So I’m a UCU NEC (UK wide) HE Rep Now…

Thanks to all who voted for me and who voted at all!

I find this exciting and a touch daunting: just looking at the string of acronyms in the title of this post should give some hint of that.

The UCU is very complex structurally, even before you get to the politics. Individual educational institutions are themselves very complex and organised into complex superstructures. Some of this complexity is justifiable and some of it just grew and some of it is neither. The net effect is to diffuse accountability and limit engagement.

The full election results (including vote counts and turnout) will be posted shortly to the UCU website. I look forward to digging into the numbers. The UCUCommons slate didn’t triumph but didn’t falter either. Given the challenges of putting it together and standing up UCUCommons, its a promising start.

I wouldn’t have even considered running if not for the encouragement of the folks at UCUCommons esp Jo Edge and Claire Marris.

UCU NEC Election Position: Corona Contract

There was one last solicitation for a pledge in exchange for endorsement from Corona Contract, one of the several overlapping groups organising around anti-casualisation.

Casualisation and precarity have been a core feature of many education systems and, of course, has been increasing in employment everywhere. In the US, a large majority of teaching academic staff are casualised (either “adjuncts” or PhD students) i.e., essentially on zero-hour contracts.

It’s heartening to me that the UCU has aggressively gone after casualisation both in the 4 Fights and in the PGRs as Employees campaigns. I’m not at all sure that these are the best ways to go at it, but they are bold moves and a bold vision. It’s a tough tough fight given general trends, the current Government, how deeply current employment structures are embedded in the sector, and the recent lesson of the pandemic. (A lot of Senior Leadership Teams are reflecting how much “flexibility” casualised staff afford them.) But just because the scope of change is ambitious doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. It’s closer to a social movement fight than a “normal” employment dispute. Which suggests it’ll be a long haul.

I’m extremely fortunate to have won (after a long period in the weeks) the job lottery and recognise how much luck has to do with it. While I have personal experience of being a casualised member of staff for a loooong time, it has been 14 years since I got my current position. Hence, I owe a great deal of listening and deference to people actually in the current hot seat.

However, I don’t feel I can sign the current Corona Contract pledge:

In my capacity as an elected leader of our union, I pledge to help build a strong industrial strategy on casualisation in our union by advocating for

  • a national ballot for strike action this year on casualisation / the “Four Fights”.
  • a fighting approach to industrial action: encouraging members at risk to use s44, aiding local ballots for action, and considering maximally disruptive tactics such as indefinite strike action and targeting assessment periods. Putting a stop to UCU imposing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers on local branches facing urgent disputes, such as lengthy consultative balloting.

We know we need to do much more than this. But if coordinated workplace disruption is not the baseline, there will be nothing left to fight for.

I don’t like to make pledges that I might have good reason to break and I don’t like to make pledges where what it means to keep it isn’t clear. The pledge only asks that we “advocate”, but I trust that merely saying “We should work toward a national ballot for strike action this year” while voting against any motions to have a ballot wouldn’t count.

Thus, I have to ask whether I can commit to voting for “a national ballot for strike action this year on casualisation / the “Four Fights””. The problem is that I cannot commit to that on simple governance grounds. For example, if the fighting fund won’t support the proposed strike actions, I wouldn’t vote to go on strike. (Cf the levy debacle.) If it seems unlikely that a ballot would reach the participation threshold or get enough wins then I wouldn’t vote to hold that ballot. If there weren’t a clearer, more plausible strategy with multiple acceptable exits than total victory, i.e., unless there are plausible gains to be had even if we don’t get everything this round, I’m going to be reluctant to support a strike.

Indeed, a major reason I’m running for NEC is that I though the last rounds of action, though generally very admirable in their goals (esp the 4 Fights) were extremely poorly planned and executed. If the strategy is “carry on as we did there”, I won’t vote for it.

Similarly, the second bullet is…odd. I’m glad someone finally put some content to the slogan “a fighting approach to industrial action”, but the examples are not encouraging, at least at my current level of understanding. I mean, “encouraging members at risk to use s44” is legally dubious at best while “aiding local ballots for action” seems to be done already. While I’m happy to consider various strike actions for efficacy and I really think targeting assessment, esp exams, is a smart move, I don’t know how indefinite strike action is supposed to work and how to get enough members to participate.

I think it’s fundamental that to enact any widespread, hugely (and appropriately!) disruptive  change, we need a correspondingly widespread mobilisation. Intensity of action tends to shrink the pool of participants.

Finally, “Putting a stop to UCU imposing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers on local branches facing urgent disputes, such as lengthy consultative balloting.” is odd. I believe in appropriate consultative balloting. Democracy requires breath and depth. Consulting can be a powerful mobilising tool as well. So, I’m not convinced that there is even a problem with the UCU imposing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers. With recent redundancy fights, branches seem to have mobilised with all haste.

Now, this pledge (and my response) isn’t a high bandwidth discussion. It may be the case that, should I be elected, that I would support many or most of these things. But I can’t pledge to do so and really don’t think anyone can while being committed to proper governance and sensible strategy.

