Solidarity Omertà or…Not

When is ok to publicly critique (some part of UCU) and when isn’t it? I’m never 100% sure because sometimes it feels that if I do it, it’s wrong, but when the people who tell me I’m wrong do it, it’s fine.

As is common with people, how one feels about the target also seems to play a big role in the whether public criticism violates solidarity or is part of a robust feedback mechanism.

Per usual, I can only speak for me.

UCU is engaging with the Labour Party conference. In spite of some big ass problems, I think this is the right move. I do believe that this is a live question:

The Labour Party’s apparent tolerance of trans- and biphobic views from a sitting MP prompts us to ask whether we, other groups, charities, or organisations, or indeed trade unions, can currently support or canvas for the Labour Party while it platforms harmful narratives and hostility towards trans and bi people.

I tend to think that the answer is, unfortunately, “yes” though I understand why people might answer otherwise. My general theory of party and electoral politics is “harm minimization” which involves a lot of lessor of two evils moves and uncomfortable alliances. My observations of the US Democratic Party’s evolution is that being a reliable part of the coalition (however vocally critical) tends to produce more change than exiting. Of course, there’s plenty of work to be done outside the party on things like trans rights, so it’s not the only way. But it can help.

Indeed, I think we should affiliate. UCU would be in a much better position to push for trans issues in Labour if it were part of Labour. But it ain’t an easy call.

Ok, so this is already fraught. But then we have UCU central posting photos of General Secretary Jo Grady addressing a Young Labour meeting and…almost no one is masked. There’s a later fringe UCU event that was advertised as masked, but photos suggest not so much. We later find out that attendees are supposed to be fully vaccinated or have a recent negative test which…is better than nothing, but not ideal.

This is obviously not a good look or a good move, esp given that many branches (and UCU central!) is trying to get more robust measures in place in universities. My personal reaction is inflected both by the fact that I generally like UCU and Jo Grady, I generally hate UCU comms, and I really am worried about lack of masking and other safety measures. From a personal perspective, it feels like something unpleasant and unfortunately that I have to swallow (as a clinically odd person).

So, step up your game, please. I know it’s challenging but that’s true all around.

On the flip side, I notice that at least some of the people I observe saying things to the effect that this is a gift to the employers, I did not observe complaining about 2 USS negotiators being cited by employers as saying that the UCU proposals were not viable. I’ve not highlighted this at the time though I am still quite upset about it. In one case we have, essentially, bad comms. In the other, we have possible sabotage of negotiations to force a dispute.

In reality, I’d be surprised if my local H&S negotiators would find UCU Centrals fuck up a material issue. “But Jo Grady went unmasked!!!” is pretty easily countered by “But they were all vaccinated or tested” (which is not the case at universities) or even “She should have done better”. Or even “One off events are different than full time work.”

So there you are. I can now stand (masked) in the middle of a room and everyone has a reason to throw unicorn pony buns at me!

Yes, unicorn ponies are my thing now.

Quick Hit on Long Campaigns

UCU is mobilising to ballot on strike action on USS and the 4 Fights very soon. Part of that is a very short ballot window (3 weeks). Because of union busting laws, we have to get 50% turnout for the vote to be valid and then win on Yes to take action. We also have vote by…postal mail which is expensive (a big needless drain on our resources) and depresses turnout (the ballot has to go to the right place and you have to physically fill it out and get it to a mailbox).

Adding friction to voting is a well known anti-democratic tactic, cf voter ID.

In any case, we’re going to ballot and we’re going on a disaggregated basis. That is, each branch has it’s own vote (and own threshold) to pass. So if University McMilitant has 100 members, and 51 vote and 27 vote yes, they can take action. But if over at University McBeatendown only gets 30 of its 100 members turnout, it cannot. Each branch can move which makes the likelihood of some action higher, even with the tight timeframes.

An aggregated ballot would ballot the union as a whole and let us go on action as a whole. So if McMilitant got 90 turned out and McBeatendown still got its 30, 90 + 30 = 120 which is more than half of their collective 200 and the vote is valid. If McMilitant had 70 yes votes then McBeatendown could get 20 no votes and still take action.

Both strategies have virtues, but I don’t want to debate that at the moment. Instead, I want to point out that in both disputes, we have to recognize that we’re in a long term fight.

