Compulsory redundancies for UCU staff back on the agenda. Member representation and union democracy cut.
1. Which trade union fights compulsory redundancies for its members but imposes them on its own staff? The UCU, of course!
At its meeting on the 3rd May, the NEC voted by majority:
• to put compulsory redundancies of UCU staff back on the agenda;
• to undermine the democratic structure in an attempt to pre-empt debates by Congress delegates in 4 weeks’ time.
In an extraordinary display, the Honorary Treasurer first waved the threat of bankruptcy at members of the Committee, accusing them of irresponsibility and dereliction (in an atmosphere bordering on intimidation) if they did not vote to grant the national officials and national officers power to do whatever they considered necessary. The majority of the Committee then voted through a single-sentence motion that reversed, in effect, its earlier decision at the previous meeting to rule out compulsory redundancies.
Rarely in the trade union movement can there have been a spectacle as unashamedly manipulative as this. Clearly prepared in advance, and determined not to listen to any contrary argument, most of the majority on the NEC (led by the ‘Independent Broad Left’ (IBL)) then voted through the following motion, with ‘compulsory redundancies’ being the phrase that dare not speak its name. Compulsory redundancies, however, was what this was all about.
The enabling motion for potential sackings of UCU staff read:
‘This NEC resolves to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve a balanced budget and to ensure the survival of UCU as an independent trade union.’
This motion was carried 34:23, with 4 abstentions.
The national officers and officials, first supported by the NEC majority group, had decided earlier this year that compulsory staff redundancies might be used to deal with the union’s financial crisis. This was greeted with dismay in many branches and all regions, and by many on the NEC (but unfortunately not the majority). How could local branches resist and condemn compulsory redundancies amongst UCU members in their institutions while their own union was countenancing them for its own staff?
In response to many messages of concern, the NEC then reversed its decision, and declared that compulsory redundancies were off the agenda. Now, in a thoroughly embarrassing second volte face amongst some of the majority group on the Committee, the NEC has reversed its position yet again. Our staff members are now to face, once again, the threat of compulsory redundancies.
The situation is simultaneously both shambolic and shameful. If managements in our institutions behaved like this, what would we say of them?
2. Pre-emptive strike against Congress debate on finances
In three weeks’ time, at the end of May in Brighton, delegates from FE and HE branches from across the country will be gathering to debate how best to defend wages and conditions, oppose the Government’s austerity agenda, and preserve post-16 education from commercialisation and privatisation. One of the key debates this year will concern the future of the union.
Provoked by an impending financial crisis for the UCU caused by membership loss from the shrinkage of the sector (mainly through redundancies and retirements), that debate will be between those who argue for a managed decline of the union via cost cutting, particularly focussed on loss of union staff, and those who argue that we can restore much of the membership loss through high-profile and targeted recruitment campaigns, and focusing on action to defend members’ conditions and the integrity of post-16 education. We should then cover any financial shortfall from a modest increase in subscriptions. Also, we have a commitment to explore how to develop the union in terms of efficiency which may result in some savings (the commission on union democracy has this remit and will report at congress). To deal with the financial shortfall, through swinging cuts only, in my opinion is poor management. There is a debate to be had over short, medium and long term union finances and union efficiency/effectiveness, which will take place at congress.
The union’s national officers and the Independent Broad Left (IBL) faction have ruled out any real subscription increases from playing any part in the strategy to address the union’s drop in income even though the sums involved would amount to the price of a cup of coffee per member per month on average by 2015.
In a blatant attempt to forestall debate at Congress, and to remove the decision from the hands of the Congress delegates, the majority faction on the NEC, at the meeting on 3rd May, voted through a change in the NEC standing orders that dramatically reduced lay members’ oversight of the union’s operation via its committee structure.
This structure had been established at the time of the merger between the AUT and Natfhe (the predecessor unions to the UCU) in order to inscribe members’ control and leadership of their own organisation. This change is designed, by contrast, to concentrate day-to-day power in the office of the General Secretary, and in the hands of the union’s senior full-time officials.
The General Secretary and the Senior Management Team used the majority enjoyed by its allies on the NEC (the IBL group) fundamentally to undermine democratic representation and lay control of the union. The paper outlining the changes was distributed to NEC members only days before the meeting. There was no chance to discuss this paper with the unions committees, branches and regional committees. This was the current UCU leadership’s pre-Congress attempt at an organisational coup in advance of the Congress. Their argument of those supporting these changes argued it was essential to achieve a reduction of union expenses immediately by 25%. What they actually proposed could not only mean a cumulative cut of up to 40% - and maybe more, but turning the union into a managed and IBL dominated one. If requested to, the various committees would look into making savings, but this has to be in conjunction with decisions made at congress on the business of the various committees. There is a key issue of union effectiveness to consider. As mentioned before, cuts without careful thought is poor management.
The NEC majority voted to reduce the number of elected members on various representative committees, and to reduce the number of NEC and industrial sector committee (for FE and HE) meetings.
The dominant NEC faction block-voted through most of the recommendations. The frequency of meetings of the Strategy and Finance Committee, the Education Committee, the Recruitment and Organising Committee, and the Equality Committee, all were rushed through without even any minimal debate at the meeting, despite voluble objections. One IBL supporter successfully moved that the meeting should vote on some of the proposals before any discussion had taken place at all. The proposals included radically reducing the number of Equality members’ standing committee meetings, which are the main forums where lay elected members make significant inputs to the union’s equality agenda.
The changes that were steamrollered through including the following:
- reduction in number and length of NEC and HEC/FEC;
- reduction in number of Strategy and Finance Committee (SFC) meetings;
- reduction of meetings of Equality Committee;
- reduction in size and meetings of employment special interest committees;
- reduction in the size of the Equality Committee and the equality standing committees;
- reduction of the number of meetings of the equality members standing committees and amalgamation, in effect, of the four equality conferences into one;
- abolition of the International Working Group and its incorporation into the CPC (formerly SFC);
- abolition of the property and finance group and of the Staffing Committee;
- reconstitution of the Medical Research Council Committee into a discrete branch; and
- abolition of the Land-based Committee.
While some of the changes made sense, given the changing pattern of priorities for the union, and shifting pattern of national issues, many were highly contentious. Realisation of the potential consequences of the failure properly to discuss the frequency issue, once members were made aware of what had happened on the NEC, caused the Chair of the meeting to allow some discussion (typically three contributions only) on some of the other proposals.
After those limited discussions, the NEC rejected the proposal to have the SFC composed only of the chairs of other committees as it dawned on some in the majority grouping that they would then be creating a process that would produce an SFC that was 100% composed of IBL supporters. The NEC also rejected the proposal to discontinue the Academic-related Committee, as some amongst the majority faction realised how unpopular that change would be.
It will now be a matter for members’ delegates at the UCU’s national Congress to determine whether the UCU is to remain a member-led union, or one controlled by its employed full-time national officials. That will also determine whether the union is to remain committed to using both its political and its industrial influence and power not just to defend members’ terms and conditions but also the nature of the future of post-16 education.
For more detail and other information on other decisions (the most important are in this report) taken at the NEC meeting – please get in touch. I am willing to come to branches to discuss the financial situation and the union decision making processes. No doubt the IBL supporters will distribute their opinion about the NEC meeting.
This is your union.