apr 2019? (End).

REPLY: Uncertainty is a feature either way. If we reject the proposal, then we hope that the employers interpret this as an invitation to make clarifications and improvements and send it back. And they might! Or the hawks among them might seize the argument that we are not able to come to agreements with them, and that if they can tough out strikes through the examination period, then our leverage drops off a cliff over the summer, as there is no use picketing empty buildings. That is possible too. We don’t pretend to be able to handicap the odds either way.

But if we accept the deal then, yes, we face uncertainty this way too. Partly that’s because this is an offer of PROCESS, not of OUTCOME. It makes no hard promises about future payments of any kind, past April 2019. Instead it focusses on addressing our core grievance that decisions were being made in an opaque way, based on opaque analyses, using opaque criteria, chosen for opaque reasons. A big part of our initial complaint that this was a process ripe for abuse, and, further, that we didn’t trust their numbers.

What this offer does is offer a process that allows sunlight and input into deciding what the rules and criteria should be, and how they are decided. And it offers that this will be done sharing our goals of a pension that is comparable to the one that we and the teachers have now.

Now, legally speaking, UUK could still turn around and welch on this deal. They could let the expert panel run, then ignore everything it says, and announce that they were putting us on the cat food retirement plan after all. But politically that would become a very difficult thing for them to do. The union membership would be incensed at this betrayal, and we would have a very sympathetic public and political system (not to mention regulator) behind us, angry that they agreed to tear up all the legal rules to allow the expert panel to run, only for its outputs to be ignored and overridden. Put yourself in the position of a 2019 VC. Is that something you would readily sign on to?

The bigger risk for us is that we agree to a clear and transparent methodology, based on fair principles, and that this process ends up showing that the pension fund doesn’t have enough money in it, and the employers come to us in a stronger position to negotiate cuts to payments to balance the books. This is a possibility that many UCU analysts do not believe will come to pass, and let us hope that they are right. But even if they are not, at least we would be negotiating from a more honest place, with more of the cards out on the table. At least that would be a negotiation in which the truth got a fair shot, instead of us being easy marks to run over on the way to strengthening their books.

Whatever happens, it will, as ever, be down to us to continue to be engaged, to continue to defend our interests, and to use the momentum that this strike has generated to build up the union to be even stronger for the next fight. Because the only real certainty is that there will eventually be a next fight.

Why I have voted YES to accept UUK’s proposal

Amanda Williams is a member of the NEC and HEC, and also a member of the UCU’s Superannuation Working Group.

 

 

 

I’ve voted yes to accepting the UUK proposal because I think that is the route that is most likely to protect our pension. That doesn’t mean that I trust UUK. It means that I believe that the valuation panel provides the best mechanism for resolving both the current dispute and avoiding future attacks on our pension. If UUK lets us down I trust my friends and colleagues in UCU to be ready to take effective industrial action in future.

The main case against voting yes to the UUK proposal seems to be a lack of trust in UUK and the lack of certainty as to what might happen if the proposal is accepted. It has been claimed that to accept the proposal would be naïve.

I am not proposing that we naïvely accept the UUK proposal, I am suggesting that we should vote yes with our eyes wide-open. That is why the notices for further strike action have been issued even while the proposal from UUK has gone out to the wider membership.

If we vote no and turn down the proposal we don’t know what will happen next. Different people, with different experience and expertise are reaching different conclusions based on their judgement. If we reject the proposal we don’t know for certain how UUK will react. We also don’t know how USS or tPR (the Pensions Regulator) will react. Those of us who think that the most likely reaction from UUK, USS and tPR will be a hardening rather than a softening of position are making a judgement.

If we accept the proposal we still don’t have absolute certainty about what will happen next. However, we do know that the expert panel will need time to convene, look at the valuation and come to conclusions. During this time, of course, industrial action would be suspended. We know that tPR has indicatedits support for a process which allows the stakeholders to come together and avoid recurring disagreements. We know that if we vote yes UUK would have committed itself to make approaches to seek support from USS and tPR for the process of finding a solution.

