NEC 2022-2023 Record

This is an overview of what I did or tried to do as a UCU NEC UK wide elected HE rep.

[Argh! Life and UCU stuff ran away for me and the ballots are dropping 🙂 Gonna try to get it done this weekend (he writes on Fri 27th Jan). OTOH, there’s been 2 recent views…so 🙂 Did some updating today.]

[As of 30 Nov 2022, this is rather incomplete but I have to get my address in and want this live before then. So it will be updated over time. And it will be incomplete because that’s the nature of things. If you have a specific query, please ask and I’ll do my best to answer.]

Basic Stuff

To my recollection, I attended all HEC, NEC, conference, and congress meetings. I did not attend all Branch Delegate Meetings, but I did several (as an observer). This was not easy, as there were a lot and many were highly stressful with the clock ticking. I did do one partially while teaching which was…interesting!

I tried to be a good citizen as an N/HEC member. I believe I only had time called on my speaking twice. I aimed to use as little time as possible when speaking so as not to obstruct business. In general, I tried to help the flow wherever possible (e.g., formally seconding whenever needed).

I also called out, as required by a congress motion, problematic comments or behavior. I’ve been accused of policing, but personally I still think that things like extremely graphic transphobic rhetoric, accusing people of “betraying” members if they don’t vote a certain way, or insinuating that the officers would craft surveys for undemocratic ends are not civil. And we are called on to be civil. Either we adhere to the congress motion or we change it.

I think I abide by confidentiality and collective responsibility requirements, though it can be tricky. I’m not really fond of either. Some confidentiality is required to avoid legal issues with giving notice. Collective responsibility is tougher and…confusing. I’m not sure why we are so bound but I suspect it is a hangover when UCU was less divided. There are a lot more internal politics now and that makes some things a bit odd.

People complain about “factionalism” but…I never got that either. Some folks in in UCU Commons are or were anti-faction, but I pushed for us to accept the fact that we are a faction. Affinity groups are perfectly normal ways to organize. It’s not wrong to organize around shared values and strategic inclinations. In point of fact, the union membership is not all of one mind. Nor does it work by consensus. Pretending otherwise makes things more confusing.

However, I am enough of an institutionalist that I try to adhere to the rules and norms as best I understand them, and try to change the ones I don’t agree with. I’m not saying I’ll never go rogue (esp against a norm being honored only by some), but I prefer not to. Institutions are complex and their patterns exist for a multitude of reasons.

Motions & Speeches

[coming soon!
these are long and fairly many so…need to figure out how best to present them; maybe a representative few?]

Votes

There was so much voting, often chaotic. So I didn’t keep a good record, alas. But I can give you a feel. (If UCU has the records and the bandwidth to share, I’d be happy for them to share all my votes.)

(Part of the problem is for the voting record to be meaningful we’d need all the motions and context. That’s not easy to assemble.)

To give you a feel for my voting pattern and indicate how I’d vote in the future (mostly about action strategy since that’s the hot topic!):

  • I’ve voted for aggregated ballots consistently, and will probably do so in the future.
    (I do have some ideas for how to use local disputes to build toward national action, but that’s not going to be agreed to soon.)
  • I’ve been of the “make haste, slowly” camp. I want longer ballots. I want action timed to meetings. I don’t think fast escalation is a good idea. I’m ok waiting to do things more effectively rather than rushing to get something done.
    For example, I tried to get a slower pattern of escalation for the current action, e.g., 1 day/week in Feb, 2 (as appropriate) in April, with extra days as appropriate for key meetings. Our disputes are mostly marathons and we have to take a long view.
  • I’m cautious about random changing of structures. I’ve voted against suggestions that BDMs should have decision making force (as opposed to supplying information). BDMs are not formally constituted nor are their delegated selected by a rule or bound by anything.
  • I’ve voted for care with the Fighting Fund as I’ve understood its state, which has inflected my action votes. I’m against surprises like the levy, so I’ve argued that if we are projected to take action that will exhaust the Fighting Fund that we pre-fund it.