Take USS. They got us to back down on final salary and set a DB ceiling, both radical changes to the scheme. But that wasn’t enough. They came back again. And will again even if we win this round. This isn’t a minor blip. This is a combination of forces with a goal of breaking the USS pension scheme as we know it. (It’s an obviously bad idea and it’s not even the case that there is direct collusion between USS, the regulator, and the universities: they are all bad actors in somewhat different ways. But they all are bad actors with a common mindset when it comes to slashing pensions.)

Similar, the 4 Fights is nominally tied to two years of pay negotiations. But it’s not like inadequate pay rises are a new thing…it’s been going on for over a decade. Similarly, casualisation isn’t new and the ever increasingly levels aren’t a single decision. Same for workloads. Same for pay equity. These are generational fights against the backdrop of a Government with a real fundamental dislike of the sector, at best, and a hatred of wide swaths of it. We’re lucky when they are indifferent! That’s a massive step up!

We’re fighting a regime and states have large amounts of power. Unfortunately, the opposition is…not doing well with a succession of Labour leaders who, no matter which end of the political spectrum they hail from, just haven’t demonstrated the ability to win a government. (Heck, they’ve been pretty bad at managing the party.)

All this put together means we have to plan for the long haul. That doesn’t mean we can skimp on the current battle. But we need a sustainable campaign.

It’s not a secret that what we’re currently doing isn’t what I thought best. But the real question is how to build for the long haul. Industrial action is by no means the only tool! We need to win hearts and minds of the broader populace, esp students but also other staff members. We need to take over university senates and boards of governors (to the degree we can). We need to fight for policy and, yes, take over management or at least work with sensible people in management.

The system is in engineered (as well as opportunistic) chaos. We need to be a force for sense.

The UK university system is truly an amazing thing and a key part of UK society, culture, and the economy. It’s worth preserving and improving. That will be a generational challenge.

Start of the Semester Freakout Begins…NOW!

Paging students: If you’re feeling bewildered and overwhelmed…many of us feel pretty much the same way, with the added dread of messing stuff up for hundreds of people instead of just ourselves.

Even in the before times, even for very experienced folks, many of us experience extra anxiety at the beginning of a year. Just meeting all sorts of new people is stressful for many (e.g., me!)

My recommendation: Give yourself a break and give everyone else breaks. The first week doesn’t define your experience unless you let it. Second, third, fourth, fifth…”chances” abound. Indeed, “chances” probably are too point like. It’s an unfolding experience a la the “end of the movie”:

Because life is a gradual series of revelations
That occur over a period of time
It’s not some carefully crafted story
It’s a mess, and we’re all gonna die
If you saw a movie that was like real life
You’d be like, “What the hell was that movie about?
It was really all over the place.
Life doesn’t make narrative sense
Nuh-uh

Unicorn Pony Retraction and Atonement Donation to the Fighting Fund

I wrote:

The motions contain things which are nigh impossible and things which are not sensible. Strike action for 4 Fights should be “escalating and indefinite”?!? I’m surprised they didn’t ask for a unicorn pony as well.

I got two sorts of push back on this. The (temporally) first was that this was (at least) bad form on my part: minimally being divisive, violating solidarity, and perhaps being anti-democratic. I don’t think it can be anti-democratic per se for me to express my disappointment in a decision. (I mean unless the content of the decision is “for democracy” and my opposition is anti democracy.) Obviously, as we see everywhere, it’s possible to oppose decision making in a way so as to undermine democracy, but, again, “I don’t think people voted sensibly”, even if expressed in salty language, is that sort of thing. Delegates themselves may have been voting against their conscience because they were bound by their branches. Yes yes that’s fine. You can read my “I’m disappointed with the delgates” as “I’m disappointed with the delegations.”

Again, this isn’t really the kind of thing that is anti-democratic. I notice people are often using “democratic” to mean “good” or “the way I want it to be” or even “in accordance with the rules”. As we can easily see in the US, rule following isn’t always democracy promoting, cf the Electoral College. And this doesn’t even break any rules.

I find it much harder to defend against divisveness or lack of solidarity, but eh. Let me grant it. I wasn’t civil and lack of civility is something people dislike. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if tone policing and tutting are effective counter-mechanisms. I’ve kept quiet about a lot of things and that doesn’t seem to help.