One of the arguments for voting no has been that the UUK proposal contained a commitment to ‘maintenance of the status quo in respect of both contributions into USS and current pension benefits, until at least April 2019’. Those advocating for a no vote say that this statement is there just to look good and therefore is evidence of duplicity. I disagree. If you believe that it adds nothing to the proposal then ignore it as a neutral statement. However, there is nothing in the rules that specifies the date at which implementation takes place. A date of April 2019 for implementation of changes was part of the USS’s project management timeline for the current valuation. Other implementations have been earlier (2011) or later (2014). So, in my view, this commitment adds a level of certainty that was previously absent.

Some of the criticism of the proposal concerns the language used within it. Words and phrases like a ‘guaranteed pension’ have caused consternation, the precise meaning of ‘comparable’ has been picked apart and the idea of considering ‘affordability challenges for all parties’ has been held up as unreasonable.

Personally, I am content to see a ‘guaranteed pension’ used as a synonym for ‘Defined Benefit pension’. That’s because a guaranteed pension is a Defined Benefit pension scheme. The definitions of DC and DB under international accounting standards (maybe not the most salient definitions but the ones I am most familiar with) are:

‘Defined contribution plans are post-employment benefit plans under which an entity pays fixed contributions into a separate entity (a fund) and will have no legal or constructive obligation to pay further contributions if the fund does not hold sufficient assets to pay all employee benefits relating to employee service in the current and prior periods.’

‘Defined benefit plans are post-employment benefit plans other than defined contribution plans.’

(IFRS Foundation, (2013), IAS 19 Employee Benefits, section 8)

If the pension is guaranteed, then by definition it is a Defined Benefit pension.

Comparability has been widely interpreted to mean something capable of being compared to something else (for example, a melted, destroyed heater could be compared to a functioning heater), thereby dismissing this commitment as worthless. That is a rather pedantic way of using a word for which the synonyms are ‘similar, close, near, approximate, akin, equivalent, corresponding, commensurate, proportional, proportionate, parallel, analogous, related’ and which can be defined as meaning ‘of equivalent quality’. The 12 March offer, although rejected by UCU, was a better comparator than the full DC offer from 23 January. Both have been rejected, but nonetheless it should be acknowledged that the shift away from full DC and a return to a hybrid structure is a significant victory. And we should remind ourselves that we will be the final arbiters of what is considered sufficiently similar, close or near to our existing pensions.

I am somewhat more sympathetic to the points being made about appearing to accept that there are potential ‘affordability challenges’. Discourse around affordability has been used to undermine the position of Defined Benefit schemes as the preferred option of employers as they were in the 1980s. Those discourses are misconceived: evidence can be found that DB schemes, especially large DB schemes, are a cost-effective way of making provision for retirement from both the employee and employer’s perspective. The valuation and the future service cost are bound up with each other, so opening the one up to scrutiny of the valuation panel provides a chance to review the other and refute any claims that future DB accruals are not affordable.

Advocates for a no vote have said that ‘we know that the pension scheme is in surplus, we know that it’s got loads of assets’ and ‘there is no risk to this pension scheme’. Well some of that is true and some is not, but none of it is a reason for voting no to accepting the proposal from UUK. It’s fairer to say that we know that the scheme is cash flow positive for the foreseeable future as long as it remains open to DB accruals (I realise that is not as effective a rallying call as ‘the pensions scheme is in surplus’), and it’s true the scheme has a very large total of assets (with a market value of about £60bn according to the March 2017 audited accounts). Still, I would take issue with the statement that there is no risk to this pension scheme — if it’s not taking risks it won’t be earning returns!

But what we need now is time for the Joint Expert Panel to pick apart the valuation, examine the strengths inherent in the scheme, such as its scale, the strength of the employers’ covenant, the robustness of a multi-employer scheme, the fact that it is asset-rich, and the healthy returns that the investments have made historically. All that information can be used to craft a new, better proposal for this valuation cycle.