I believe in effective action, but I also believe that there are limits to our power. To be more effective, we have to build our power and that requires long term organizing and taking wins when and where we can get them.

Transparency, Education, Mobilising

One thing many fresh faced NEC members think when they start is “I’ll help make UCU and how it works more accessible!” and then write some explainers. Only to find out that people explained things before 🙂 I am no exception! I did try to do a “TL;DR” format for things both structural and substantive.

TL;DRs

The goal of these is to be short, reasonably neutral infosheet/explainers for various contentious topics. People seem to find them helpful. I find them an an interesting format.

  • Why did the UCU Leadership “decide…”
    This traced some particular decisions through the UCU structures. I think it demonstrates that “transparency” isn’t easy or simply a matter of publishing votes or minutes. Complexity introduces obscurity!

Blog posts

Tweet threads

Local

As an HEC member, I’m ex officio on my local branch exec. I’m also ex officio on the regional…er…thing. I spent a lot of time working on the branch exec. I spent no time on the regional level. (Sorry, it was just one to many things. I’d like to get space to do that as I understand a lot of cross HE-FE stuff happens there.)

Fun Deontic Logic Stuff

I’ve started a paper on translating various deontic (logics of obligation and permission) and related logics to description logics and OWL. I’ve been beating my head against some stuff all week and did a shared head beating with my great pal Uli Sattler today.

One fascinating thing about it all is the culture shock. Philosophical modal logic writing, mathy modal logic writing, and description logic writing are all enormously different. When you have mathy modal logician building on work by philosophical logician work…it tends to be more like the philosophical stuff (e.g., heavy on the axiomatics) which is just weird. Plus we don’t care about the same things, certainly not in the same way.

For example, logics with a sees to it that (stit) operator are usually defined with complex branching tree models. Except, when we look at the axioms for various stit they say “S5” (where the accessibility relation is an equivalence relation). But this makes everything directly accessible to everything else…not what I’d usually expect in a branching tree model! (E.g., I don’t expect the “next” relation between moments to be symmetric or reflexive or transitive! even “after” shouldn’t be symmetric or transitive!)

So there’s work to do! And a lot of learning.

And, apparently, I need to learn to press “publish”.

Reality check on posting schedule

Well that went poorly 🙂

It’s been a busy couple of months. Balloting for UCU and wrapping up stuff from the prior year.

But now it’s pretty much wrapped up and I’m feeling a bit less tense..amazingly!

My sabbatical year is 1.5 months over but…I’ve laid some groundwork (and I’ll have some extra time due to not having to grade MSc stuff at the beginning of next year). I’m feeling ok!

I’m gonna try to write more, more regularly. I want to average a submitted thing a month. I started a new paper on deontic logic this weekend and I have a couple things needing a bit of clean up.

I’m also interested in migrating from WordPress. I don’t like the UI at all esp if I go just a little bit beyond a brain dump.

Posting schedule

A few years back I made a resolution to post everyday (or nearly so, i.e., on average with a pretty flat distribution).

I did it but it was exhausting 🙂

So I’m going to aim for 3 times a week as the goal. If I can get it up to 5, yay. But I’m not going to push it.

Why to vote and to vote Yes

UCU is balloting on two disputes under the #UCURising umbrella: the pay and working conditions dispute (read our claim) and the USS dispute. The UCU FAQ is excellent and I commend it to you to get up to date.

Posting my ballot! #UCURising

Why vote?

As a UCU member, you should always vote but especially on dispute ballots. For elections, we routinely have turn out around 10%…so if you don’t like how disputes are run you should vote and campaign for Vice-President (every year with alternating FE and HE candidates), General Secretary (every 5 years), and the National Executive committee (every year). While guided by policy set by Conference and Congress, make no mistake that the democratically elected executive runs the disputes. (I speak as an NEC member.)

