Something must be done, but what?

The election addresses for the three candidates for General Secretary have been finalized, and one more detailed manifesto has been produced, so it looks like a good time to see what the candidates plan in the way of concrete action. For the avoidance of doubt, I am still supporting Matt Waddup, but my summary and commentary on the three candidates are based on what the candidates have put in writing.

In campaigning terms, all three candidates have made a strong start, playing to their strengths, but given the nature of single transferable vote, whoever is to win this election will need to draw support from across the electorate, so the details of their proposals will matter.

From the election addresses and manifesto which are now available, we can list the concrete actions which the candidates plan to take if they win.

From Jo McNeil’s election address, she proposes:

  • “nationally co-ordinated local claims [on casualization] which emulate the recent ground-breaking win at the OU: 4000 casualised staff moved onto permanent contracts”
  • “need nationally co-ordinated local action” on pay gaps. “Many employers are embarrassed by their Gender/BAME pay gap and want to work with branches. As GS I will work to provide the analytical support required for such negotiations.”
  • “Subjective, harmful metrics dominate the HE environment causing increases in work related stress, performance management and forced contract changes. In Liverpool we are fighting back, UCU nationally needs to do the same.”

From Matt Waddup’s election address:

  • “consulting with members”;
  • “planning our campaign properly”;
  • “communicating clearly”;
  • “investing in our branches and staff so activists have the local resources and back-up to bargain effectively and defend members”;
  • “prioritising pro-active action on workload, casualisation, pay and equality concerns where and how it will be most effective”;
  • “striking hard when we need to”.

Jo Grady’s manifesto is quite a bit longer than her election address, so there is space for more than the other two candidates have said so far, but there is a summary of actions:

  • Wide-ranging, ambitious subscription reform to rebuild our membership in Further Education and increase participation among lower-paid and casualised staff in all sectors (2.1).

  • Redistribution of UCU funds to provide more support for collective industrial action (2.2)

  • Empowerment of national committees to represent and communicate directly with casualised members and other specific constituencies that are currently marginalised (2.3).

  • The creation of new, dynamic, research-informed task groups to campaign on specific issues affecting multiple sectors, constituencies, and campus unions, including (2.4):

    • Surveillance and the security state (6.2);
    • Metrics and marketisation (7.2).
  • New approaches to the negotiation process (2.5).

  • The creation of national ‘branch coordination’ officers to help us build towards meaningful national bargaining on employment security (3.1) and equality (5.1).

  • National pay claims to include the demand for employers to pay all extra fees imposed on EU and non-EU immigrants, including visa fees and the NHS surcharge (6.1).

  • A standardised, accessible ‘Stress Survey’ for reporting overwork in our branches (7.1).

  • A proactive national campaign against the use of Teachers’ Pension Scheme contribution increases to justify attacks on staff in post-92 institutions (8.1).

  • Regular surgeries held by the General Secretary and other key elected officers, open to all members (9).

  • Adoption of proposals by UCU’s Democracy Commission to reform the role of General Secretary and make it more accountable (9.1).

Interestingly, there is a quite a bit of common ground between the candidates, once we get beyond views on the state of the union and what our goals should be. All three see value in local action on issues where employers either refuse to negotiate nationally, as on casualization and the gender pay gap in HE, or in building strength where there is no national bargaining on anything, as in pay in FE. All three see casualization and workload as cross-sector issues which need to be priorities, though with differences of emphasis on how they are to be dealt with.

There is not enough detail from McNeil and Waddup to make a full comparison with Grady’s proposals, but we can have a look at what she is saying and compare it to current UCU practice. On “building the union”, she says:

In the current system, fees for the lowest paid staff are proportionally much more expensive than for staff on higher wages, and there are steep thresholds between subscription bands. But we can go further than simply rectifying this state of affairs. It is time to consider other incentives to recruit more members: not only special rates for workers whose monthly income is not fixed, but also special initiatives to make membership affordable in areas like Further Education, where membership has declined and we need to rebuild. We must also ensure that rates do not keep increasing at a higher rate than pay, as they did in the last year.

The link in the quote is to the budget for last year which includes changes to subscription rates. Those rates were reduced last year for members earning less than £30,000 and were increased by 3%, 5%, and 7% for members in the 30-40, 40-60, and above 60 pay bands respectively. Grady’s idea is a good one, so good that we are already doing it.

Grady proposes increasing the funding for strikes:

At the same time, we can save money elsewhere by capping our spending on professional development activities like grant-writing workshops, and other service activities provided by the union that should be provided by employers. In recent years, expenditure on such activities has increased.