That being said, should I be elected, I do hope to work with the various groups working on this to try to advance matters. Societies can change surprisingly quickly and often it is people with radical visions pushing for change in spite of it seeming impossible that get that change started.

So, unlike the UCU for Very Specific Academic Freedom folks, who seem wholly disingenuous and have goals I do not at all share (including a commitment to academic freedom), I suspect my disagreement with Corona Contract is more on strategy. I hope, given share goals, we can provide constructive discussion which makes for better plans and, I hope, a set of victories.

UCU NEC Election Position: UCU for (a Very Specific Issue in) Academic Freedom

UCU for Academic Freedom (which, as I will briefly explain, is a terribly misleading name) is a group which offers endorsements based on a pledge to support something like a 2019 motion about academic freedom specificallywith respect to “Gender Critical” feminism which (in general) seems more accurately termed trans-exclusionary (e.g., trans women should be separated from cis women in various ways) or perhaps trans-skeptical (e.g., trans women aren’t women).

As an NEC member, I definitely would not support a motion like HE32 in spite of being a pretty die hard and feel uncomfortable supporter of academic freedom. So I don’t have their endorsement 🙂 My fellow UCU Commoners re-upted a very good statement in response and I was happy to sign and endorse it and esp glad to see folks from other slates and groupings join it as well.

Sometimes, defending academic freedom requires defending reprehensible people or folks holding ridiculous or nasty views. I am committed to that! But this motion isn’t focused on a specific case of, say, an academic being fired for their personal political views (however abhorrent). Indeed, it seems designed to weigh in on a political dispute on, what I firmly believe to be, the wrong side while pretending to be about procedural issues.

This is not a group concerned with the massive attack on academic freedom we’ve seen from the government for quite some time culminating in a new governmental post designed to aggressively control academic research and teaching to governmental ends (actually quite close to the assault on woman’s studies in Hungary). They aren’t talking about redundancies notionally focused on “rebalancing” which is increasingly being normalised in the UK (and fundamentally undermines academic freedom even very narrowly construed).

I’ll work with all sorts of people and prefer to be charitable to all union members, but that doesn’t mean I’ll support things transparently in bad faith. Building good things on rotten foundations is very hard as witnessed by some attempts to amend the motion, e.g.,

HE32A.1  Higher education committee

Add at end:

reaffirm that the rights of trans people and women are complementary

This implies that trans people and women are not overlapping groups (i.e., that trans women are not women). This is not a neutral formulation!

So bad substance and bad form. I’m glad not to be endorsed by them. I’m glad on academic freedom grounds since I think they are a net detriment to it.

UCU NEC Election Position: My Policy

In the interest of giving info about how I think about the NEC, I’m going to try to address all  groups (not necessarily individuals!) who are organised and seeking to give endorsements in the UCU NEC elections.

I’m running on a slate organised by a new grouping, the UCU Commons, of which I’m a founding member. I’m on the slate because people who instigated the slate (which co-evolved with the organisation of UCU Commons) liked what they’d seen of me e.g., on Twitter and in discussions and are keen to get more people they feel would be effective on the NEC. They encouraged me to run and provided some advice on e.g., gathering signatures and put me on the slate. The only requirements for being on the slate are 1) being a candidate, 2) agreeing to be on the slate, and 3) adhering to the UCU Commons values. We don’t have a common platform and while people offered to give me feedback about my address…I ran out of time to solicit such 🙂

UCU Commons folks discuss the campaign. People give advice and offer support. Sometimes we coordinate things on an ad hoc basis. (E.g., there will be a joint statement about the UCU4Academic Freedom thingy.)

That’s the background. There are groups who are not running a slate of candidates who have offered to endorse candidates if they make certain pledges, typically, something like to support a motion or a specific tactic or a call for balloting. I personally don’t find that all that sensible a move and not super helpful as an informing function. As a general matter of governance, it seem unwise to commit to supporting very specific things without the full context that comes from, well, participating in NEC meetings. I don’t like making promises I might not be able to keep! I’d generally prefer a serious of questions that groups analysed to see if they’d like to endorse me.

I’m inclined to ignore such things, but eh. I’ll make a short blog post addressing each one to give a flavour of where I stand. I’m not getting any of these endorsements, but I still think it’s worth doing.

I’ll make them v. short since no one reads these things 🙂 If you want to know more, ask in the comments.

Some Thoughts about Democracy

It seems that everyone in UCU is in favour of UCU being democratic, or more democratic. Great! We even had a democracy commission which issued a report which is not an easy read esp. with respect to the state or nature of UCU’s “democratic structures” (i.e., what are they, how are they working out, are they fit for purpose). It mostly proposals for rule changes, but many don’t have a clear (to me, yet) motivation. E.g., why reduce the General Secretary’s term length? And add term limits? What’s the addressed problem?

(I’m not saying that there isn’t one, but there wasn’t a fact finding portion of the report afaict.)

I hope to delve into the report and structures at some point (but OMG, there’s so much…which is itself a problem), but in this post I want to articulate two aspects of democracy that I see at play in a lot of discussions and which are in tension. Some of that is visible in UCU structures as well.