Due to very regressive anti-trade union law, we have onerous conditions on establishing sanctioned industrial action: We need minimum 50% turnout across the dispute unit, we need to reballot every 6 months, we must use a postal ballot (with harsh conditions on how things are framed and conduct…don’t share a photo of your ballot!), and we must use a sanctioned electioneer, of which there is only Civica.

UCU is a democratic organisation and the decision whether to allow for industrial action is a referendum moment. If you don’t vote, that counts against the threshold. It’s more than a “No” vote…it’s effectively a vote to disenfranchise your fellow members.

My personal guess is that most non-votes are due to disengagement of various forms. If you are nervous about voting, it’s really quite safe and anonymous. If agree with the action but think you aren’t personal in a position to take action so don’t feel entitled to vote, it’s better for you to vote No. Not voting hurts us much more than you voting No.

Why vote Yes?

The main reason is that the employers are not negotiating in good faith and with any regard to our legitimate interests.

It’s complicated as the umbrella organizations (UUK and UCEA) are the key problem. However, they are member organizations…so our VCs can’t escape responsibility here.

Given that our negotiating partners aren’t engaged in friendly, constructive negotiations, either we try to up our leverage or we get treated badly. Rather badly!

Especially given the hostility of the government, we have few avenues to increase our leverage than threat of taking and actually taking industrial action. There are others! I ran for (and sadly got elected to) my universiity’s senate in hopes to influence its behavior. But action and threat of action remains central.

Voting yes potentially gives us leverage.

Why vote Yes when past action hasn’t worked?

Archimedes opined that with a long enough lever and the right fulcrum he could move the world. With enough leverage we can move the employers. But just as practically speaking, Archimedes can’t get a long enough (or stiff enough or…) lever, we may not be able to get enough leverage. Losing is always possible! Losing this round is always possible.

But if we don’t try we’ll definitely lose. Voting gives us leverage and thus a chance at winning in some way to some degree.

And past action has worked. The fact that USS has a defined benefit aspect at all is the result of our action. We’ve improved pay rises and won other important things both locally and nationally. Is it enough? I don’t think so and I think most people agree with me.

But this sort of work is always ongoing. Unless and until universities radically change their governance, ongoing, often furiously frustrating efforts will be required.

With aggregation and a longish ballot window, we have a real chance at making a big threat. Every university would face action.

As tired as we may be, I don’t think universities have strong appetite for strikes again. It’s a PITA. Plus, we’ve seen various unravellings. UUK and UCEA haven’t been as good at the propaganda game as they need to be to keep confidence of unis. Breaking UCU surely is part of the game here and if we demonstrate we are not broken, I think that will have an effect.

Vote. Vote yes. Help GTOV. If we go in with a 60%-70% turnout, that is real leverage.

Let’s get there and show them what we can do.

SQLite’s JSON support

I finally have a reason to poke at SQLite’s JSON support. It looses implements a set of functions common to various other SQL databases. But…the docs are rough for me. In particular, there are few examples at the end of how to use a couple of functions in the context of a query, but the rest are stand alone. Moreover, I don’t get the intent of a lot of these, like when do I use the -> or --> operators over json_extract?

Moreover, the implementation of the path language only allows explicit paths without wildcards. One of the things I’m wrestling with is that the JSON I’m using often has lists to hold sets of records at nested positions. I kinda want them to “explode” into individual results, but that’s not how it works.

(I always have trouble with composing SQL queries so this may just be a “me” thing.)

It’d be nice to have a good tutorial which helped inculcate a good mindset for these functions.

I hope I don’t end up writing one!

A new ballot

Today, UCU starts a new round of balloting on USS dispute and the pay and working conditions dispute. The GTVO campaign has the slogan UCU Rising and has a pretty impressive lead in campaign over the summer.

