“I’m speaking for the first time”: A report from the Special HESC, June 21st

by Andy Williams, Cardiff UCU (Twitter: @llantwit)

My lingering memory of the June 21stUCU Special Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) is of applause and encouraging whoops as member after member prefaced contributions with “I’m speaking for the first time…”. I also came away feeling somewhat in awe of what can happen an incredibly passionate group of committed, and highly-expert, people pool their expertise and resources in pursuit of collective goals. This was also my first time at a UK-level Union event, so consider this a newbie’s-eye view, and please forgive any mistakes.

Jolted out of experiencing Union membership as something akin to an insurance policy or something we passively consume, many of us started the year energised by the rush of active campaigning and the warmth of intense solidarity. As many will be aware, this event grew out of widespread frustration among rank-and-file members with the UCU leadership’s distant, opaque, and top-down handling of the end of the recent USS strike. The experience of DIY, bottom-up, democracy was tarnished, for many, by a feeling of being managed and spun into accepting an under-cooked deal which sold our struggle short. It was fitting, then, that this conference, in its inception and execution, was dominated by the voices of new and newly-active members seeking, and gaining, increased transparency and grassroots-democratic control over the future of this dispute.

Time pressure:

My first impression was one of incredulity that 21 (later 25) complex motions should be squeezed into two and a half short hours in a stuffy Manchester conference room. In the end, we managed to debate 19 motions (all passed), with the six remaining ones being remitted (which means they were sent on for consideration by the UCU National Executive Committee). I felt (perhaps unfairly) that the Union’s grudging response to members’ attempts to exert democratic influence over this dispute was to curtail the time available for debate and deliberation among members. Those moving and opposing motions had just minutes to do so, and no time was allowed for wider discussion outside limited points of order and information. Under incredible time pressure, the event was handled very professionally by the Congress Business Committee (CBC), and chaired remarkably efficiently, and fairly, by UCU President-elect Douglas Chalmers.

Alternatives, or cuts, to Direct Benefit (DB) pensions:

Conference began with members voting to reject the CBC’s decision to rule a number of motions off the agenda. Notably, four of these related to the work of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) currently reviewing the viability and valuation of our USS pensions, and sought to exert influence over JEP members’ engagement with discussions about alternatives to DB pension schemes (e.g. Defined Contribution, or Collective Defined Contribution schemes). These motions had been rejected because they were seen to interfere with the terms of a body already set up by a democratic vote (the end-of-strike ballot, which gave the UCU leadership a free hand to negotiate its composition and terms of reference). This didn’t convince the conference, and they were put back on the agenda, and later passed, presumably because the majority felt members hadn’t had enough of a say in setting up this expert panel in the first place.

Other notable commitments agreed included:

  • agreement to continue campaigning against cuts to pension benefits and increases in member contributions;
  • requiring the JEP to abandon flawed tests and dodgy methods in new valuations and to assume no de-risking of any kind;
  • investigating the use of any future pension surplus to fund USS contributions for casualised staff; and
  • a call for the resignation of USS CEO Bill Galvin (a largely popular one, despite a note of caution raised about a recent tendency to call for symbolic decapitation both within and without the UCU).

Among the motions not passed for lack of time was one which would have committed us to campaigning, in an ongoing way, and alongside political allies, to defend the principle of DB pensions. Another, notably, argued for no detriment to current pensions before our employers’ reduced contributions during their “pension holiday” had been accounted for, alongside maintaining the DB status quo as long as the JEP sits. It remains to be seen whether this will be passed by the executive, but this was the motion I was eyeing as accusations of “filibustering” were directed at the chair once it became clear we weren’t going to have time to consider all motions.

