General secretary's UCU Congress address 2017

Address by Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, to UCU Congress 2017

Colleagues, UCU members working in and around Manchester make up one in twenty of our total membership.

Our hearts are breaking at the dreadful events last week, not least as it emerges that among the many innocent victims were students at our universities and colleges.

We send our solidarity to all those affected including the incredible emergency service workers who ran towards danger in order to save lives; and, as the days pass, to the teachers working so hard to reassure frightened students.

Congress, education is what this union is all about and our response to this horrific incident must be to continue to champion knowledge, truth, tolerance and diversity. These are British values that are worth fighting for.

Can I start by saying thank you to you Rob for your work as president this year.

You have been a tireless advocate for equality. And a tireless advocate for FE too. You will be missed by all at UCU HQ.

I hope I am also allowed to say that that past president Liz Lawrence retires this year after many years of service to our union.

Like Rob, her commitment to UCU shines through everything she does and like Rob she will be sorely missed.

The union is fighting hard for members on many fronts, up and down the UK.

From Aberdeen in the North to my town Brighton in the South.

And all points East and West inbetween.

From some of our biggest branches like the University of Manchester and the OU.

To some of our smallest like Runshaw Colege and North Shropshire College.

North or South

East or West.

Big or small.

Thank you to our branches and reps for the amazing, unsung work you are doing.

Now Congress...

Four months ago I was re-­‐elected as UCU general secretary.

The election was hard fought - just as it should be.

With two competing visions of the union's future put to members.

And my opponent Jo McNeil deserves great credit for her part in that.

Now....given the result you might expect me to use this speech to set out how I intend to implement my mandate.

And I do want to spend some time telling you what I intend to do next.

But I believe the moment we have arrived at is too important to play winner takes all.

I'm not looking for headlines here, instead I want to talk directly to you and talk through the political and industrial challenges we face.

To argue that most of us agree about the issues we are confronted with even if we sometimes quarrel about what we should do about them.

And to seek to chart a course for our next five years.

A course that I believe everyone in this room can and will sign up to.

To deliver an independent, effective union, strong industrially, strong politically, capable of making its own choices.

I want to start with the political situation.

I remember coming to this meeting in 2010 and saying that Cameron's election marked a significant, long term shift in our politics.

Some people told me I was being too pessimistic.

I even remember one delegate (2010) saying the Tories - like the war - would be gone by that Christmas.

Well -­‐ they are still here.

And it is worth reflecting on what an unmitigated disaster they have been for our people.

They have tripled tuition fees.

They've halved the adult education budget.

They've decimated funding for ESOL classes.

Opened the floodgates to privatisation of our universities and colleges.

They have introduced the absurd and damaging Teaching Excellence Framework.

They have cut money for widening participation.

Held down public sector pay. They have encouraged casualisation.....

Attacking the poor whilst giving freely to the already rich.

They have cuddled up to the revolting Trump...

And made immigrants and refugees scapegoats for their own failings.

Damaging community relations through their policies.

They have allowed Britain's future, including our universities and colleges, to be held hostage by the negotiating skills of David Davis and Boris Johnson.

And finally, they have introduced the vindictive, unnecessary and illiberal Trade Union Act - an act designed to make it harder for us to resist, harder for us to organise and harder for us to win.

Now this union is and will always remain independent of political parties.

Our membership is diverse, our politics across a rainbow, in our branches and in this hall.

And I respect that.

But I do say on a personal level that when the country votes in the general election, I hope we vote for a different kind of world.

A world where the rich pay their fair share and the poor get the help they need.

A world where the opportunity to learn without cost exists throughout life.

A world where strangers are welcomed, not scapegoated.

A world where health is not a commodity and frailty is not a crime.

A world where - when it comes to university and college - there are no tuition fees or loans.

Now hope is one thing.

But we need to root our strategy in the reality on the ground.

Which brings me to the workplace. We need to face a difficult truth.

And that is that our two most prominent sets of national negotiations - covering 95% of our members -­‐ are broken.

In FE, such increases that we can agree are ignored by 60% of English Colleges.

In HE, while universities have seen their income rise inexorably since 2010, their spending on staff has fallen.

In both sectors, the employers have continually refused to address the issues that matter to our members.

Issues like rising pay inequality, increasing casualisation and escalating workload pressures.

Congress we don't need any more working parties on these issues. We need action to tackle them.

Now, I said in my manifesto that the union needed to face up to these failures and learn to follow the money.

That doesn't mean abandoning national bargaining.

But it does mean that if the employers refuse to address our issues nationally we should take them up locally too.

After too many lean years the work we are doing locally is starting to change things.

In FE, the union has made dozens of local claims this year, covering thousands of members.

In many cases these deals are delivering pay rises and improvements in conditions for our members that would never have been considered at the national table.