As an aside, the scale of the scheme has apparently been one of the main concerns of tPR, but the recently published government white paper on pensions, ‘Protecting Defined Benefit Pension Schemes’, proposes to put in place mechanisms to consolidate smaller schemes because of the significant advantages associated with the largest schemes. USS is the largest private DB scheme in the country.

I am optimistic that the valuation panel will start a process that allows the 2017 valuation to be revisited in such a way that a satisfactory resolution can be found. But I am not naïve. We have demonstrated that we can carry out effective industrial action. The credible threat of industrial action remains as a reminder to UUK to take the commitments it has made seriously. If we judge it has reneged on its commitment ‘to maintaining a meaningful defined benefit (DB) pension offer at this valuation’ we know we can muster on the picket lines again. More importantly, UUK now knows that too.

If we are looking for absolute certainty before we accept any proposals or suspend any action I think we will be waiting for ever and never be in a position to resolve this dispute, which in my view will then peter out without having crystallised the significant gains that have been made.

I have voted yes, not because I am daunted by more strike action — I’m not. If need be I’ll be there fighting for UCU’s interests, on the picket lines, as I have been in every dispute since I joined UCU. I have voted yes because I think that the most likely route to a getting a good pension deal currently lies through accepting UUK’s proposal.

Response to Consultative Ballot Results

Demo

Today we received the results of the consultative ballot on higher education pay. The results show that 65% of members who voted are willing to settle this year rather than taking industrial action this pay round and accept the pay offer of 1.7%. This does not mean that members have taken this decision lightly, nor that they do not understand that the offer is a real-terms pay cut.

The turn out for this ballot was surprisingly high, the best since 2006 with no recommendation, despite taking place in the summer, at 48.6%. This is close to the new threshold of 50% set by the Trade Union Act, and so undermines arguments that this is not an accurate representation of members’ views.

Clearly, activists across UCU had enough time to ‘get the vote out’, and we believe that this electronic ballot is a valid representation of what members want. Some will say leadership should have been shown, however leadership is also about listening carefully to what members want.

We interpret this result as saying members are more concerned with issues arising out of marketisation such as restructure, deprofessionalisation, redundancy, casualisation, as well as long standing concerns with equality (gender, disability, LGBT+, BME) and pensions.

We do not think this indicates the end of industrial action – far from it, the fact that almost half members voting indicated they would take action if the membership voted to reject suggests that there is still support for a pay campaign in the future. We think that members are tired of striking nationally year on year with diminishing results.

At a local level, branches have successfully cleared the 50% threshold and pushed back on redundancies. There have been inspirational campaigns across the UK around the gender pay gap, casualisation, outsourcing and governance.

While we develop this strategy we can still engage in regionally and nationally coordinated local actions that will unsettle the management lobby and give us greater national bargaining power in the next pay round. It’s time to think differently, creatively about industrial action and strategy, and this decision gives us the breathing space to be able to do this.

We look forward to discussing next steps with colleagues at local, regional and national executive levels and we hope that not too much time will be spent wrongly lamenting the lack of militancy or leadership which we think would be not just a distraction but also a misinterpretation of what members are saying.

Members of the UCU Independent Broad Left network (NEC/HEC)

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.

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.

Wales UCU Congress – professional and combative


Douglas Chalmers writes: As President of UCU Scotland, I was fortunate to be invited to attend the Welsh UCU congress for the third year in a row. From across the border (or indeed several) it’s only possible to form some impressions of how the union is doing, but I really felt a buzz this year and was impressed by the level of debate and the issues addressed. I’ve put my impressions below. Any mistakes in the report are of course mine (but do let me know)

The Welsh UCU Congress once more showed the union to be at the heart of education matters in the Welsh post-16 sector when it met in Cardiff on 4th March.