HOWEVER, a kind person replied in a comment to the heart of my unicorn pony complaint:

I feel you’re being overly literal with your interpretation there (for the record, I voted against motion 9 following a branch mandate, but that wasn’t the problematic clause for my mandate)

Strike action being escalating and indefinite doesn’t mean that the *escalation* itself has to be indefinite – though it could be, with a suitable asymptotic function – just that “escalating” and “indefinite” both have to independently describe the strike action carried out.

(Please read the rest. It’s helpful.)

Ok, that’s fair. I’m not sure it was meant that way and I’m not sure it will be read that way, but it’s not an impossible thing to do and it is a possible, perhaps even most charitable, reading.

Thus my unicon pony comment was not just salty but probably incorrect. Note my trust is low in this because when I was a rank and file member, I was upset at the 2019-2020 strikes and people seeming to blithely going on about long strikes. Personally, “wide” strikes seem more important than “long” strikes but ok. This is more my issue than a bonkerosity in the motion itself. I hereby retract the unicorn pony line and I appreciate someone taking the time to talk me down.

I said on Twitter I would give someone a plushie unicorn pony if they could explain that lanauge as non-bonkers. I wrote to the commentor offering to buy them this:

“Hi! My name isn’t Indefinite Escalator”

But they’ve not replied, so instead, for my penance, I’ve donated £100 to the Fighting Fund. Please consider donating even if you weren’t probably wrong on the internet.

ETA: The commenter contacted me and was cool for the donation, yay! We had a nice email chat.

Problematic Outcomes of the Special HE Sector Conference (Sept 2021)

Well the votes are in and…I was voting with the losing side about almost everything.

Attached to this post are PDFs of my voting as it appeared in the online form. At some point I’ll extract them out into some sort of structured format, but it seemed easier just to screenshot it.

The net result of the Conference is a strong push toward a 2020 style fight: disaggregated ballots, super tightly coupled USS and 4 Fights disputes (e.g., balloted together), super early ballot, no clear, achievable goals or strategy, no plan for compromise or partial wins.

This scenario isn’t entirely forced by the conference, but it’s a natural reading and it’s certainly what a lot of motion proposers were aiming for. The defeat of Motion 1 is esp. disheartening to me, because it puts us on the back foot for planning.

I’m deeply disappointed with the sector conference delegates. [Note for clarity: this is a description of my personal psychological reaction. Delegates might disagree with me. They may agree but be bound by eg branch decisions. However, this is my reaction.] The motions contain things which are nigh impossible and things which are not sensible. Strike action for 4 Fights should be “escalating and indefinite”?!? I’m surprised they didn’t ask for a unicorn pony as well.

This reminds me a lot of “strategy” stuff we get from management. Something is required without any resource allocation or plausible mechanism. Indefinite strikes aren’t…legal, I don’t think. There are limits. At the very least we must ballot every 6 months. Similarly, the main way that strikes can escalate is by having more people go on strike. Do we have any evidence that we’ll attract more members to strike over time?

This is part of the horrorshow of not delegating timing and strategy to HEC. We can’t ask whether any of this stuff makes sense except in narrow ways. If it’s not legally possible to “immediately begin the balloting of members for industrial action to defend the USS DB scheme on its current basis, on a schedule sufficient to enable members to take action in the Autumn Term,” then that’s not happening, obviously. But what if we could technically do it but that means weak GOTV and many institutions not making the ballot threshold? The vote for this was 79 in favour, 52 against, and 11 registered abstentions…and we have no idea how this maps onto institutions.

We’ll do the best we can, but…

I dearly hope I’m completely and utterly wrong. These decisions seem to not take the lessons of the 2019-2020 experience to heart at all.

My Statement in Support of Motion 1 at Special HE Sector Conference (Sept 2021)

(I checked with UCU central and it’s ok for me to post my personal opinion, which this is, but not report on the debate, which I won’t. I might revisit after the minutes are out if that’s allowed.)

