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Unison union higher education conference: a missed opportunity to develop a fighting strategy
Unison higher education activists
Delegates from universities across the country met in Nottingham on 10 January for public service union Unison's annual conference of the higher education service group.
As is usually the case, the standing orders committee was busy preventing branches from discussing motions and amendments and, in some cases, preventing delegates (or anyone) from even reading what activists wanted to discuss. This is all supposedly on the advice of the legal officer.
Of the four amendments and three emergency motions submitted by branches, only one was allowed onto the agenda. This amendment on pay dispute tactics from Brighton did at least manage to provoke a debate.
The main controversy was the pay campaign for 2019. The campaign in the autumn of 2018 ended with a strong vote (62%) in favour of strike action. But the turnout was below the anti-trade union law threshold of 50%.
The amendment to the pay motion sought to commit the service group executive to running a future strike ballot on the basis of a series of 'disaggregate' ballots, in effect creating separate disputes at each university.
This tactic is a measured response to the problem of low turnout (31% last year) which would at least provide some options. Not least of these could be the opportunity for the most organised branches to take action over pay as the others catch up.
Campaigning for a disaggregate ballot, as opposed to repeating the same mistake again, is the agreed policy of Unison Action broad left activists. Left activists agreed that this would be proposed on the basis of fighting for every branch to get a 50% turnout and a positive strike vote.
Many delegates supported the Brighton amendment, carefully explaining to conference that this tactic is the best way of allowing higher education workers to take action in 2019, linking up with University and College Union members and students in a united and dynamic campaign to achieve better pay and working conditions, and a fully funded education system.
Opposition came from the leadership, who couldn't explain how we could realistically double the turnout in the ballot by doing precisely the same thing again.
Despite some excellent contributions, the amendment was voted down. Either way, the result does not rule out that tactic, but it does mean that conference leaves the decision-making to the service group executive.
Across many universities, support workers and academics are bracing themselves for more attacks on jobs and pension schemes as institutions fight among themselves for a reducing number of students.
For workers and students, defending higher education as a public service, and the jobs and education that go with it, will be on the agenda. No amount of bureaucratic manoeuvring by some trade union leaders will prevent workers from struggling.
What's necessary is a fighting and democratic leadership to develop a clear strategy for that battle.
In The Socialist 23 January 2019:
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