Opening the well attended conference – which impressively for me, offered bilingual translation from Welsh into English – Chris Jones, Vice-President Wales UCU, outlined many of the problems facing the sector – casualisation, zero-hour, contracts, and especially in HE, the gender pay gap.  Chris also looked at the gains they had made in the last year.  In Welsh FE, every lecturer was now on the national contract, and prospects looked positive for a joint funding council. Despite some problems, (which were dealt with later on), the Diamond report would offer the most generous grant or loan situation for students in the four nations. On Brexit, Chris pledged that no matter what position individual union members had taken in the referendum, all members were united against the insidious upsurge of racism, stating “for the UCU there was no ‘us and them’ only the one race – the human race”.

Vice-President Chris Jones, and Chair John James were joined by AMs Kirsty Evans and Alun Davies

Two members of the Wales Assembly addressed the congress and took part in questions and answers. Kirsty Williams the cabinet secretary for education, and member of the Lib Dems, took up the tone of Chris’s speech, stating that

“Staff and students from the EU and beyond are welcome in our universities, our colleges, and in Wales in general”. Her speech covered a whole range of issues including the Welsh Government’s response to the Hazelkorn report on post-compulsory education and training in Wales

Kirsty Williams AM was first invited speaker to address Congress

She highlighted the government’s support for parity in esteem between academic and learning routes, and also talked of current moves to establish a single strategic authority to improve cohesion and promote collaboration as the foundation of a ‘whole systems’ approach which should give parity of esteem for part time and full time students in the system. Referring to developments in England she stated that it was important to ‘look at the unintended consequences that have too often emerged from reforms across the border.’ In a similar vein on TEF, she stated the Welsh government recognised and shared the UCU concerns about this, and while needing to live in the actual situation facing us, the government ‘did not share the same marketisation agenda as across the border’’ so would not be encouraging universities to take part in this. On the living wage issue, she talked of her concern that Cardiff was the only university that had achieved accredited ‘Living Wage’ employer status.

Alun Davis AM complemented many of the issues raised by Kirsty

Alun Davies AM, the minister for life long learning and the Welsh language struck a similar tone critical of the policies emanating from Westminster. Brexit had been an ‘unmitigated disaster’ and impinged on the conversations about ‘who we are’, and meant we needed to stand united against racist attacks, now becoming more common.

Referring to FE he talked of the sector as often being on the ‘sharp end of change’ and also stated that there were often gaps between what was said in speeches on issues such as parity of esteem and the reality we actually experienced.  This needed to be openly discussed.

He commended and argued for the need to register all of the educational workforce, towards the aim of achieving equal status for all educational professionals in Wales.

Some key questions were then put from the floor including  one relating to the funding gap, a second on austerity. A question was then asked on democracy in universities, and a final one on the impact on Welsh speaking students of the Diamond proposals.

A question was put requesting transparency on senior salaries in post-16 education, and on workload issues.

In the subsequent discussion of the ministers’ contributions, points were made that while the Hazelkorn report was welcome, and dialogue was being requested, very little effort seemed to be being made to ensure that the unions’ voices were at the table. The Diamond report was also welcomed with its emphasis on lifelong learning, including adults. However the dangers of it increasing marketisation were also mentioned.

On the living wage, while this was welcomed the issue of zero hours and fixed terms contracts also needed tackled. Secure contracts were felt to be key.

While the EWC (Education Workplace Council) was welcomed it was felt important to move on to have proper representation on that body to deal with questions such as the charging of full fees for part timers, and the problematic nature of the disciplinary aspects of the code. The union was having to hire barristers to fight the vindictive use of it which was costing the unions thousands of pounds. Regarding CPD this was double edged unless the issues of adequate time to undertake it was tackled together with a say in the nature of CPD. No one wanted to use their precious time to learn how to fill in forms correctly.

Finally on professionalisation, it was felt that proper workloads were key to developing a fully professional workforce.

The HE Sector conference heard from invited guest Reneé Prendergast chair of UCU Northern Ireland who compared and contrasted some of the issues facing the sector in what was a period of political instability. Not surprising to those listening, the similarities in terms of heavy workloads, casualisation and the funding gap seemed familiar in both Wales and Northern Ireland.

