Report on UCU Special Congress to discuss UCU’s democratic structures and the recommendations of the Democracy Commission

December 7, 2019 Manchester Convention Centre

GUCU Attendees: Milly Williamson and Gholam Khiabany

This Special Congress was called to discuss the findings of the Democracy Commission and to hear and vote on motions aimed at changing UCU’s democratic structures.

The Democracy Commission was set up at UCU Congress in May 2018 to investigate two issues that angered members and threw up important questions about democratic accountability at the top of our union. The first issue was when the then General Secretary tried to demobilise action over an agreement with the employers during the USS dispute without properly consulting the members. It was only an angry lobby of hundreds outside of the union headquarters that stopped this action. A second deal from the employers following the strike was put to a meeting of the Higher Education Committee, which was attended by elected branch delegates who were not given voting powers at the meeting. HEC executives ignored the real views of elected branch delegates, who wanted to continue the action and revise and resubmit the offer and chose instead to put out the deal to members with a recommendation from the union to vote in favour of it. This was highly undemocratic and is one of the main reasons why we have been back on the picket line over USS – many members felt betrayed. The second issue is how the General Secretary dealt with criticism of her conduct over the dispute during the Congress in 2018. She refused to engage with criticisms and unelected paid officials of the union walked out and closed the union Congress – our only mechanism of national democracy. The Democracy Commission was a direct demand on the part of members in response to this lack of democracy and accountability to members.

The special congress on December 7, 2019 heard the report from the Democracy Commission and had 37 motions to debate. The congress closed late at 4:40 with only 16 of the motions debated. Most of the motions called for changes to the union’s regulations in order to enhance its democratic accountability, to increase the voice of branches during industrial disputes, and to increase the representation of devolved nations and of black members, and representation on national bodies. Many of these motions (because they counted as rule changes) required a two-thirds majority. Please consult the UCU website to see all motions. We will just highlight a few that were voted on and that we thought were particularly important.

Motions 1 and 2 called for new rules to enable a General Secretary to be investigated for alleged misconduct. The congress voted with over a two-thirds majority for the substantive part of the motion, but the rest of the motions were taken in parts: motion 1 called for the Regional Committees and Devolved Nations bodies to be the mechanism for this while motion 2 called for 20 branches to be the mechanism. Despite requests from those who put forward both motions that motion 2 be taken as an amendment, the Chair of the Congress refused this request and the crucial parts of both motions fell having just missed out on the necessary majority.

The second crucial motion, 16, called for the establishment of a Dispute Committee to be constituted by delegates elected from branches involved in any multi-institutional dispute. This branch-based elected Dispute Committee would have the final say on the conduct of the dispute (such as when action should be called and what kind, when action should be called off, what deals would be put to members etc). This was not the motion put by our branch (which was disallowed) but was very similar. It was put by the University of Leeds with friendly amendments from UCU Wales Council, UCU and Sheffield. The motion lost – it missed out on a two-thirds majority by a handful of votes. But this issue is not going away. It will be back at the next Congress and I suggest that our branch and delegates join with Leeds, UCL and Sheffield in drafting, amending and putting this kind of motion again.

Motions 13, 14,and 15 all called for mechanisms whereby only Congress delegates are able to suspend Congress through a democratic vote and that if staff threaten walk outs, congress delegate representatives are involved in negotiations. All of these motions were passed.

Goldsmiths was one of ten branches who put forward an emergency motion calling that all outstanding business be automatically tabled as business at the 2019 congress. After much heated activity from the floor, the chair finally agreed to put it to the vote, again requiring a two-thirds majority. It just fell by a handful of votes.

What is clear is that there is a struggle for democracy taking place in UCU as a result of the transformation of the union membership, forged in struggle and activism. For the first time since its inception, UCU has an elected leader who comes from the rank and file and whose election is an expression of the growing militancy and activism of our branches and members. However, much of the old union bureaucracy is still in place and there remain crucial arguments about who should assume control over the union machinery, not least because of the emergence of highly mobilised and engaged branches. We are at the cusp of potentially changing our union into a far more democratic and member-led organisation, but the fight is not yet over. Our branch has much to contribute to this struggle.