We’ve been fighting these disputes for a looooong time (I’m working on a timeline) and I know there are people who are wondering if anything will be different this time around. If you’ve encountered me at all, you know that I’ve not been a fan of our action strategy since the pre-pandemic strikes (indeed, the levy needed to deal with that launched me into this much higher level of activism!).

Furthermore, I keep pointing out that the civil disobedience literature suggests that 50% of nonviolent campaigns fail (vs. 75% of violent ones!). We are working against a hostile Government as well as quasi governmental bodies (UUK and UCEA). It’s not just one university, but all of them. These are tough tough opponents! UUK and especially UCEA have gone in on trying to break us. They aren’t just fighting these disputes but fighting us.

HOWEVER!

There is reason for optimism as well as trepidation.

The ballot this time is on an aggregated basis. That means, in order to make the 50% turnout threshold, we need to make it across all branches. The upside is that if we make it (and the YES vote wins), all branches can take action. The downside is that if we don’t make it, no action until we can muster another ballot.

Thus, GTVO is more important than ever. The nice thing is that your vote matters even if your branch routinely doesn’t make threshold. Your vote matters!

We have a longer ballot window that we’ve recently had and and decent lead in. I think we can do it. The bigger the turnout the better. Indeed, we might get some negotiating movement just on the strength of the turnout.

Leverage from industrial action is roughly a very non-linear function of 1) coverage, 2) intensity, and 3) time. Given that we are in dispute with two organizations of universities, we need to move at least a strong majority of the member univerisities of those universities. If enough unis are “safe” from industrial action because their associated branches didn’t make thresholds, then it’s much easier to for the organisation to wait us out. Conversely, if all branches can take action, no uni is safe. That changes their calculus.

By “intensity” I primarily mean the effect of action on a uni which is roughly a function of the number of people taking action and the kind of action. A massive turnout for the ballot (e.g., 60-70%) suggests more intense action.

We have a chance to significantly increase two of those inputs to leverage. That doesn’t mean it’ll be over, but we’ll be starting from a stronger position.

Furthermore, the USS situation has utterly unraveled with the goofy deficit turning into a surplus by…the rebound in the markets. We’ve gone from 95% of UUK members voting for the cuts to 32% calling for the cuts to be reversed with no action. USS is ripe for the picking.

The the pay and working conditions situation is more mixed. It’s inherently more complex. It involves more universities. And the energy price crisis will be a much more credible rationale for unis to cry poverty.

On the other hand, having coverage will change our situation. That plus the general union activity in response to the cost of living crises has us swimming with a wave rather that being isolated. Everyone is feeling inflation and that makes demands to improve pay more widely relatable and salient. There has been other, local movement, including the amazing de-casualisation win at the Open University.

I know UCU members who have tuned out or are demoralized. It’s an incredibly tough time.

But this is worth a shot. Aggregation is a fundamentally different framework which will open up new strategies. So vote. Vote no if you must, but vote. I recommend voting yes. I can’t promise victory, but I think we have a better shot than we’ve had in years.

Consider Heterogenity

Principle 1 of Joyce Treblicot’s Dyke Methods is “I speak only for myself”.

I think about this principle all the time and often try to adhere to it. When I give advice to students, I try to tie it back to my own perspective rather than leaving it as a rule, e.g., “I found this to be helpful” or “I know people who have found this helpful, but it may or may not be so for you.”

Similarly, when talking UCU stuff, I try to avoid “members want” or “members think” in favor of “some members I’ve talked with have said” or “I’ve seen members say” or “in my experience, some people have…”

Treblicot says that her principles largely from her anger at being controlled and a desire not to control other wimmin. I obviously don’t have the same experience of attempts to be controlled as she did but I share an overlapping value of not wanting to control others. I don’t like people getting my views and experiences wrong so I don’t want to get their’s wrong.