Representing UCU Scotland, I also addressed the HE Sector conference and confirmed that these issues were also common to us, although we were working in a situation where university governance was being democratised and where the current Holyrood SNP government had published a joint paper with the STUC, praising the work of workplace trade union reps – a clear contrast with either Wales or NI.

The sector conference went on to debate motions on electing Vice Chancellors of Welsh HE institutions, on improving the current under representations of BME staff in academic roles, on the funding gap and its relationship to the sustainability of the sector, and on funding for reforms in Initial Teacher Education and Training.

According to delegates I spoke to, the FE conference had a lively discussion on motions on growing workloads, lesson observations, the lack of union representation on the EWC, the pay claim, CPD and subsidiary companies in Wales.

Unfortunately, transport being what it was, I had to leave before the full congress resumed after the sectoral conferences, but I want to thank my colleagues for a stimulating and positive experience, which left me with confidence for the union’s future in Wales.

English, Welsh and bilingual – inclusivity at the heart of the Welsh UCU

Cradle to Grave conference tackles the new post-Brexit issues

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UCU conference faces up to the real issues we are facing in post Brexit Britain

A well attended Cradle to the Grave conference in TUC Congress House put the UCU once more firmly in the centre of the major issues facing us all in post-16 Brexit Britain.

A range of key speakers, from shadow chancellor John McDonnell, leading pro-refugee campaigners, Steven Hale, and founder of Care4Calais Claire Moseley, NUS President Malia Bouattia, political commentators Steve Richards and Melissa Benn, together with leading academics Peter Scott and Kalwant Bhopal, and our own UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt were joined from North of the border by Jenny Gilruth MSP, SNP Parliamentary liaison officer for education. A workshop on transforming FE also heard from academics Vicky Duckworth, Rob Smith and Sean Vernell together with Steven Exley, the Further Education editor of the Times Educational Supplement.

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John McDonnell pledged support for building an alternative coalition for education

John McDonnell’s speech which opened conference was, as might be expected wide ranging, although perhaps inevitably also dealt with the internal temperature in the Labour Party, something which resulted in some flack in the post speech discussion.

 

 

John supported the holding of an enquiry into the impact of Brexit in HE, and pointed out that the education sector did not feature on the current UK government’s list of negotiation priorities. He however, thought that education should be central to the debate on the principle that ‘another Europe is possible‘. He also pledged labour’s support to UCU in ‘building a coalition of opposition‘.

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The new joint pamphlet was launched at the conference

The next session of conference saw the launch of the joint UCU-Refugee Action pamphlet on ‘A Place of Safety’ where we heard Stephen Hale chief exec. of refugee action and Claire Moseley, founder of Care4Calais talk of the horrific conditions facing refugees and the disgraceful decision of the current Tory government to ditch the Dubs amendment. This government decision ended the acceptance of unaccompanied child refugees at approximately one tenth of their previously understood commitment. Sally Hunt talked of why this area continued to be a key one for UCU, while NUS President Malia Bouattia also talked of the NUS campaign to support refugees drawing on her own personal experience to illustrate this.

Highlights in this session were the focus on the Let Refugees Learn campaign, with speakers pointing out that for many refugees it was at least 2 years until they could sit in a class room and study English. Claire also pointed out that there was no safe and legal route for refugees to claim asylum in the U.K., which put anyone aspiring to get to the UK immediately into the ‘illegals’ category.

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NUS President Malia Bouattia commended UCU on our work with refugees

Malia congratulated UCU on producing the pamphlet pointing out that refugees didn’t come here by choice. She invited everyone to the 12th March national summit on Trump, Brexit and Beyond, finishing by commenting that refugees were clear on who their friends were, acknowledging  ‘we are here because you were there

Peter Scott, the newly appointed Comissioner for Fair Access in Scotland started the next session on the challenge of Brexit and Trump using a powerful presentation downloadable here.  He considered the ‘many sides of populism’, and it’s link with education, or lack of it, what he believed had gone ‘wrong’, and ‘right.’  He then considered Picketty’s views on the rise of economic inequality, and the ‘achievements’ and ‘disappointments’ of mass education. He finished up by stating that re-asserting public good/ and the values as the core of the academy’s mission was the ‘unfinished business’ on the table.