In HE, branches representing 20,000 members have tabled claims on gender pay and casualisation and the employers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table.

Congress I believe our success or failure in following the money over the next five years will be critical in deciding whether we can survive as an independent industrial force.

It is that important. And I see my job - our job - as being to make sure:

That branches have sufficient resources to be able to tackle the employers.

That local negotiators are well trained and understand their role in enforcing national policies.

And that Officials have enough time to focus all their energy on building bargaining capacity in every single one of our branches.

We have another job too.

An effective union needs to be able to take effective industrial action.

I have listened to many of you across the union tell me that the union needs to rethink our approach to action.

My own views are on the record too - so I won't rehearse them again.

I promised during the election that I would do all in my power to move the union forwards on this critical issue.

It's what our reps have asked for

It's what our members deserve.

And have a right to expect.

To do this, I think we need to bring all sections of the union together.

So, I intend to put together a commission made up of delegates from Congress, our elected officers, our branches and our lay membership itself.

A Commission which will:

Look at the pros and cons of all different forms of industrial action.

Listen to the views of branches and regional committees and UCU staff.

Take advice from academic and other experts in the field.

And report back to the Executive by the end of the year.

My aim is to achieve a broad consensus on this question by the time we next meet - sooner if possible...

...and I hope that you will support me in taking that forward with the urgency it requires.

In the election, I also said that the union needed to consider a sea change in our recruitment strategy.

Despite our best endeavours, the contrasting fortunes of FE and HE are changing the union in front of our eyes.

When UCU was formed in 2007 our aim was to create a union of equal partners.

Yet ten years on, our FE membership constitutes just 28% of UCU.

Congress, if we continue losing FE members at the rate we are going, they will account for only around one fifth of our membership by 2022.

Now, I was a strong advocate of the merger. It made industrial sense.

And in that vein I hope that you will join me in wishing our sisters and brothers in NUT and ATL the best of luck as they create the new National Education Union.

It is no small task and they will need their friends. Of which we are one.

But Congress I hope you will agree with me when I say that this union or indeed any union should not seek to merge its troubles away.

It's a sobering thought for example that UCU's FE membership would make up just 6% of that Union.

Whether with employers or others, UCU should always bargain from a position of strength.

And that, Congress is what I, would wish us to do. So falling membership, is what we must deal with. Now the union is unquestionably doing better in HE.

Indeed, but for our FE losses we would be one of the fastest growing unions in the UK.

Yet, in HE while we have recruited well, we have not grown as fast as the sector itself.

Our research shows that just 30% of new HE staff have joined the union since 2015.

We can blame casualisation. We can blame the employers. We can even blame each other. But the truth is.... We can and We must do better than that.

Congress, this union should be neither fatalistic about our falling FE membership nor complacent about our gains in HE.

Further Education is in the DNA of UCU and we can and we must turn it around.

Higher Education is changing and our union must change with it.

If we fail in either mission, we will let our members down.

These challenges require big, brave thinking not timidity.

I don't want UCU's membership - like that of so many unions in recent years - to be salami sliced to a slow death.

We need to start thinking outside of our political silos, rather than retreat into them.

We have to seize the moment, and work together, all sections of the union towards the same goal.

So, I intend to grasp this nettle.

I hope you will be pleased to hear that I have my own ideas.

For one thing, I believe we need to start again and make a big, bold offer to those staff who are new to FE and HE.

An offer that recognises the pressures new staff are under in terms of their job security, income and workloads.

An offer that shows we are relevant to their developing professional needs.

An offer that shows new staff we can and will stand up for them.

Congress, for those starting in the profession now, joining a union is not simply a matter of course.

They need to be persuaded that we are worth belonging to.

So what next?

I intend to listen closely to the debates here this week too and then bring proposals on increasing the proportion of early career staff who join us to the National Executive Committee ready for the Autumn.

I know we will have your support in that substantial task as in the others I have outlined.

Not least because when I look around this room I see so many people who have given their lives to our union.

It is easy to forget this when we come here to do battle with each other over issues great and sometimes small, but when we work together we make a great team.

I believe that those who have given such commitment to this union - past and present - want to see us thrive as an independent, effective and growing union.

A union in control of its own destiny, able to make its own choices.

And I share that vision.

So, Congress, whatever happens at the ballot box, let us today renew our vows to each other and to our members.

Our task is to transform the union - to rebuild it as a national force in the most challenging of circumstances.

To build capacity. To follow the money. To deliver for members.

To make joining the union the norm and not the exception.

Last year, no less than 28,000 individual members sought this union's help with a problem at work.

As we meet here today, our regional offices are working with 200 different branches engaged in local negotiations of one kind or another.

Members -­‐ our lifeblood. Branches -­‐ our building blocks.

They are the reason we exist. They are the reason why we must not fail in our task. They are the reason why we can and will win.

Thank you.

Last updated: 27 May 2017