UNISON’s annual conference of higher education branches and members took place in Nottingham in January. Our branch was represented by Dan Simmonds and Sian Williams as delegates, with Alan Dilley there as a visitor and Sarah Pickett and Ivan Bonsell attending as regional reps.
The conference is the decision making body for the union, as far as Higher Education is concerned, and aims to guide the Service Group Executive in its work during the year, overseeing what branches are doing and trying to develop the work of branches in delivering meaningful results for our members.
Seventeen motions were debated, most without much controversy. Many were committing the union to do various bits of campaigning over issues of which members will be familiar, such as a 35 hour week, academy schools, pensions, outsourcing and equalities.
Part of the issue with UNISON conferences is the difficulties of getting motions and amendments onto the agenda. The Standing Orders Committee decides what can and what can’t be discussed as conference business. Of four amendments submitted, only one was allowed and all three emergency motions were deemed to not really be emergencies. Dan and Sian met with the Standing Orders Committee several times but they weren’t budging on their decision. Our emergency motion on how to deal with the outcome of the Augar review of higher education funding was, frustratingly, not discussed at all.
The one amendment which did make it as far as the conference was our branch’s amendment on pay dispute tactics and this did, quite rightly, provoke some debate.
As we’ve written about before, an important aspect of annual pay increases is not so much about what you ask for, but how a trade union is going to make sure that it delivers meaningful increases for all its members (and non-members who are happy to accept the benefits of our efforts.)
There was no debate on the substantive pay motion, which commits the union to demanding an August 2019 pay increase of 3% plus whatever the retail price index is (RPI, currently about 2.7%). This demand is combined with a 35 hour week for everyone and meaningful progress for all universities to eliminate the gender pay gap and become living wage employers.
The amendment moved by Sian, on behalf of our branch, would commit the union, in the event of a pay dispute (which is likely because we’re not going to be offered 3%+RPI without the threat of strike action!), to organise a ballot of members on the basis of a disaggregated ballot.
This is a way of dealing with the anti-democratic Trades Union Act, which prevents unions legally taking industrial action without a 50% ballot turnout. A disaggregate ballot treats each university pay claim as a separate dispute, which would mean that we’d only need a 50% turnout here to take action, rather than aiming to achieve it across all universities.
We’ve explained this before, in January’s newsletter and elsewhere, but the view of our branch is that this is a much better tactic than hoping to improve on last year’s 31% turnout within a year. Having another aggregate ballot nationally this year is almost certainly a case of doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Anyway, the debate took place with good contributions on both sides, but our amendment was lost by about 60-65% of the vote of delegates. This means that there will still be some debate about how to progress the pay claim, but it may be that those of us who advocated a different approach will have to wait until we can win the argument.
If you have any questions about the conference or the pay claim feel free to get in touch, in the usual way.