Even when it wouldn’t directly affect others, it helps me to keep check on my fallibility and to keep me from jumping from inadequate data. (I also often think of the evidence particles in Láadan. I think they help with this as well.)

The slogan “Let people enjoy things” is also helpful. People are different than me. Things I like they may dislike and the reverse. Many things just aren’t for me. I don’t have to engage people for who those things are for especially not negatively. I can be glad that they are for someone. I can be glad that other people got something for them.

Sabbatical Year Number 2!

It’s that time again!

I’m grateful to my generous colleagues for approving my sabbatical year.

I’m declaring today the start day! My plans are rather inchoate at the moment so This Is Not My Plan Post.

However, I do have the resolution to blog again. So here we go!

UCU Disputes: The So-called Moral Imperative of Strike Breaking

One of the things that amazed me about UK higher education when I first came her from the US in 2006 is the fact that there was a national union that negotiated nationally on key issues. Heck, the fact that there was an agreed upon national pay scale blew me away. That UCU covers so much of the education sector is also amazing.

Of course, this means that we can face strike breaking and union busting on a national scale.

For national issues, UCU doesn’t typically negotiate directly with individual universities but with an umbrella organization. For the 4Fights, we (and our sister unions) negotiate with UCEA (the Universities and Colleges Employers Association).

Currently many individual universities are pretending that they are helpless bystanders…they don’t negotiate individually, so why strike against them?! This is, of course, nonsense. They are members of UCEA and UCEA works for them.

The chief executive of UCEA is Raj Jethwa and he has some…interesting…ideas:

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association), which represents 146 employers in pay negotiations, said the decision to cut pay for staff carrying out action short of a strike was a “direct recommendation” from his organisation to employers.

“Employers are completely within their rights to withhold pay for partial performance – they do not have to accept partial performance,” he said.

“When an employee decides to pick and choose what they do it can have a disruptive impact.”

Mr Jethwa said the UCEA had advised universities to cut 100% of staff pay for ASOS and that the institutions were “not only entitled, we think they’re compelled to do so – students will be suffering as a result of this”.

“We’re pretty sure the legal position is pretty robust and beyond that we think the moral position of employers is pretty robust as well,” he said.

This is the language and position of gilded age barons. It is also the language of union busting. Universities do have a duty toward their students and staff. But the way to fulfill that duty is to negotiate properly and work with the unions toward better conditions.

Note that this isn’t a reactive position. Jethwa’s ongoing, considered position is union busting:

Over the past decade, about half of the annual pay negotiation rounds have ended in dispute. In fact, only once during that period have we managed to reach an actual settlement in advance of the 1 August date for implementing a pay uplift.

Implementing a pay uplift that has gone through the collective pay bargaining process successfully is thus a rarity. Regardless of the pay claims and the initial and final offers, and the meticulous work undertaken by all concerned, if the bargaining structure itself is not working, then it needs to be reconsidered.

(The key question is why have pay negotiation rounds ended in dispute!?)

(This article announces a “listening” exercise which does not involve staff or unions.)

The article ends with:

This means building relationships based on mutual trust and respect. It means negotiating with our trade unions fairly and working with, rather than against, each other. Despite all of the sector’s serious distractions, it is time to take a step back and listen to what our members think.

Does 100% ongoing pay deductions sound like working “with, rather than against, each other”? Does refusing to negotiate?

Universities are parroting the Jethwa line (so much for his proposed devolution!) and threatening 100% pay deduction on very dodge grounds. For example, if you strike and a class is canceled you lose pay for that day (typically). Some Unis want to deduct your pay for every day you don’t reschedule that class.

I doubt it’s legal (but with this Government…) but it sure isn’t moral. It undermines the very ability to strike. It highlights that universities don’t respect staff as people.

Please, if you’re at a university where UCU has a mandate for action, write your VC urging them to demand that UCEA behave better. Heck, write all UCEA members!

Union busting over negotiation is never a moral position. It’s that simple.