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Tied vote leads to union ‘gerrymandering’ accusation

Image: Martin McQuillan for Research Professional News

War of words as UCU prepares to re-ballot members for fresh strike mandate.

In a heated exchange on 27 May, members of the University and College Union national executive committee pointed fingers over the outcome of a vote that would have seen the union undertake a wider consultation on the latest pay offer by employers.

It followed a meeting of the union’s powerful Higher Education Committee, at which plans to hold a ballot of members or a special conference of delegates to develop policy on strike issues were both rejected. The union must now abide by the last agreed decision of the committee and look to re-ballot its members for a new legal mandate to continue industrial action over pensions, and the so-called “four fights” of pay, equality, workload and casualisation.

UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge has confirmed to Research Professional News that, “I believe that the best way to resolve this situation is for an urgent meeting of the new HEC (which would not normally meet until 10 July) to be called as soon as possible, to hold a full discussion of the positions taken by branches at the delegate meetings and how to respond to them”.

The 27 May HEC meeting came after two meetings of branch delegates on 26 March to share the views of union members on the strike action.

A majority of branch delegates voted to reject the offer from employers on pay and conditions—96 to 55, with 43 abstentions and nine noting the outcome. However, when it came to expressing a view on who should decide whether the offer is accepted, rejected or noted, seven branch delegates thought it should be HEC; 101 wanted it put to members; 43 said the decision should be made by a higher education sector conference [HESC]; 47 had no clear view.

In the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension dispute, 124 out of 150 delegates wanted the dispute paused but not ended. Delegates were divided on the question of who should decide whether the dispute is settled. Ten said the HEC; 55 thought it should be put to members; 72 wanted an HESC to make the decision; and six had no clear view.

While during a lockdown of universities there is little prospect of renewed strike action in the disputes, action short of a strike continues.

David Harvie, a member of the NEC elected in March, took to Twitter to say, “rather than accept the very strong steer from the branch delegates meeting, Jo McNeill (HEC’s acting vice-chair and a leading member of UCU Left) tabled an emergency motion (received by members after the meeting had started) noting the confusion, and resolving to “call an emergency HESC within three weeks which allows branches to consult members on all of the questions proposed to branch delegates yesterday”.

Harvie said the motion meant that, “all but one of the four clear recommendations from UCU branches mentioned above are ignored and overturned”. He then accused McNeill of “gerrymandering” saying that she did not trust members to vote against a bad deal and wanted only “activists” to be able to vote on the offer.

The motion did not pass but the committee was tied at 20 votes for and against McNeill’s proposal, with one member who had left the meeting controversially allowed to vote in favour via text message.

This was the last meeting of the HEC before candidates defeated in March elections leave the board. Bridge confirmed that, “the current HEC leave office and are replaced by the newly elected HEC this Friday, 29 May. The current HEC chair and two vice-chairs also leave office this Friday.”

However, Jo McNeill responded furiously to Harvie’s comments, saying that he had “completely misrepresented what happened at today’s HEC and yesterday’s branch delegate meeting”. She said there had been confusion at the meetings on 26 March because, “a list of questions was presented to delegates ten minutes before the meeting began”.

Adding, “one of the questions specifically asked delegates to determine whether the [employer’s] offer should go to all members for a decision or not”. McNeill said that some delegates did not feel they were in a position to comment on this.

“There was not ‘some’ confusion as David says, there was real anger at the fact that delegates were at the meeting to represent members yet many felt they couldn’t do that honestly or transparently because this new list of questions hadn’t been shared prior to the branch meetings which took place all over the country in the last week or so,” she said.

McNeill said that as a result, she had suggested an emergency motion for the HEC to “allow branches some breathing space to fully consult members”. She rejected Harvie’s claim that her view was that, “‘only activists’ should vote, I did say the decision on whether this weak offer should be accepted or rejected should be taken by those members who attend meetings, vote in ballots, strike, stand on picket lines and have been on the frontline of these fights”.

The HEC vice-chair went on to say that in the union’s past, “it was a common tactic to take decisions away from those ordinary members who take up the fights head on and put them out to the wider, inactive membership as it was always common knowledge that the weakened positions will be more easily accepted there. It seems we are back in that same position now”.

McNeill also said that the University of Liverpool branch, which she chairs, had considered whether to put the employer’s offer to the membership but had rejected it and so she was representing the views of her members.

Research Professional News has contacted both Harvie and McNeill. 

Mark Pendleton, another member of the NEC, confirmed by social media that, after the tied vote, the HEC had no other option but to abide by a previous decision and begin the process of re-balloting members in June for a further mandate to continue the strike. He added that union officials should “begin work on a ballot about four weeks in advance, ie. next week.”

Bridge told Research Professional News that the 27 May HEC, “ran out of time to discuss branches’ positions in any detail and plot a way forward in each dispute. Consequently, the previous HEC decision to re-ballot branches for industrial action at the end of June was not discussed or reconsidered.

“It therefore has not been rescinded and still stands. Both delegate meetings voted by an overwhelming majority against a June re-ballot, but at present the union has no authority to do anything other than proceed with the re-ballots as mandated by the April meeting of the HEC. Clearly, this is not an ideal position for the union to be placed in,” he said.

Bridge said that he would now consult on the best way forward and provide an update as soon as possible.

In April, outgoing NEC members were accused of an attempted “coup” when a motion was tabled to allow them to stay on the committee to ensure stability during the coronavirus pandemic. This motion was ruled inadmissible, but its supporters rejected claims of undemocratic behaviour saying there had been “confusion” and that opposition to the motion was “overplayed”.