Breath vs. Depth

Most democratic organisations are representative. That is, “the people” don’t directly exercise power or make decisions, but instead they elect representatives who are held accountable to a body of rules and to future electorates. A generally accepted and useful metric for democratic legitimacy of a representative or set of representatives is “breath”, that is, the proportion of the electorate that supports them. One of the fundamental critiques of first past the post (FPTP) elections for geographically determined representative seats is that it tends toward functionally minority accountable rule, esp. if we add in various forms of gerrymandering.

Now, geographical determined representatives does have a rational…the representative is supposed to have a special relationship to their area, typically to represent all of their constituents even if they were elected by a bare majority of the voters (and perhaps only a small plurality of the electorate and even smaller plurality of the population). Constituents can pester their representative and attempt moral suasion as well as simple persuasion. Of course, if a group of constituents can’t muster the votes to control the election, their power is limited.

Of course, pestering a representative about an issue is a good way to demonstrate your intensity about an issue. All other things being equal, in a case where the issue is life or death for one person and a matter of perfect indifference to another, we should weight the views of the person with a hugely significant interest over the person who’s indifferent. Some fundamental rights are strongly counter-majoritarian because a majority either has no interest or no legitimate interest in that issue.

Putting aside “real” interests and their weighting, we can look at intensity of activity as something worthy of respect by a democratic representative. The mere existence of non-compulsory elections bakes some of this into most elections: Those who are eligible to vote but who don’t exhibit less intensity of activity and thus have less influence on decisions. In the UK, members of a political party (i.e., people who pay the fees) have more decision making power in the party than those who are merely reliable voters. Similarly, activists (people who show up to meetings, canvas, and the like) tend to have greater informal influence and may have greater formal influence over decision making.

Activity is generally very unevenly distributed in any polity. Politics isn’t a major focus of lots of people and there are all sorts of barriers to participation. (See all the barriers to voting the US.)

Activity requirements can be strategically increased in all sorts of ways. We’ve all experienced meetings where decisions were made out of exhaustion that ran counter to the general feeling but that one rule-mongering dedicated person who seems to have an infinitely large bladder just wears the rest out.

We can, sometimes, raise the distribution of activity. That is we can increase the number of people who are engaged in a minimal way. But as a rule of thumb, broadening engagement requires dealing down the intensity of the engagement. You’ll get more people voting by mail than attending a meeting. On the other hand, in a (good) meeting, there can be more varied input into the decision making process and more evolution toward a common decision.

If you require a lot of upfront investment of effort to even get started in engaging, then you are going to have a tough time broadening participation. Barriers to entry can be more off-putting than barriers to sustained engagement.

This is why turnout in low-salience elections tends to be much lower than in high-salience elections.

UCU Elections

Let’s compare some recent UCU elections:

Year Post Turnout (votes) Votes won (first choice/total)
2019 General Secretary 20.5% (23,638) 11515/15214
2020 UK-Elected Members HE (5 posts!) 12.9% (10,516) 703/1663.55 1369/1731.34

1435/1737

738/1716.65

671/1401.45

Total: 4916/8250

2020 Vice-President 11.1% (13,559) 4771/7145

(I want to note that these results are a bit of a PITA to extract…I guess I should have hit the vote tallies first! but multiple PDF documents per election don’t make life easy.)

These are all for UK wide positions. In each case, the turn out is small, though nearly half for Vice-President. General NEC election do somewhat better but not hugely. Grady was affirmed (at some round) by 13% of the total membership. These 5 NEC members were affirmed (in some round) by 1.03% to 1.28% of the total membership.

For me, this is the starting point of concern about UCU democracy. I firmly believe that both breath and depth need to be accommodated for robust democracy, but this seems to be a big imbalance against breath, which means that we are vulnerable to some of the characteristic pathologies of depth (e.g., over amplification of small minority views).

It’s more striking when we consider that the union, in fact, represented all workers in its remit, not just members. The union negotiates national pay scales, pension issues, and other matters and local branches do local negotiations on all sorts of things (overlapping with, supporting, and supports by the national negotiations). There are ≈400,000 HE workers in the UK and I’m having a hell of a time finding FE stats: I’m getting between 87,725 and 111,000. It’s hard to imagine that these aren’t undercounts and it’s not clear what proportion are UCU eligible. If we take the total workforce to be 500,000 (to pick a round number), then Grady was affirmed by 3% of the people she represents and the others by less than half that.

So one of our democracy problems ranges from yikes to apocalyptic.

If members (or voting members) were a representative sample of the whole polity, then this would be less of a problem, but the mere fact that members and voting members generally have more intense views speaks against that.

Now, look! It’s not all doom and gloom. Getting broad participation is a problem for all democratic organisations of any size. Unions have faced all sort of organising barriers from decades of hostility from employers and governments. But I think it’s especially important when explicitly discussing democracy in the UCU to attend to this issue.

Factions/Groups/Slates

One thing I think can improve at least intra-membership participation are factions or other groupings. One barrier to participation is information misload: Voters often have too much and to little information. Election addresses are long and not typically info-dense (mine included!!!). Hustings are high effort to attend and typically even lower in information. This post is far too long for effect broad based communication. (It’s not intended to be, of course!)