Transparency:

Motions passed about transparency achieved many things, including:

  • a “presumption of transparency” around the work of the JEP, the refusal of JEP members to sign non-disclosure agreements, and instruction to USS negotiators who deal with the JEP to likewise refuse confidentiality agreements;
  • regular reporting to UCU members from the JEP about its progress or lack thereof;
  • a resolution to require any JEP recommendations to be explained in simple, accessible, and convincing terms, based on plain information about the evidence and methods behind calculations;
  • agreement the JEP would accept, and take into account, evidence from the UCU’s many pensions experts;
  • agreement that the JEP would be clear about its valuation assumptions, sources, and in the provision of illustrative calculations; and
  • an understanding that any delays, conditionality, or refusal by the USS about releasing information be publicised to members.

Democracy:

Motions passed which highlighted increasing rank-and-file democracy secured:

  • a commitment to organising a ballot for timely and effective strike action should we be threatened with cuts or increased contributions;
  • a place for the UCU’s elected negotiators and the UCU’s National Dispute Committee to play an accountable role in scrutinising the work of the JEP;
  • a promise to set up a consultative body of HE delegates, meeting bi-annually, to scrutinise the work of the JEP and consult with members after each meeting;
  • agreement to give USS members at post-1992 Universities a consultative voice in this dispute; and
  • an assurance of transparent, member-led decision-making processes in the USS dispute, including a guarantee that all key decisions taken at representative meetings end with a show of hands vote to inform the UCU’s Higher Education Committee decisions (a motion responding directly to the contentious interpretation of branch delegates’ views on whether to ballot to accept UUK’s end-of-strike offer).

Inevitably, given the time restrictions placed on the event, we were unable to vote on all motions. This caused considerable annoyance, despite (or perhaps partly because of) reassurances that remitted items would be considered by the national executive. The eventual decision to remit remaining motions was carried by just 42 votes with 72 abstentions, most of which I interpreted as expressions of frustration at the lack of time given to deliberate over these important issues.

Our UCU:

We have rightly celebrated the growth in our Union’s membership over the last year, but we need to remember what caused, and what nourished it, as well as the fact that the newfound strength it gives us is contingent and fragile. New and newly-active members (myself included) gave so much in this struggle because of the magnitude of the attack on our pension, for sure. But also, in large part, because of the inclusive and participatory way in which it was conducted locally. We acted, self-organised, and campaigned in unprecedented ways, in the spirit of self-help and mutual aid. The positive militancy and direct-democratic nature of our strike was sometimes a bit messy, for sure. But it was also infectious, and highly-effective; for me, it was the beating heart of our dispute. I experienced that again in Manchester.

The Union has, at times, interpreted this newly-empowered rank and file as a problem to be managed, an inconvenience, a distraction, and through the lens of yesterday’s internal sectarian power struggles. It continues to doso at its peril. As University workers we are manipulated, alienated, and managed enough in our professional lives. In our Union activities this year, we’ve tasted better, and it tasted good. I’m proud to have attended this conference and, on behalf of Cardiff UCU members, played a small part in keeping the spirit of the strike alive. The process of instigating it, and the motions we carried, were important further steps towards winning a member-led USS dispute, and in the on-going democratisation of “our UCU”.

Full details of the motions passed can be found here (along with a link to agenda, which details those motions we didn’t have time to consider)

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4 Comments

  1. An excellent account, and well worth reading for anyone who wasn’t there. One point worth noting about the “21 (later 25) complex motions … squeezed into two and a half short hours” is that this probably happened because of a combination of very little time before the conference and the Conference Business Committee being short-handed, as explained at the start of the conference. Normally, given that so many motions covered much the same ground, a lot of them would have been combined (“composited”) into bigger motions which would have been debated at greater length. I think that what happened this time was the CBC only had a week before the conference to deal with a large volume of business and didn’t have enough people to do it, or time to meet.

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    Reply

    1. Thanks Michael, that’s valuable context. It must’ve been really difficult under the circumstances.
      Since writing others have pointed out to me that timing would have been influenced by the need to allow people from all over the UK to get to, and return from, Manchester would have also been a limiting factor.

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