Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Higher Education Conference: a Personal report

It was strange to be sitting on the top table this year, my second year at HE conference, and it was great to hear (at times) a good debate and see new members and new faces, especially younger members. There were three contentious issues, (you can download all the motions from the UNISON website). Firstly, the Privatisation of Higher Ed, secondly Standing Orders' refusal to back down, and thirdly, our Pay Claim. There was also a Q&A over the FE/ HE merger, which I won't go into here.

1) A 'defeatist' motion defeated
A motion on Privatisation of education was defeated because it was deemed 'defeatist' (e.g it said private education is 'here to stay'). When an amendment that tried to changed its emphasis fell, the motion was defeated.

2) Standing Orders: referred back and back and back again!
They were like a Jury walking into a court room to deliver their verdict: all heads turned and you almost expected the Chair to call for silence in court. The verdict: 'not an emergency' on two counts, and 'not competent' on one other. knowing looks as the council conferred, and requested to approach the bench were turned down.

The persistent Manchester Metro Branch, lead admirably by Linda Holden, and Birmingham Uni Branch, who had both submitted alternative claims on pay, insisted that for the sake of democracy their motions were 'referred back'. Conference agreed each time, sent them packing only to hear back two more times the same 'verdict'. This went on until the end of conference and the President, in the Chair, had to declare the conference over! That's not what democracy looks like!

3) Pay, in all it's forms
This meant there was only one motion on pay. The debate was essentially about whether we link pay claims to the rest of the cuts. Do we separate pensions, pay and job cuts, or do we fight the cuts as a package, and resist on all fronts? Several speakers lined up to call for the latter, and castigated a motion for a flat rate, as it was deemed a 'capitulation'. Those calling for a 'realistic' claim lost the debate, and the motion for a flat rate claim fell.

So our secretariat has just circulated a consultation to all branch secretaries:
"At the UNISON Higher Education Conference on 16 February 2011 no valid resolution was carried in respect of the content of the 2011/12 pay claim. The Higher Education Service Group has therefore agreed to undertake a brief consultation with branches on what they believe the key aims of the claim should be..."

Make sure your branch secretary discusses this in your committee and gets a return in on time.

The UCU are currently balloting on national action over cuts to pay, jobs and pensions. Do we want to be in the same position next year, with the UCU in dispute whilst our members keep their head down, hoping it'll go away?

The branches that won a 'reject' vote this year owe it to the rest of the sector to give confidence that we can fight back and win (such as Birmingham, who fought and won an increased offer). We must learn from their experiences and try to inculcate the same sort of fighting spirit in the rest of our sector.

Let's win this argument and develop a fighting strategy against the cuts to our sector.

I made the usual (attempted) rabble-rousing speech in support of a motion to fight the cuts, about the need for coordinated industrial action, and concluded:

"We're often told, as lay reps that we're the back-bone of the union. So let's show some back-bone; stand up tall, with our heads held high. Take this motion back to our branches and prepare for battle..."

Unlike last year, when I was quoted in three articles in the Morning Star, I could only speak on a couple of items and none were picked up in the labour-friendly press this year.

Sometimes when left activists get elected onto committees, there is a fear that there won't be enough 'good speakers' from the floor.

This year's HE conference showed there are plenty to take our places, and our fighting branches were well represented.

Gail Cameron and Allan Pike did a sterling job representing London Met, and Birmingham had two new speakers stepping up to the mark too. Antonia Bright from SOAS spoke plenty of times - also articulately and with passion - telling it like it is, pegging the cuts agenda to a racist agenda.

Carole Hanson is no stranger to the podium, and also got stuck in: hopefully her leadership skills, which helped to win a rejection of the pay claim this year, will also be felt on the executive committee after June. There are plenty in her branch to take the floor if she does, too.

Other militant trade unionists did an excellent job - especially the new comer Andy Cunningham from Manchester Met who apologised for speaking too much (but shouldn't have felt the need to).

I was also impressed by the number of LGBT motions to HE and in particular David Cosgrave from Imperial, who gave an articulate speech on the new legislation about Single Equalities and the apparent contradiction between protecting religious groups from discrimination and at the same time protecting members against homophobia. It's a shame this year the Morning Star covered the UCU's press release on Imperial instead.

Us active HE branches must get our act together on writing good, competent motions and getting them accepted so it doesn't become a 'Standing Orders-Fest'. E.G. when calling for strike action, always insert "lawful" before industrial action, and include "within UNISON's rules" too, this seems to help sometimes... And maybe next year we'll have a full day's debate?

For more, the reports on the UNISON website on the debates are pretty good:

So, we've had our conference in Harrogate (the irony that the conference centre staff are facing job cuts did not go unnoticed, so sent a message of support to the local UNISON branch who leafleted us at lunchtime), and now the ongoing discussion about our strategy and our pay claim for next year continues.

I've got my second NEC tomorrow, and the Defend the Four campaign are going to be meeting us in the morning as we go into Mabledon Place ... I'll let you know what happens!

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