Even understanding the significance of what we’re voting for is hard. The role of the NEC certainly wasn’t known by me or my friends. The vice-president is an odd slot (it’s a one year post chained to 3 more 1 year posts!). And so on. Packaging up this information is extremely difficult and absorbing it in its current form mores. Having a common platform (or set of values or…) as a faction can reduce the info absorption requirements. Similarly, slates allow voters to exploit trust they’ve build up about one person and apply it to others.

Right now, affiliation with a grouping is hidden in election addresses (at best) or other campaign materials. Which means a voter has to scan through these to find that information. Being able to state an affiliation in the actual ballot could help! Or having such information in the supplementary booklets (e.g., organise addresses by Independent, and then by organised grouping).

Information

Making information that would help voters make informed decisions as easy to get and absorb as feasible could raise participation rates. It’s a good thing to do regardless and one of my NEC goals.

Action

The UCU is structurally very complex and we have far too many elections. More elections favours intensity because each election has significant marginal costs for voters, if only in the information they must mobilise. More frequent elections in principle allows for faster accountability but tends to shrink the overall amount of accountability. Having to answer more often to a smaller range of voters seems worse than having to answer less often to a broader range. Obviously there’s a tipping point somewhere in there, but we have multiple elections and ballots each year at the national or semi-national level. The decisions have be super clear and the voting mechanism super easy to make that broad based.

TL;DR

More, too long, why did I write 🙂 I think this is a fairly good long form piece (though it easily could have been much much longer), but it probably is worthless as a general communicative document or election document. But if you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you enjoyed it. I enjoyed thinking things through, a bit.

Update

Ouch. The title is really bad, even if I add “union” in. I have lots and lots of thoughts about democracy 🙂

Update encore

I didn’t include any examples of a depth preferring view but then I happened today to stumble upon a pretty clear example and is 1) published in a sort of publication and 2) an anonymised op-ed so I’m not targeting anyone in particular:

This is reminiscent of a previous era – when Sally Hunt was general secretary during the 2018 USS strikes and the HEC tried to force a national ballot on members in response to a badly flawed deal – and is a shift away from participatory democracy. Having asked branches to organise meetings in their institutions to decide whether to reject or accept the current offer, it seems that the national leadership has now decided to ignore the result of these meetings and take the question again to the whole membership via an eballot. While it may appear more democratic as, in theory, it involves everyone, it only does so in a vacuum where the debate is lost, members are isolated at home and the sense of collective action also disappears. A core principle of participatory trade unionism is collectivity: where members come together to make decisions and to decide on action and so the most democratic decision-making forums are branches. These disputes have been all about members working and arguing together over the way forward. The future of the dispute shouldn’t now be reduced to an atomised electronic vote in your own house removed from everyone else.

This…isn’t good. It’s one thing to argue that intensity (specifically, direct, perhaps deliberative? participation) is a democratic value to keep in mind and another to dismiss breath concerns entirely.

I’ll note that voting by branch (and these matters typically involve votes, afaict, not consensus) just is FPTP districted voting and subject to the pathologies therein made more intense and probable by requiring attendance and deliberation in narrow time frame (and often with one’s vote being non-secret). It’s hard to imagine that turnout for branch meetings remotely approaches turnout for the lowest turnout elections.

It’s strategically poor as well. I haven’t crossed any picket lines and don’t want to, but I historically didn’t go to branch meetings (pretty much none at all before maybe two years ago). I would have been much more grumpy about participating in a strike if I had seen the contempt for my vote expressed above. It’s hard to imagine how to broaden participation with action—the key to industrial action strength—if we tell people who choose not to or cannot participate in branch meetings that they don’t get a say. Moreover that their wish to have a say anyway is not democratic!

I’m really struck by this line:

A core principle of participatory trade unionism is collectivity: where members come together to make decisions and to decide on action and so the most democratic decision-making forums are branches. These disputes have been all about members working and arguing together over the way forward.

So, 1) that’s not what “collectivity” is…secret ballot voting is a form a collective decision making, 2) when did we shift from trade unionism to participatory trade unionism?, 3) you can’t just assert that unions are fundamentally one kind of democracy and then conclude the most democratic fora are the ones that conform to your assertion, and 4) sorry, but I think the 4 Fights were “all about” the content of the dispute, i.e., the things we are fighting for.

Let’s be clear here: This is as antidemocratic a sentiment as the tyranny of the majority. If you don’t want a democratic trade union, that’s your prerogative. But you should be upfront about it and the fact that you don’t care about the bulk of the membership or the overwhelming bulk of those we purport to represent. This is a bit overstated. Technically, it’s perfectly possible to care about everyone in the sector and even to (in some sense) their voice but also to think that only certain mechanisms of expressing that voice are valid. It’s dodgy, but possible.

Yet more

I stumbled upon this article which makes similar points. It felt familiar so perhaps I read it back in Sept when it came out?

They focus a bit on the role of UCU Left and their embrace of an intensity focus. This chimes with what I’ve observed and I certainly think that the NEC’s resistance to consult was v bad.

Interestingly, one of the authors, Adam Ozanne, thinks I shouldn’t presume to run for NEC because he doesn’t think I’ve sufficient local experience. I don’t know what local experience would be sufficient in his eyes.

