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UCU general secretary speaks to UCU Congress 2018

UCU general secretary Congress 2018 speech

30 May 2018

Full text of UCU general secretary Sally Hunt's speech to Congress 2018

Quotation Twelve months ago, I came here to argue that the challenges we faced were so significant that the only adequate response was to make substantial changes to the way we do things.

Now, one year later I want to talk about a turnaround year.

I want to talk about our increased membership.

I want to talk about our wins at work.

And I want to talk about our growing political influence...

Now those challenges I talked about last year are still there by the way.

We still have this useless, politically inept and cruel government which disdains expertise and whose policies towards trade unions are a throwback to Victorian times.

We still have employers who refuse to bargain meaningfully unless threatened with strike action; who find it impossible to acknowledge the existence of casualisation and inequality; and who seem more interested in high reward for themselves than fair reward for you.

And we still have Brexit looming over everything we do, causing fear and anxiety across our membership.

But the difference is that last year we took the decision that it was for us to shape our own future. Not sit here passively as the future shapes us.

The proposals I made for change last year were aimed at securing our future.

They were about enabling us to face head on any industrial or political challenge thrown at us.

Now sometimes here at Congress we test to endurance the theory that the more you have in common with someone / the more you can find to argue with them about.

But I want to be clear with you - the gains we have made this year are directly related to the unity we showed last year.

Congress, lets start with the best news of all.

Our union is now 16,000 stronger than when I stood at this rostrum last year. 

An extraordinary achievement.

The greatest turnaround imaginable.

A tribute to the hard work of everyone in the union.

Our greatest gains have been in those institutions involved in the USS dispute.

But the union's membership has increased across higher education, in further education, in adult education and in prison education too.

In fact, our membership has grown every single month for the last eight months and that shows no sign of stopping.

In the last twelve months we have increased our membership among casualised staff by 24%.

In the last twelve months our membership under the age of 30 has doubled.

And after year upon year of decline in the face of casualisation we have - in just one year - increased our density in higher education by an incredible 6 percentage points.

Not just recruiting Congress but increasing our trade union power in the workplace too.

So, what are the roots of this increase?

At last year's Congress I proposed a radical new offer to those who are new to the profession in HE or employed at the margins of teaching in FE.

There was strong support across the union for this proposal and the National Executive agreed that we would offer free members..

 Why? Because this is an offer which proclaims that we are a union for everyone - not an exclusive club for the most secure or the better paid.

It is an offer that represents an investment in our future of our profession and our union.

And it is an offer which says that we believe if you teach, do research, are a professional  in your field, it doesn't matter what they call you, you deserve the appropriate pay and status.

Now, we did not know whether this gamble would work.

And I won't lie.  When other unions found out about this policy - I got some very strange looks.

But the truth is that we wanted to send a signal to those who need us most but who were least likely to join.

And the response has been incredible.

Our membership in these two categories alone has increased from a few hundred to 8,000 in just nine months.

The policy is transformative.

Many of our newest members are already becoming active in branch and national campaigns, standing on picket lines and supporting our strikes.

And it is transformative too because at last it gives us a real foothold to bargain where the union has previously found it impossible to break through.

So, I want to thank you for your support in making this policy such a success - for taking the leap of faith that was required.

Now, whilst one reason for our growing numbers is that we chose to be bold.

Another is that the union is winning at work.

I will never forget the looks round the room from branch officers in January when we first proposed fourteen days of strike action on USS.

Everyone in the room knew we had to do it, but none of us - if we are honest - knew whether we could pull it off.

Another leap of faith in a turnaround year.

Well, now we do know!

Everywhere I go outside UCU people ask me how the union did it?

How did we move from last November and the prospect of the end of the guaranteed pension for ever to a position where last month we agreed jointly with the employers to officially dump that dreadful proposal in the bin.

In a turnaround year, it is the most remarkable turnaround of all.

We did it because we kept our members fully engaged. 

Every time we struck more people came out / Every time we balloted we got a higher turnout.

We did it because we showed we were serious.

Everything from the number of strikes we called to the establishment of strike funds demonstrated that we were determined to challenge the employers' disastrous proposals.

We did it because at key moments we all saw the value of unity - the message that sends to members when we fighting together rather than fight each other.

And most of all we did it because of the brilliant leadership of our branches, because of our determined negotiators and - of course - our fantastic staff.

Congress when we work together we are very hard to beat.

Now, our incredible USS colleagues must be celebrated but the union has many other victories too.

This is the year when our Open University colleagues took on a rampant management and put them back in the box.

This is the year when our friends at Sandwell College / at Hull College / at Bradford College and across London - in fact at all the FE colleges taking action round the country - they are showing it is possible to fight even in the most difficult of circumstances.

