Democracy and Organisation at UCU Congress 2024

The University and College Union (UCU) 2024 congress is taking place at the end of May in Bournemouth, write Liz Lawrence and Philip Inglesant. Several important issues are tabled for debate, which have a bearing on how the union is organised and its priorities.


There are 67 motions on the order paper, plus amendments. In addition, the Further and Higher Education sections hold separate conferences in the middle of the event . Unite members of UCU staff who are in dispute with UCU may strike that day and stop those conferences. We support these staff members in their struggles.

This is the fourth of a series of articles addressing the debates before UCU Congress 2024.  This article looks at debates around union democracy and organisation, including how unions resist anti-union laws.

Subsequent articles will look at employment issues in Further and Higher Education.

Organising among private providers of post 16 education

UCU needs to extend union organisation and collective agreements to private providers and outsourced provision in the sector.  Much of further and higher education is delivered by private training agencies and private for-profit providers of higher education.  In these organisations, staff do not have a contractual right to academic freedom, as in the mainstream university sector.  The growth of this private for-profit sector is part of the wider issue of neoliberal influences on post 16 education.

The quality of education that students receive in outsourced provision and in private for-profit providers varies greatly.  Regulation of this sector is needed to protect students and to ensure academic standards.

Motion 2 from UCU’s Anti-Casualisation Committee calls on UCU to build a campaign to extend union recognition in this sector.  This is important to improve the conditions of workers in these institutions and for the defence of UK-wide bargaining on pay and conditions. The Anti-Casualisation Committee also proposes an amendment to Motion 1 calling on UCU to campaign actively against increasing casualisation – we hope that this strengthens UCU’s “Stamp Out Casual Contracts” initiative and ensures that fighting against casualisation remains a national priority.

Union democracy and participation

Several motions debate union democracy and participation.  Motion 3 from Yorkshire and Humberside Region calls for reinstatement of the UCU Activists List, a useful email discussion group which dealt with debate on industrial, equality and international issues and tips for union organizing, which was shut down by UCU Head Office.

Motions 24 and 25 address the fact that current anti-union laws do not permit trade unions to use electronic voting in union elections and industrial action ballots which can disenfranchise members if they are working away from home or if post is disrupted.  The ability to use electronic voting might improve voting turnout.

Another area of debate is how UCU should organise its Congress, special conferences and other events.  From a disability rights perspective, some members argue for hybrid events, because this facilitates participation by members with mobility impairments and with suppressed immune systems.  Others will argue from a democracy and activism stance that in-person events provide a different form of debate, build up solidarity and enable delegates to meet and network more easily.

Opposing anti-union laws

Resisting anti-union laws, including the recent Minimum Services Level legislation, is addressed in Motion 22, a composite from Open University UCU and Cambridge University UCU. This motion states that to comply with TUC policy unions must refuse ‘to take reasonable steps’ to comply with work notices.  It also calls for co-operation with other unions to resist the legislation, calls on all balloted members to strike and respect picket lines, and calls for escalating strike action to defend members. The legislation allows the Business Secretary to make service level regulations for each of the sectors covered by this draconian legislation. This includes the education sector at all levels, although, so far, no such regulations have been made for this sector. Labour’s New Deal for Working People has pledged to repeal the Minimum Service Levels Act if elected to government, which we hope it soon will be.

This motion also restates UCU policy of supporting repeal of all anti-union laws and calls for the labour movement more broadly to step up campaigning against these laws.  UCU members under the existing anti-union laws have often made strenuous efforts to get above the 50% threshold for industrial action.  With a great deal of work at the grassroots of the union, UCU members have often been able to take industrial action within the law, but there have also been cases where branches have narrowly missed the 50% threshold, sometimes getting as close as 49.5%.  This is gutting for union activists and also shows how the current anti-union laws can encourage members opposed to strike action to abstain rather than vote. Again, Labour has pledged to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016 which introduced the 50% requirement; UCU and all trade unions must ensure that it does so.

General Election

The General Election has now been called for 4 July, so Motion 16 from Westminster Kingsway College is very timely.  It calls for “no honeymoon for a Labour government” including support for strikes in the run-up to and week of the general election. It correctly warns of the need to take action to resist austerity policies if there is a Labour Government.

Strikes have to be in “furtherance of a trade dispute” to be legal under the draconian anti-union laws, and require a majority of a 50% turnout in a postal ballot.  Nonetheless unions with live ballots in ongoing disputes could time their action to be around the date of a general elections.

What a Labour Government under Keir Starmer would actually do in terms of legislation around areas like the level of the minimum wage, zero-hours contracts and ‘fire and rehire’ employment practices is an unknown.  At the time of writing Labour is promising a ‘new deal for working people’, but the Labour Party leadership is trying to position itself as both pro-business and pro-worker.

UCU is not affiliated to the Labour Party.  This means that it is less able in some ways to bring pressure on the Labour Party in terms of the policies it adopts, but it also comes under less pressure to tone down industrial action in the run up to a General Election, than do unions which are Labour Party affiliates.

As an increasingly desperate government uses attacks on hard-won equalities as part of a culture war, Motion 43 from Imperial College argues “Keep Racism Out of the Election”. Shamefully, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has failed to oppose scapegoating of refugees and the inhuman detention on the Bibby Stockholm prison barge, although he does now say that he would scrap the Rwanda scheme on ‘day one’ in office. The forced deportation of asylum-seekers to Rwanda seems likely to be a burning topic at the time of Congress.

In HE, there is a growing funding crisis, largely engineered by government policies as we set out here. An obvious, but unsatisfactory, solution would be to raise the already-onerous fees on students. UCU is opposed to tuition fees or a graduate tax; recent changes mean that more former students will be drawn into loan repayments for a longer period.

The General Election is an opportunity to raise these issues; it is possible to hope that a change of government should bring a change to university funding and a move away from marketisation of the sector. Starmer, in his ten pledges when he stood in 2020 for Labour leader, supported the abolition of tuition fees and investment in lifelong learning, but now says that Labour is looking at “alternative options” for funding. However, he admits that the current £9,250 fees (in England) are unfair for students and unsustainable for universities.

The first in this series is here, the second here and the third here.

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Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

Philip Inglesant is a member of London Retired Members' UCU branch and formerly of Oxford University UCU

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