Of course, one should vote one’s preferences. But this preference that I’ve encountered ie that lack of “significant” (but unspecified) branch experience is a bar (rather than one, perhaps strongly weighted factor).

Most of our members aren’t active in our local branches. Perhaps having some people, who otherwise are congenial, with a similar background, would help with those members’ representation.

If you don’t think I’d be a good NEC rep then you shouldn’t vote for me! But I’m gonna side eye your reason if it’s one, which if generalised, would be highly intensity oriented gatekeeping and work heavily against eg precarious people or other folks who might be unable to participate in local meetings.

I mean, do you really want to exclude someone like Ben Pope?

Another Update

One problem with writing such things is that it turns out it’s all been written before, multiple times, and rather well. Rachel Lara Cohen, in a piece laying out the frankly mind boggling complexity of the UCU also captures what I call the depth vs. breath aspects, though she thinks of them as conceptions of democracy rather than aspects of democracy:

The division between the IBL and UCU Left has been usefully characterisedas rooted in different understandings of democracy — plebiscitary versus participatory. Thus, while neither group is monolithic, nor do they vote as a bloc on all matters, they are most polarised with respect to expectations about member passivity or potential for activism. IBL members argue that there is a large separation between members, whom they see as largely passive, and those activists who attend local and national meetings. They have therefore repeatedly argued for e-ballots and other means of gauging the opinion of inactive members, while cautioning against relying on decisions made at meetings. They are cautious about taking industrial action, or even raising subscription fees for well-paid members, on the grounds that such actions might lose member support and result in members leaving the Union. This has been visible recently in the IBL-majority NEC’s extremely tentative approach to redressing UCU’s regressive subscription rates. Currently members earning £60,000 pay just 0.48% of annual income as subs, whereas those earning £10,000 pay nearly 1.37%. In response to pressure and a 2017 Congress motion from the Anti-Casualisation Committee the NEC has submitted a motion to 2018 Congress which will reduce that difference, but only marginally, leaving the difference at 0.51 versus 1.30 percent in favour of the higher paid.

UCU Left has a more dynamic understanding of members and activists, seeing less difference between these groups and arguing that members are likely to become more active as action occurs. Therefore, in contrast to the IBL, they suggest that if the Union engages in effective action more members will join. UCU Left typically argues that meetings involving debate and active participation, and in which views can be interrogated and challenged, are a cornerstone of union activity and that e-ballots are not a substitute, especially e-ballots in which questions are determined by the leadership and members given limited closed-response choices. Critically, because of their different understandings of the role of members/activists, IBL members are typically happier than UCU Left to assign day-to-day issues, and sometimes bigger ones, to the Union’s unelected, paid officials.

It is almost certainly the case that the wider membership…not to mention the general body of workers…is far more conservative than even the broadest conception of activist. I.e., the set of people who work in FE or HE are more conservative and are not UCU members, as a whole, the subset who are UCU members but don’t vote or participate who are more conservative, as a whole, than those who only vote on disputes and offers who are more conservative than those who vote in all elections who are more conservative to those who go to meetings or otherwise engage in UCU activity more than 1 hr/week on average. All major groupings are “on the left” in a way that understates how left we are.

I had a conversation with a colleague who is a quite militant, though not activist, UCU member and generally fairly left wing wherein I was describing some HE related NEC hustings and causally said, “They don’t give a lot of new info. All the candidates mentioned wanting to get rid of student fees, but everyone wants that.” They said, “I don’t! I don’t think they should be this high but I think students should have some skin in the game.”

Now I don’t agree with my friend and we had a good chat about it, but I hope this example shows how we can become acculturated to a set of views and even think they are representative (esp if we believe them to be correct and morally significant).

I don’t quite understand Cohen’s idea that the “participatory” perspective views there being less difference between members and activists…it seems to be that members can be converted into more active roles if e.g., more action happens. But by saying “consultative ballots” are inappropriate, they seem to be saying that if you aren’t active then you have no role in decision making. That consultative ballots can be manipulated in bad was is, indeed, a problem. But so is a small, comparatively homogenous group making decisions that the larger membership fundamentally opposes.

I don’t think we can eliminate the tension between breath and depth by picking one of them. Activists can and should push boundaries and, well, lead. The union isn’t just a summation function of a snapshot of the views of its members. But if the union core is too disjoined from the membership (and the polity) as a whole then it is isn’t representing them and will lose support.

Why I’m Running for the UCU NEC

It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to do. But here goes!

I’m a candidate for the UCU NEC (National Executive Committee) as a HE (Higher Ed…as opposed to Further Ed). I’m on twice: Once as a national rep and one as a regional (North West) rep. This is a bit of artefact of the voting system and basically ups my chance of getting one of the seats. I obviously think I’m fit for the job either way, but while being a regional rep would overlap a lot with being a national rep, there are key differences in focus.

I’m running on the UCU Commons slate. We have a very nice election guidance page and I encourage you to read it. It’s useful even if you don’t want to vote for us!

