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.