Kerry Lemon is a UCU Workload Rep at Newcastle College where she teaches on the Children and Young People Foundation Degree Course. This year Kerry attended her first UCU Congress:
As a Programme Leader in HE, and a mother to two teenagers, the May half term ‘break’ was a difficult time for me to go away from home, however I believed it was important to actively support my union.
A union is its members and, although I felt a political novice, I believed it was important our branch was represented as fully as possible. Too often in aspects of politics I feel far away from seemingly capital-centric decision making, one of my highlights of this congress was meeting regional reps and branch colleagues, including from here in the North East, who are instrumental in ensuring we are heard.
Hearing the plans to challenge the common issues in FE institutions was another highlight and gives me hope that the sector is poised for change for the better.
The congress was difficult for me; the processes were unfamiliar and there was a palatable air of trepidation from the outset. Two highly contentious motions, which seemed to be personal attacks on the General Secretary (GS), were on the agenda for debate. The General Secretary is the elected senior official who is also employed by the union’s National Executive Committee. UCU’s General Secretary, Sally Hunt, was re-elected by members, you and I, to the position last year.
A small but highly vocal majority at congress had voiced concerns over the GS’s decisions during the recent University Pension industrial action. To my untrained eye there seemed to be two major issues involved in this, one was the democratic processes of the union as a whole needed to be considered and updated for which I could see merit, the other, the obvious dislike of the GS personally, which I found distasteful and distressing.
Having a rudimentary knowledge of employment laws from my previous organisation I was shocked that so many people at a union congress seemed to have little respect for their own people. There are clear processes that could be followed in cases of concern regarding the conduct or decision-making of staff, however they had not been followed, in favour of what appeared to be a witch hunt. Had the processes been followed, and then those processes been deemed concerning, then this should have been the issue to debate.
Indeed, even without this particular issue there was a consensus that UCU’s democratic processes should be revisited and potentially revised in an agreed Democracy Commission to begin later this year. I was in favour of this as I was appalled that motions could be allowed onto the agenda which were in contravention of the employment rights of our staff. The congress was suspended on three occasions, the third suspension ended events altogether; a frustrating development as there was a whole host of worthy motions left undebated and without resolution, all surrounded by a poisonous cloud of negative social media commentary.
When the third suspension of congress was announced, the reaction from those who had pushed for the motions to be debated was loud and intimidating. In that moment I wondered if I should go home and forget about being involved. However, I then became angry.
How dare that vocal, slight majority at congress (not a majority in membership) act as if they are representative of the membership as a whole? They do not speak for me. Those of us without very strong political leanings are in danger of sleepwalking into being represented by those who have no interest in our views.
I have been worried recently about the rise in prominence of far-right politics; this congress has shown me that I also have concerns about many aspects of political extremism and I now believe that I cannot just ignore it in the hopes it will self-regulate.
I need to be involved. I need to be a part of this union. I need to stand beside people, like me, who work hard and have the right to expect to be treated appropriately by everyone they come into contact with professionally.
We need to continue building this union, and our branch, so that our voices are heard.
Please consider what you could do to be more involved, if only a little, and pass on the message to staff who are not in UCU that we are here.
This union has achieved great things over the last year and continues to go from strength to strength and you are part of it. WE are UCU!