I wrote before I was motivated toward much greater involvement with the UCU because of problems I see in national governance, strategy, and communication. I’ve no complaints about my local brach and have happily picketed with them. I’ve never personally needed case work support, but I’ve see a few cases and their support has been pretty good. I’ve been a rank and file member and happy to be so.

There are a lot of a lot of challenges facing UCU members individually and collectively. The general environment is not structurally favourable: We have restrictive laws which make things challenging. We have a hostile national government bent on “remaking” (that is, breaking) the sector. We have escalating mismanagement. We have an ongoing trend toward casualisation. And, oh, the massive pandemic crisis and all it entails. (This was not an exhaustive list. It is exhausting, however!)

What prompted me to greater and more formal involvement with the UCU was the 1-2 punch of the second round of 4 fights/pension strikes plus the levy debacle. As a rank and filer I found:

  1. The stacking of essentially 5 disputes with variable, sometimes seemingly conflicting, goals made organising and communicating with e.g. students difficult. Amongst my UCU friends (mostly rank and filers like myself, i.e., willing to vote for action and undertake it but not necessarily engage with everyday branch activities), there was a consensus that all the issues were important, but challenging to explain to people. (The fact that we had 4 fights…and the other one…doesn’t make much sense unless you understand the organising reason behind it which takes you deep into the weeds of trade union law.) It wasn’t clear to us what winning meant even!
  2. I was surprised by the second wave. While technically no second consultation was needed, I certainly was surprised that such a major escalation didn’t involve much consultation of any kind. Again, my department based union friends were similarly confused. We definitely weren’t expecting something like that and it felt like it came out of nowhere. People who had been fighting union members long before I came to the UK felt demoralised and reluctant to participate. Especially people who could have had a big effect were reluctant…they didn’t want to essential destroy a whole year for our undergraduates with no plan for making them whole if we won.
    Industrial action has collateral damage in most cases (indeed, that is where there’s leverage), but it challenging to get people to inflict that damage without clear goals and some idea of mitigations.
  3. One thing I thought was well done was strike pay. I could afford to forgo it, but many people simply couldn’t. (Some people in my branch discussed how they were going to have to use holiday time for some strike days because they simply couldn’t afford losing that much pay even with strike pay.) But then came the levy which seems to have been a real failure of governance. For many people £15 isn’t a big deal but for a large segment of our membership it is not. If you are living from inadequate pay check to inadequate pay check, or get money in irregular “bursts”, a missing £15 can have large consequences (e.g., overdrafts or missed payments).
  4. I tried to track down how these decisions were made and, well, let’s just say that the UCU website wasn’t super helpful.

Whew! That’s a lot. (And one problem with comms is that there’s info overload.)

So this is why I’m running for NEC. These seem like NEC problems and I want to work on them. I will work on them however I can even if I’m not elected…but I think I can be more effective at addressing them as an NEC member. This may be a bit of unwarranted optimism, but I choose to embrace it!

More in subsequent posts. If you have particular questions email me or flag me on Twitter!

If you find the UCU Commons a good fit, I encourage you to join up. We’re still small but I think the people involved are great and welcoming. It’s one way to be involved. Should you ever want to run for NEC, I’ll happily give you whatever insight I get from this run!

Sunday Baking: No Knead, “5 minute” Whole Wheat Bread

Zoe wanted an incentive to get up earlier in the morning and I’d been baking a lot of bread. Many doughs can be kept in the fridge overnight and even benefit from doing so. But the brioche I’d been make still took a lot of time the night before.</;>

Then I remember I’d explored the “bread in 5 minutes a day” approach

. Basically, you make ≈5lbs of no knead bread dough and keep it in the fridge. When you want a loaf, cut off a chunk (usually about 1 lb), shape it, proof it, and bake it.

It works out pretty well!

The main issue I had was my container was too small. So it overflowed in the first warm fermentation and the first overnight cold ferment. Oh well!

If you can spare the fridge space, I really recommend this approach. It ain’t no five minutes, in my experience, even only counting the “active” time. But it’s not a lot of time. And you can have a fresh loaf any day with considerably less effort than starting from scratch.

One trick I came up with is using a cast iron frying pan as a “baking stone” instead of my dutch oven. Much easier to manage and has been working out well.

A Bioethical Dilemma in the UK Vaccine Rollout

Oops:

The government and NHS England has ruled that GPs must move the second dose of the vaccine to 12 weeks after the first, instead of the originally planned three-week gap.

And from Monday, January 11 they were informed that they had to postpone any second dose vaccines they had originally booked within the timeframe.

Since December 15, 2,000 people in Tameside and Glossop received their second dose before the change in policy.

Dr Alan Dow, who works at in Cottage Lane Surgery in Glossop told a meeting of the primary care committee that some GPs feel they have been put in an ‘impossible position’ by the new national mandate.

“The breaking of the consent for the three week promise was a big thing,” he said.

“I personally told people that face to face as I vaccinated them on the day and then suddenly we can’t do it. That’s a big thing in general practice actually, breaking consent with our patients.

“It is close to moral injury, if not actually. I already think we’re out on a limb in terms of evidence.”

Moral injury is defined as the profound psychological distress which results from actions, or the lack of them, which violate one’s moral or ethical code.

