Transforming UCU

Important messages from UCU general secretary Sally Hunt, 26 July 2017

Dear colleague,

I was re-elected earlier this year on a clear mandate - make UCU fit to face the future in an increasingly uncertain world. We have been busy since then and I want to share with you five key areas where we have made progress.

1. The future of our profession

First, the future of our profession. During the election, I lost count of the senior staff who approached me to express concern about the fate of the next generation. Locked into exploitative employment with little or no job security, the current model used in FE and HE has high expectations of young staff but gives little back to them. They need UCU most, yet their membership density remains low.

With your help, we want to do something about this. Let's work together and build a trade union culture in low security areas - a culture where the union stands up for staff rights, bargains for better pay and conditions, and helps young staff to get the best out of their careers.

Pushing for better conditions from the bottom benefits both established members and the profession as a whole. We all know that this exploitative employment model is creeping upwards.

Effective from 1 October 2017, if you are a PhD teaching in HE, or part of the teaching team without a teachers' contract in FE, UCU will make your union membership free. We think this covers around 70,000 (mostly younger) staff - the majority of whom are struggling at the start of their academic careers.

It is a big offer and valid for four years (or until a more secure job is achieved). We need to remove every possible barrier in the way of young staff joining our union in the hope that positive, valuable, UCU experience will spark a lifetime habit.

That is not all. I have heard first-hand how poorly many universities and colleges support their young staff. Too often in HE, you are thrust into the classroom with barely more than a couple of hours training. In FE, surveys show that 60 per cent of staff have no access to any CPD at all.

So - over the next year, UCU is going to put rocket boosters under our existing CPD provision to make it the best in the sector, useful to members at every stage of their career, and particularly so for those who are just starting out.  I hope that the senior academics reading this will help with the project too - sharing tips on lecturing, research bids, interviews, surviving office politics, and so on - so we can make these courses as useful and real as possible.

That is still not all. Over the coming months, we will also be putting together local claims to every employer on behalf of early career staff. We will argue of course for better pay and conditions, but we will also bargain for improved facilities, status, and support.  This is about creating a culture where everyone is valued, wherever they are in their career, and I want UCU to be at the centre of it.

2. Effective industrial action

Second, I promised members (if I won the election) I would try to ensure that when UCU calls for industrial action we follow a clear plan, and hit the employer where it hurts when necessary.

At UCU Congress I announced a commission to examine effective forms of action which will report back by the end of the year. Over the coming months, whatever your role in the union, the commission will want to hear your views on what types of action you favour and see as the most effective. I hope that everyone takes this opportunity to participate in a debate central to the future of our union.

3. Effective representation

Third, I promised that when it comes to negotiations the union would 'follow the money'. This does not mean we will abandon national bargaining - but it does mean we will enforce it. To do that, we must ensure that when the national employers refuse to negotiate, the union will take up the cause locally.

Since the election, dozens of claims have been lodged by branches, seeking to improve conditions, end casualisation, and close the gender pay gap. But we now want to do more.

Your national executive committee (NEC) has agreed on a union wide effort that increases local capacity to bargain effectively. Specialist organisers will focus on bringing our smallest branches up to speed, so no one is left behind, while our regional officials will focus on supporting our largest branches. The aim is simple - improve members' pay and conditions. Alongside the substantial investment we are making in improving training for your branch representatives, this marks a sea change in UCU's approach. I hope you will get involved.

4. More opportunity to participate in UCU

Fourth, in the election I promised that I would try and make it easier for you to participate in the union. Progress has been made already. Get the vote out (GTVO) plans, agreed by your NEC, ensure that consultation with members is now a fixture of our action campaigns - giving you a real say. This has helped to create a more engaged membership, with the average turnout in all ballots 10 per cent higher than last year.

Changes in the law mean that a 50 per cent turnout is required in order to take action, so this is something we will need to continue to protect your right as trade unionists to take action when necessary.

Increasing consultation also means seeking your views on professional issues and matters of education policy. I know that members' appetite for this is strong, based on the thousands of responses I received when I asked for help developing our policy on the Stern review, and again with our FE transforming lives campaign.

5. Standing with international staff

Fifth, I highlighted the concern across UCU about the plight of EU colleagues during the election. Brexit, and then the U.S. travel restrictions put in place by Trump, created much uncertainty and UCU has led the way - the extra support agreed by the NEC provided hundreds of individual members with legal advice on their immigration status.

The union cannot rest on its laurels. I have asked staff to put together a further package of measures aimed at supporting international staff to feel welcome, safe and unafraid of standing up for themselves at work.

If you are an international staff member, kick-start this process by filling in this survey and sharing it with international colleagues if they are in the union yet or not.

I hope all of this shows that UCU has been busy.

There is a real recognition among the NEC and the senior officials that the union needs to transform itself in order to meet our challenges. We need to create a collective trade union culture throughout the sector, especially at the low security end of the sector where the union simply does not have enough current influence.

These changes are designed to help us get better at what we do, whether that is negotiating pay, representing members, taking action, standing with international staff, or - with your help - giving a leg up to the next generation.

I thank you very much for your support.


p.s. - If you want to get involved in the transformation of UCU, hit reply: I will put you in touch with the right person.

Last updated: 27 July 2017