Staff members at the University and Colleges Union (UCU) look set to walk out from the union's own annual congress for a third time, in a dispute stemming from calls for general secretary Sally Hunt to resign.
Tes understands that members of the UCU staff, who are represented by fellow trade union Unite, walked out on Monday because UCU’s annual congress, taking place in Manchester, “went against their employment terms and conditions” by naming a member of staff (in this case) Ms Hunt, and criticising her publicly, rather than going through the official complaints procedure.
A motion of no confidence, calling for the resignation of Ms Hunt, and a second motion to censure the general secretary, were listed in order of business for the first day’s congress, and were to be taken in a private session excluding the press and the public. The motions related to the general secretary's handling of the university pensions dispute.
However, according to a pamphlet circulated by the UCU Left faction on Thursday, a motion from the chair to withdraw the motions of criticism was defeated by 144 votes to 123.
As a result, members of Unite – the UCU staff union – then walked out in protest at what they saw as a contravention of their terms and conditions, and fear it would set a precedent to single out members of staff in the future outside of officials channels. Both morning and afternoon sessions were brought to a halt on Wednesday, but the FE and HE sector conference still took place on Thursday.
An emergency meeting of the UCU national executive committee, the body which employs UCU staff, was called on Thursday afternoon.
Tes understands that this meeting failed to resolve the dispute, so another motion to withdraw the no-confidence and censure motions will be floated again on Friday. It is expected that delegates will reject this once more, which is likely to lead to another walkout by the UCU staff members of Unite.
A timetabling amendment will be requested to attempt to allow the discussion and passage of some other motions before any potential walk out.
An 'internal issue'
Andrew Harden, head of FE at UCU, said he would not be drawn on an "internal issue" but added that he was pleased the FE sector conference was able to go ahead as planned.
In a letter distributed by the UCU branch of Unite to congress delegates on Wednesday, Unite said it would be unacceptable to censure one of its members without due process, just because they have a right of reply.
The letter continued: "We do not believe that you would accept this for one of your members and nor do we."
The UCU Left pamphlet stated: “In effect, depriving congress of the right to censure the general secretary, or the elected leadership as a whole, would render them immune from criticism of the sovereign body of the union. This and future general secretaries would then be at liberty to act in defiance of democratic decisions taken by members’ delegates at congress.”
It continued: “The action of the general secretary and the staff union turned this into a debate about who runs this union.”
Ms Hunt faced criticism for her handling of the USS strikes in universities across the country, which saw staff walk out for 14 days over four weeks earlier in the year in a dispute over pensions
The motion calling for the general secretary’s resignation concerns what some UCU delegates see as an invalid acceptance of proposals from Universities UK (UUK), the HE sector organisation, to end the industrial action.
The motion reads: The general secretary claims a majority of branches supported taking the unamended proposal [from UUK] to a membership ballot, despite refusing to allow a vote on such a measure.” The motion’s authors say “repeated requests for documentary evidence” of a tally of branches supporting the proposals were refused and this raises “serious issues of accountability and process on the part of the national leadership".
In a statement, the UCU's joint negotiating committee said: "The dispute between UCU Unite members and their employer arises from confusion between, and conflation of, the roles and responsibilities of congress and NEC.
"Unite representatives and UCU NEC officers met yesterday and today in an emergency JNC. Both sides agree that the way to resolve the current dispute is the removal of the confusion and contradiction."
The JNC said that the body to remove the contradiction is congress itself and has asked the NEC to intervene to advise congress of "the necessity to remove the contradiction that has arisen from some 2018 congress decisions". The congress will meet again on Friday morning.