Dr Dow added that he could understand the position of the medical chiefs to delay the second dose, but did not know how much that took into account ‘breaking consent which has been the model of personal care in the NHS for 70 plus years’.

The Pfizer vaccine has only been validated for its original 2 dose protocol (with that specific timing). We do not know how a 4x increase in the spacing affects the protection afforded by the vaccine. Perhaps you end up with the same protection (≈90%). Perhaps it’s a bit better. Perhaps it’s a lot worse! (There’s evidence of some protection from a single dose, but we probably only have data from three weeks after.) Lots of things could happen. We haven’t studied it so we don’t know. We don’t, as far as I know, have a great theoretical model that would help us make an educated guess.

Thus, a bunch of people are being subjected to an experimental treatment. It’s likely to be safe (i.e., the risks from the treatment itself are low…thought that’s more theoretical; mRNA clears in a few weeks; exposure to vaccine levels of spike protein don’t trigger cytokine storms; thus, from a safety perspective, get as many shots as you like). But we don’t know how effective it is and we won’t know until we see how many people in the new arm of the experiment contract severe COVID.

This would be fine…if the people involved gave informed consent in advance. They, of course, did not give such consent. The GPs told their patients they were going to get a certain treatment and then had to tell them they were going to get an untested alternative instead.

Ordinarily, this is no dilemma. It’s straight up wrong. Oh sure, if the second doses were destroyed or contaminated, etc., it would be unfortunate but not a wrongdoing in the simple scenarios. If only some were, then we’d have an allocation problem. Of course, assuming stocks can be replenished we could always have an interrupted treatment and then do the full treatment when possible.

But there is a dilemma! The UK is in the midst of a very bad outbreak with the whole country experiencing high rates of infection. The whole healthcare system is near the breaking point.

Things will get worse before getting better due to the time lag between exposure and manifestation of illness as well as the lack of transmission control and asymptomatic spreaders. Some people who will get sick are already infected. Some people who will get sick in the current trajectory are not yet infected. If we can get some of the second group at least one dose of the vaccine it could perhaps half the number of that second group getting hospitalised for COVID.

From a bioethics instruction perspective this is a pedogogically well structure dilemma. In first framing, you have deontological considerations (lack of consent) in tension with utilitarian ones (saving lives). If you poke at little further you have consequentialist issues buttressing the deontological ones (some of the people who relied on the normal course might get seriously ill; the “moral injury” is also a factor). There’s a lot of potential second order effects.

I wish it were a hypothetical instead of this grim reality.

I don’t envy any of the decision makers.

Ideally, everyone would eventually get the normal two dose protocol (for a total of three doses). It’d be best if everyone who’s received a dose got a choice whether to finish their treatment or postpone it, but it would depend a bit on the numbers. I think doing a one does, then delayed two dose is better than an off label 2 dose (unless we get excellent results from wide spaced 2 dose trials).

The damage to doctor/patient relations needs addressing as well. The government so routinely squanders everything, it’s hard to know the marginal effect of this overall, but there are directly relations that need restitution as well.

Update: Hmm:

For the Pfizer vaccine, the impact of stretching out the two doses hasn’t been tested in clinical trials. Pfizer cautioned that its trial only investigated giving two doses 21 days apart – far less than 12 weeks. But evidence increasingly suggests that spacing out doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine may be more effective at protecting people.

The main risk is that people’s level of immunity falls before they receive their second dose, putting them at risk of Covid-19 – although this risk would still be lower than if they’d received no vaccine, and would be boosted when they eventually received their second shot.

However, a consensus statement by the British Society for Immunologists said that delaying the booster dose by eight or nine weeks was unlikely make much difference in the longer term.

Hmmmmm (following the AZ link):

Evidence now suggests that spacing out doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine may be more effective at protecting people. Clinical trials revealed the efficacy of the vaccine was substantially higher, at 90%, in a subgroup of people who received half a dose followed by a full dose, rather than two full doses, which had an efficacy of 62%.

But Prof Wei Shen Lim, the chair of the Covid-19 immunisation group of the JCVI, told MPs further analysis by AstraZeneca showed the improved protection came from spacing out the doses.

“People who had the half dose then full dose were those who were vaccinated at a longer time interval, roughly six to 12 weeks, and what they’ve seen in their data is that people who have the second dose later probably have a three times higher antibody level than those who were vaccinated earlier. So if anything, it suggests that increasing the dose interval is beneficial,” he said.

Sir Mene Pangalos, the executive vice-president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca, told the committee the first vaccine shot was more protective over time.

“What we’re seeing with our data so far is that as you go to the eight- to 12-week interval, you actually increase vaccine efficacy. People are protected enough with the first dose, to around 70%, but we see that within that eight- to 12-week interval is actually the sweet spot,” he said.

Again, I’ve not delved, but this reporting is worrisome. It is suggestive of motivated reasoning.

The brutal fact is that AstraZeneca and Oxford botched their trial. They didn’t do what they said they would do by accident. Maybe this will be a happy accident, but now you have, “Oh it’s the half dose, no, Oh it’s the spacing, no, oh, maybe it’s not the booster”. That’s not good!