It would be good to know where in that budget the figure for “professional development activities” appears and how many days strike action could be funded with the money. At £50 per day, we need one million pounds to fund 20,000 strike days, so for a 14 day strike, like the USS action, one million pounds would pay for 1500 people to go on strike. Does Grady believe that figure would change significantly if we stopped running professional development?

Grady proposes to establish posts for “branch coordination officers”. Without more explanation, it is hard to see how they might differ from the officers currently liaising with branches at national level, or the Branch Development Officers at regional level.

And on how to interact with employers,

Alongside our traditional approach to negotiation, we should consider adopting alternative approaches that might deliver more for our members: in particular, open negotiations. Open negotiations are used elsewhere by other trade unions to incentivise negotiators to make the strongest possible case, avoid unnecessary compromises, expose employers’ attempts to misinform employees, and leave their representatives with nowhere to hide.

In principle, this looks like a good idea, but I would like to see some detail on how UCU would respond when the employers say they are not prepared to enter “open negotiations”.

On workload, Grady says:

Excessive workloads are causing injuries. Our managers’ idea that resilience and wellbeing training will help, rather than exacerbate the problem, is an insult to staff. Instead, UCU needs to collect and report on the toxic culture of overwork that pervades Further and Higher Education. One-off press releases from UCU’s national HQ are not sufficient recognition of the problems encountered by branches, and their efforts to deal with them. It is time to create an online, nationwide workload reporting service. This service will provide standardised online ‘stress audits’ which branches can distribute to their members without overburdening reps and committee officers.

The first two sentences are quite correct, but Grady seems unaware of current UCU activity on workload and stress run by our national office, which includes guidance on using health and safety rights to intervene on workload, and a standardised stress questionnaire and model risk assessment for stress. Again, Grady’s idea is a good one, so good that UCU has been doing it for at least two years now, with the national Health, Safety and Sustainability official visiting branches and regions to help them use the rights of Safety reps to force action on workload.

Grady continues:

If branches need extra support, they will be able to request that UCU’s national officials, up to and including the General Secretary, make direct, escalating interventions with their managers and representations to the Health and Safety Executive.

She might like to talk to Southampton UCU who, with other campus unions, reported their employer to the HSE only three months ago, with the assistance of a national official.

Finally for now, on USS, Grady says:

Members won an extraordinary victory in April 2018 by forcing employers to withdraw their proposal to abolish guaranteed pensions for members. The courage and conviction of striking branches to come together to reject a deal agreed by our own General Secretary, which would have involved massive cuts to benefits in order to preserve a small guaranteed element, has been rewarded – for now. The first report of the Joint Expert Panel shows that USS benefits can be maintained as they are, with no need for contribution increases above the rate we were paying before the strike.

This is all very sound and reasonable, and completely contradicts fears raised a year when the Joint Expert Panel was being established:

Worse still, hopes raised by General Secretary Sally Hunt that the JEP could challenge the valuation used to justify cuts to our pensions have been dashed. Additional leaked comments by Bill Galvin, Group Chief Executive Officer of USS, have reinforced USS’s claim that the scheme valuation we have been contesting throughout this dispute is legitimate and not negotiable.

You can find out for yourself who said that.






3 thoughts on “Something must be done, but what?

  1. Michael some good analysis. But running for GS is not the same as running for President. The GS needs to be able to manage 200+ staff,, a considerable budget, and a sizeable organisation. The roles of GS and President are very different. Regretably neither Jo Grady nor Jo MacNeill seem to address the specifics of a GS role compared to a Presidential role. There is a job description re GS. And having recruited staff in my time, i think that Matt is the candidate who fits the role of GS as well as having strategic success nationally.


  2. Thanks for this Michael, some very interesting stuff indeed. Mary makes a good point about the skills needed to manage a large organisation and workforce (and one wonders if condemning in your election manifesto many of those you are seeking to manage was necessary) but there seems to me a wider question that people also ought to think about.

    It’s one thing for a candidate to be inexperienced, but the fact that this manifesto contains inaccuracies about some of its major planks, and is seemingly unaware of activities that have been taking place for some time, suggests that these things were not picked up by the candidate’s supporters either. The people from USS Briefs are to be admired for their work on pension issues, but there is no reason to suppose that being effective in that area guarantees suitability for the very different roles involved in leading the entire union. It’s not just a question of this or that candidate’s personal suitability for the role, but also the people backing and advising them (preferably from as a wide a range of people as possible) and the policies they wish to pursue. All of the above are part of identifying the right candidate.


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