And this is the year when we defeated an attempt at Coventry to introduce sweetheart unions to UK higher education.

Congress this is a campaigning union / but we do so much more.

In the last twelve months some 25,000 members have sought our help.

8,000 of those received face to face representation of some kind.

And our staff and lawyers won ¬£11.8m in compensation  - a 15% increase over last year.

By the way Ulster members are responsible for nearly 10% of that figure - what a win that was for the Branch and the Regional Office legal team working together.

In any year this would be an incredible performance but this year with so much else going on it is beyond belief that we keep breaking these records.

Now, one secret of our success has been the upsurge in participation in the union and the remarkable story of the union's Get The Vote Out campaign is at the root of this.

Last year I described the Trade Union Act as a pernicious piece of legislation designed to make it harder for us to resist, harder for us to organise and harder for us to win.

Many commentators predicted that its requirement for a 50% turnout would mean the end of industrial action in all but a few places.

We in UCU had never reached a 50% turnout in a national ballot in our entire history - our average was nearer 35%.

The USS dispute is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is that members broke three national records for turnout in five months - with each ballot exceeding the previous ones culminating in a final ballot in which 63% of our members cast a vote.

Another turnaround in a turnaround year.

Now Congress, the benefits of a high turnout are obvious - members are more engaged. 

They are more likely to support the action on the ballot paper.

And - as USS proves - once they have started voting they will carry on doing so creating a virtuous cycle of participation.

In FE, we have won ballot after ballot for local action on pay and jobs - beating the 50% turnout time after time -delivering a real mandate to drive up pay or protect jobs.

And within twelve months a turnout of more than 50% has become the expectation within UCU rather than the exception.

I am proud that. We are now a leader in the trade union movement when it comes to participation and getting the vote out.

We have done it through partnership between branches and staff....

It's another example which shows that when we work together there is no limit to what we can achieve.

There is more.

Last year I said that the union must increase its bargaining capacity - that we must give branches the tools to negotiate effectively on members' behalf.

And in the last year 30 branches have taken part in wave one of new, intensive training aimed at achieving this.

Next year more will follow until we have every branch up to speed.

But bargaining capacity is not just about our biggest branches...

Twelve months ago I said that we needed a campaign to rejuvenate some of our smallest branches - those with under a hundred members.

Since then our organisers have been doing a tremendous job - starting with small steps like getting a newsletter to every member in our smallest branches each term.

From there the aim is to reconstitute branches who have not met for a while, and to find new reps...

Now this campaign won't make the headlines but to me it is an exciting project which is at the core of the vision for a transformed UCU.

And already we are hearing of branches which had not met for years now coming together to discusses members' concerns.

It's another turnaround we can be proud of.

Now I want to say something about this union's increasing political influence.

We have won respect from across the political spectrum for our effective lobbying on issues like health and safety in prisons, Transforming Lives in FE, of course standing up for USS members, recognition of UCU at Coventry, defending the OU and much more.

That political voice really matters

With Labour and others really listening to UCU, this is the best opportunity we have had in thirty years to achieve real change in education policy.

Our work on reforming the admissions system /to make it fairer /is changing the debate /and there are signs that those in power are really listening.

Our work on academic freedom is challenging universities and colleges and government to practice what they preach.

And our work in campaigning for a national education service is demonstrating how much our country will gain from a system with education for all at its heart.

UCU is independent of political parties.

We will work with anyone who will listen to us.

But I do want to say thanks to some of those who have helped us the most.

Emma Hardy MP and Karl Turner MP who have given brilliant support to the amazing campaign by our Hull College members to defend their jobs.

Gordon Marsden MP for his stalwart backing for the Open University, his commitment to idea of a National Education Service and his great friendship to UCU.

To Angie Rayner MP and Lucy Powell MP for their personal and political solidarity on the picket line.

To my neighbour Caroline Lucas MP, to Carol Monaghan MP and Leanne Wood AM for their tireless advocacy on behalf of UCU members and of course, to John McDonnell - a true friend of UCU - who has appeared on nearly as many UCU platforms as me this year and he s never been too busy to help this union.

When I collared him about our international members who risk deportation if they strike, he agreed instantly to write a joint article with me to kick off our campaign.

And the same goes for Jeremy. Our thanks are due to him too for the support for our industrial action and the brilliant video he made for us this week shows.

Let me also say what many of you have said to me.

You want me to say a public thank you to students for their support in our struggles.

We stood side by side with you to fight fees in 2006 and again in 2010 - and we still with you.

But your support of UCU in the USS dispute and beyond shows that we have an unbreakable alliance.