It doesn’t mean that they are wrong but it’s all rather untrustworthy.

Overload

I’m sitting in Yet Another Meeting. Everyone in the meeting is being lovey. There are loads of interesting bits of discussion and info.

But it’s a lot. Just this meeting is a lot. There’s a lot of info and translating it into action is a lot of work.

This is a monthly meeting. It’s a union meeting. I’m doing other union meetings.

Then there are all the work meetings.

It’s a lot. Many people don’t thrive on this stuff. (I don’t.)

Our faculty reorganization added more levels of structure. Which means, nominally, I should be attending department forum meetings and school board meetings (instead of just the CS school board meetings). Plus there are faculty meetings I could attend. And Dept internal meetings. Plus all the other work meetings.

It’s too much. People tune out. There’s a bit of “oh let’s divide work up” but without “now we have more things to figure out and coordinate”).

A fair bit of bureaucratic complexity is inevitable esp for large and complex organisations. But if we want people to tune in we have to make that complexity manageable. Which often means reducing it or at least reducing the significance of a lot it. It also means clearly indicating priorities and making sure that they are flexibly attuned to people’s individual priorities.

Starting to Analyse UCU NEC Minutes

I’m running for the UCU National Execuative Committe (NEC) for Higher Education.

I, and many of my union friends in the Dept of Computer Science of the University of Manchester, were surprised, confused, and distresed by the round of strikes in 2020 (second round in 2019-2020). They blindsided us.

We (mostly) showed up because of some residual trust we had in UCU. But then came the levy, which broke me a bit. It made no sense and seemed to be a governance problem. And I couldn’t figure out how and why these things were decided and how my voice, as a member, would be able to influence these decisions.

In addition to running, I’m trying to tease out what’s going on from public records. It’s hard! I have not yet found a page listing the minutes (and people tell me that the minutes strongly undercapture what happens, even in terms of motions). I did find some recent minutes via the search box:

https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10980/NEC-minutes-March-2020/pdf/UCU10191.pdf
https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10979/NEC-minutes-May-2020/pdf/UCU1020.pdf

These were all I could find last week. They aren’t super recent (March and May 2020). They aren’t from the critical to my biggest interests period. (One problem is that there are lots of minutes for many different things—congresses, committes, etc. and “NEC” doesn’t filter hard. Alas, I forgot my earlier magic search string.)

In any case, these are recent, and I expect fairly typical.

FIRST BIG THING UCU!!! Can we please have a well organsied subsite that lists all the meetings and their minutes in a nice browseable and appropriately searchable way?
SECOND BIG THING UCU!!! This seems to be a long time to have no even draft minutes.

I did a preliminary extraction of the motion and votes from these two minutes and put them in a Google Spreadsheet:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1HqPGo8uDxu9MarOR5u333ceqRd7MmzhZawKTEwjTeCw/edit?usp=sharing

My structure is rather coarse grained and motions get complex quickly. E.g., a motion might have successful and unsuccessful amendements. It may or may not be seconded. We might not know who the second is. Most of these votes have some sort of consensus but here’s the set of passing statuses:

  • AGREED 53-0 with 1 abstention
  • CARRIED
  • AGREED
  • AGREED nem con.

(The plain “AGREED” perplexes me!)

Let’s consider a motion from Mark Pendelton:

Defending Trans Members and Students
NEC notes:
The government’s announcement of three principles guiding responses to Gender Recognition Act reform – ‘protecting’ single sex spaces; making sure that transgender adults can live lives without fear of persecution; and ‘protecting’ young people from ‘irreversible’ decisions
This union’s longstanding commitment to inclusion, and the extension of trans and nonbinary people’s rights, including revision of the GRA
NEC believes:
That these principles are based on factual inaccuracies and place trans people’s health and wellbeing at risk, particularly young people
That they also pose grave risks to Gillick competence, which allows young people some capacity to consent to medical treatment, including abortion and contraception
NEC resolves:
To publicly oppose further delay to GRA reform;
To publicly condemn the attempted erosion of the rights of children and young people; To provide branches with updated guidance on how to support trans and nonbinary members and students and campaign against these proposals.

I’m not sure the difference between noting and believing, but ok. The resolutions sound like the are actionable…but I’m confused as to who performs them and how they are tracked. It’s hard to see how I, a member, will know whether this motion resulted in any specific action by the union, much less whether than action was effective. I like Mark. I like the motion (a lot!). I agree strongly with the motion. But I don’t know if it was an effective motion.

Now, not all motions need to be “effective”. Sometimes we don’t win. Sometimes we take a symbolic stand. Sometimes we need to show our values and communicate with those we share them with, including our members.

Still, it’d be nice to know what the NEC things should happen in order to understand what sorts of motions we push going forward.

Anyhoo, this was far too much work to find out a set of motions and the information about them doesn’t seem remotely complete. Most people won’t make the effort (I never have!).

Esp when we come to elections, it’d be great to have easy access to candiate track records and clear fodder for competing candiate to discuss. If a candidate wouldn’t support some motion, that’s might be a reason to vote for or against them!

Tracing things through the complex union structure is daunting, but I think some structuring and simple linking could help a lot.