Jenny Gilruth talked of combatting stereotypical role models

Jenny Gilruth talked of combatting stereotypical role models

SNP member of Scotland’s parliament Jenny Gilruth, then talked of how the Scottish government was trying to tackle widening access, including the important of contextualised admissions, and ‘taking direct action to create a level playing field’.

Peter Scott looks on as Kalwant outlined the intricacy of her latest research

Peter Scott looks on as Kalwant outlined the intricacy of her latest research

Leading researcher and academic Kalwant Bhopal looked in details at her ongoing current research on BME student experiences in higher education. This covered legislation in theory and practice, then the demographics, and degree attainment of BME students. Amongst the many invaluable insights that her research had uncovered was the fact that when BME students got good grades, they were less likely to be pushed to apply to Russell group universities. and when they did, less likely to get in. The role of social and cultural capital was also a key issue that BME students and aspiring students faced. The powerpoint images can be downloaded here

The FE workshop on Further Education – Education Transforms featured Vicky Duckworth from Edgehill university, Rob Smith from Birmingham City university, Stephen Exley from TES, and Sean Vernell from City and Islington College. Within it three main interlinked strands were highlighted:
Firstly, the need to seize the major opportunity opening up for Further Education in terms of the skills that will be needed in the post Brexit world. Tackled correctly, this could help win the argument that FE is needed more than ever.
Secondly Stephen Exley, the Times Education FE editor made the key point that we could not just ‘talk to ourselves’ and that we needed to win the arguments outside the UCU by ‘taking the necessary talk‘ in all the possible forums available to us.
Thirdly we needed always to celebrate how FE can and should transform lives, families and communities.
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UCU’s innovative Transforming Lives and Communities initiative

Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith’s UCU project http://transforminglives.web.ucu.org.uk/  was a fantastic example of how to do this and those attending the workshop were asked to make full use of the UCU initiative allowing individuals to directly e-mail their MPs and call on them to invest properly in the recruitment and retention of more further education staff to ensure that more people can benefit from the transformative power of education.
Finally Sean Vernell arguing the case for making the curriculum more inclusive and effective rather than repeatedly setting people up for (re-sit) failure gave a compelling argument for ‘themed learning’ quoting the initiatives at City and Islington College and other London Colleges.

 

Steve Richards listens while Melissa Benn answered some questions from the floor

Steve Richards (right) listens while Melissa Benn answered some questions from the floor

In the final joint session of the conference columnist and commentator Steve Richards talked of his view of the insurmountable problems now facing the government due to the Brexit result, and how we might take advantage of it. He thought that her non-Thatcherite and indeed  non Cameronite or Blairite restating of the role of government and even the state in a modern society was one that campaigners needed to take up and use from our point of view.

Malia Bouattia talked of the work done with UCU on issues like the NSS survey and the need to recapture education for staff and students.

Melissa Benn talked of how the government was trying to reshape universities as temples of consumerism and conformism, and stated that the government were ‘tackling the wrong question, with the wrong people, in the wrong way’. She also made a devastating argument against current increasing Tory support for selection in schools.

Sally rounded off the conference talking of the battle against casualisation and the HE Bill

Sally rounded off the conference talking of the battle against casualisation and the HE Bill

Sally Hunt then finished the conference by talking of the battle against casualisation and the implications of the HE bill, and quoting Primo Levy’s words of the ‘would be tyrant waiting in the wings with beautiful words’ argued for the need to take back the language being used in the current debates against intellectualism and even experts, and restate the real meaning of truth and evidence.

At the end of the conference, a very moving film 722 TMX Engineering battalion looking at a refugee camp in the town of Alexandria in Norther Greece.