On behalf of UCU I want to say / to all those students who supported this union that we will never, ever forgot the solidarity you showed us and we will give it back.

So, Congress I hope you agree that it has been a remarkable year for UCU.

A turnaround year

in which we have seen our membership and influence grow.

in which we have fought and won at work.

in which we have increased participation in the union at every level

So how do we follow that?

Last year from this platform I called for a Commission to examine how the union could take more effective, united industrial action. 

I said that my aim was to achieve a consensus on the issue by this Congress.

I am pleased to say - after this morning's vote - that we have taken a massive step forward.

I pay tribute to the 13 elected commissioners, ably convened by our national president and staff and to all those branches and members who contributed to the debate.

The main changes proposed are radical but necessary in my view.

At the heart of the Commission is the idea that disputes will be more effective, and members more likely to support them, if they are strategically planned and form part of a long-term vision which has been clearly communicated to members.

That means we need a real debate within the union in the coming months about what our industrial priorities should be - and we need to discuss and agree an overarching vision that all our members can get behind.

My hope is that this process will allow us to break down the silos a little - that it will encourage branches, members and staff to work together in setting out a vision which the whole union can unite around.

In that spirit I hope Congress will allow me to give a sense about what I think that vision and those priorities should be.

UCU starts from the position that the staff who deliver the service must be at the centre of a fair, just and efficient education system.

Our message to students has always been that our working conditions are your learning conditions.

And we need to place that idea at the centre of our strategy.

But what does that mean when translated into reality?

For me it of course means that staff are fairly paid.

The record on pay of HE and FE employers over the last seven years of austerity is a disgrace - and we should hold them to account.

That is why I am a strong supporter of the FE Fights Back campaign.

It is has become a cliché to say that FE deserves better.

But with hundreds of teachers losing their jobs in the last few months, it is maybe more appropriate to say that our country deserves better too...

When it comes to pay, the reality of that diet of cuts is that our members' average hourly rate is now some 13% below that of school teachers. 

What a message to send to those considering a career in FE.

No wonder our members have had enough.

Had enough of terrible pay increases which are not even implemented in half the colleges.

Had enough of endless rounds of job cuts.

And had enough of Principals who preach austerity for others but reward themselves bumper pay rises.

I want to say something about HE pay too.

I was interested to see the argument last week from the Chair of the UCEA,  that instead of moaning the unions should join universities in highlighting what he called "positive messages" on pay and employment.

My reply to that is that when there is some positive news we will be delighted to celebrate it.

But the current reality is that like others in the public realm, university staff have seen the value of their pay fall substantially against inflation.

And this has happened at a time when those at the top have seen their own pay rise enormously.

In FE and HE we must keep pushing on pay.

But, I also think we need to move our bargaining agenda beyond the narrowed down/ annual set piece stale mate of recent years.

Our members tell me they want action on workload.

They tell me they want action on the inequality.

And most of all they tell me that they want action against the exploitative casualisation culture upon which higher and further education are built.

Make no mistake, UCU has been brilliant at chronicling the various types of short term contracts offered by FE and HE employers.

And we have won millions of pounds of compensation for fixed term researchers, the hourly paid, those on zero hours contracts and many more.

That is all important stuff - but the time has come to go beyond describing the problem and bring the whole union behind a campaign to tackle it head on.

We must use the new-found confidence in our branches from this year of achievement to seek agreements on job security with every employer.

So let me make my view clear, tackling casualization should be front and centre of what we do when we sit down to turn the Commission's recommendations into an industrial strategy.

And we should do so on educational grounds - arguing not just that this is bad for staff but that it is bad for students too.

Tackling this is the greatest challenge of our time - we all know that.

But after this year we also know what we are capable of when we act together.

And we do have to do it.

Not only is it the right thing to do for staff.

It is the right thing to do for our union too.

It has been a remarkable year.

A turnaround year.

Unquestionably, the most successful in UCU's history so far.

But we have more to do.

One hundred and fifty years ago just down the road at Princes Street, thirty-four men met to discuss their demands.

For free education, an eight-hour day, trade union rights and a voice in parliament.

The trade union movement , now fifty percent women and men, is still fighting those same battles today.

The self-proclaimed aim of that first meeting was to "speak together in unison."

That is a message that never gets old.

Because for UCU to be successful we must do the same.

We are not yes or no voters. We are members.

We are not them and us. Only us.

And we must surely save our energy for our real enemies.

We in UCU should have pride in what we have done this year and a determination to shape a better future. 12 months ago we set our sights high.

This year let us set them higher still.

And work together for our members everywhere.

Thank you.'

Last updated: 30 May 2018