Motion 1:

1       Timing of Industrial Action on USS           Bangor University

SHESC notes:
1.     that the recommendations of the Superannuation Working Group (SWG) were adopted at HESC on 2/6/2020;
2.     the SWG recommendation that we negotiate, campaign and lobby for the protection of USS member benefits at current levels and pressure employers to reject cuts to future benefits;
3.     the SWG recommendation that we use all the campaigning and industrial tools at our disposal up to and including a ballot for industrial action.
SHESC believes that a strong result in an industrial action ballot is more likely to be achieved if the ballot comes at the culmination of an effective member-led campaign, which takes time to organise.
SHESC therefore resolves that a ballot on industrial action is called when HEC judges that the USS negotiators have had sufficient time to explore all options with the employers’ representatives and the USS Trustee and branches have had sufficient time to organise for victory.

(While I’m normally a “wing it” sort of person, for these timed slots, I try to write out what I’ll say and time it. My timing here was way off so I had to finish early. I added some stuff in speaking but this is pretty close to what I said.)

I’m speaking in favor of motion 1.

I’m ready to strike. I’m ready to donate to the fighting fund. I’m personally in a strong position to do both. But I don’t see that we are ready as a union. That we have had time doesn’t mean we’re ready now. That we want things “immediately” doesn’t mean it’s feasible to produce them.

There is political science research that suggests that 50% of non-violent large scale mass action campaigns succeed (vs. 25% of violent ones). That means 50% of them fail.

We’re not just in conflict with the employers but with the government as well. That’s not an easy fight. Nor is it a quick one. Nor will there be a knock out blow. Even a strong victory on the ridiculous USS valuation or April changes won’t mean they won’t try again and soon. We need to build a long haul, powerful campaign and one that feeds into the 4 fights. There are no slam dunks here.

Many members at all universities are exhausted. At Manchester, we had difficulty getting people at risk of redundancy to even talk with us. Jo McNeill of Liverpool came to a branch meeting to discuss their amazing efforts in fighting redundancy and her description of the effort required…multi hour meetings a day, enormous fundraising, and starting long before the strikes happened. This was necessary to bring in “on the fence” members and was frankly daunting.

At many USS institutions we have a overwhelming wave of students and a year of students we’ve not met in person. We need them on our side. We need them on the lines with us. We need them to connect our fights with their fights.

We have other disputes including the Four Fights. This increases the complexity of campaigning. We need to coordinate action so one dispute doesn’t shortchange the other and that success on one front feeds into success in the others.[ended about here]

This takes time, coordination, and planning. Trying to rush it will strongly increase the risk of both short term and long term failure.

If your branch is ready, hurrah! Start campaigning! Raise awareness! Get things bubbling. Engage with all staff, not just members. Expand the membership. Share you experience with less ready branches.

Let’s not hobble ourselves with timetables. As the saying goes, Festina Lente, that is, “make haste slowly”.

Upcoming UCU Challenges

Things are tough both at the local and national level.

We have a special sector conference this week where we’ll primarily be making decision about upcoming national disputes, the big salient ones being the USS pension debacle and some variant of the 4 fights.

Locally, we have an ongoing risk of redundancies due to a by choice restructuring of professional services which has already made things worse but as the full vision flips in is highly likely to make things much much worse for everyone, but esp those who lose their jobs. There’s also what the hell are we going to do about controlling COVID as we seem to be ready to revise last years disastrous spike those, we hope, with much less morbidity and mortality due to vaccinations. The base infection rate is high, though, and the hard to control mixing of having students come from all over the country and world plus mixing of staff (who may have to commute quite some ways) with those students is a recipe for a big leap in daily cases both within the university and in the community in general.

I’m hoping we can avoid union infighting though some extreme differences of opinion makes it difficult as does the extremely challenging environment. The employers seem to be making literally zero effort to reduce tensions or mitigate issues that functionally necessitate industrial action…which is wildly irresponsible.

Given that we’re heading into a v. busy semester for me for normal stuff, this is not fun! And, given my job security and excellent situation (save for health) this still puts me in a far better place that many people in and out of UCU. I’m thinking of you and wishing for the best and trying hard to make things better.

Blog Relaunch N+1

Gonna try to get it going.

I really need to relaunch it properly by migrating off WordPress. Esp with the block editor, WordPress is painful. I get almost no comments, so I don’t really need much of a comment engine. And things I’d like to do like uptodate reviews, paper analysis, etc. just feel wrong on WordPress.

But gotta keep writing, so I’ll try things in a relaxed way. I’m not going to worry about tags or categories or nifty things that add tiny bits of friction.

We’ll see how it goes.

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.