UCU Scotland Congress 2019 heard from president Ann Gow on the morning of Friday 29 March. The text of what will be her last speech to Scottish congress in the role of president is reproduced below.
Congress. I can hardly believe it’s a year since we met and that I have just two months to run as your president. It has been a true honour and a privilege to serve UCU Scotland and all our members. Perhaps one of the most rewarding time of my years as a trade union activist in Higher Education.
I have had the real pleasure of working with the UCU Scotland Office team, the Officers and Executive – committed, hard-working and fiercely political and of course, our members. I have met so many over the two years, on picket lines, at rallies, on marches, at GMs, at campaign stalls, at teach ins and outs, even at singing practice and have listened to their opinions, experiences, and plans to take forward their organising work in their branches to shape UCU policy and drive our union forward.
While I want to use this time to look forward, I will take a moment to reflect on the past year and the action we took to defend our USS pension. With our employers obdurate in forcing changes through, deaf to our argument that there were no compelling financial reason for changes, and short-sighted in ignoring the threat that the changes posed economically, socially and in terms of employment relations – we took the most transformative action in our history.
We have driven our employers back from the wilful sabotage of our pensions to the point we are at now (and I’m not going into the technicalities here – 13 point update)
This is a critical time and while our strike brought us the JEP (In fact, it was at this meeting last year we witnessed the delight of the negotiators as we heard the news of the JEP)
And it was the JEP that vindicated UCU’s position on the discredited 2017 valuation.
We continue to argue for the implementation of all of the JEP’s recommendations, with the custodians, not (for once) our employers of our pension unhelpfully trying to unpick JEP– and it will ultimately be for members who got us to this point, to decide whether further industrial action is required to achieve the union’s aims.
How did we do this?
We did it because at key moments we all saw the value of unity – the message that sends to members when we are fighting together.
We did it because of the brilliant leadership of our branches, because of our determined negotiators and – of course – our fantastic staff.
When we work together we are very hard to beat.
One of our students told me when I was explaining our action, of an Ethiopian saying that he thought I’d like “When spiders webs unite, they can tie down a lion”
And we have a lot to unite against.
Challenges in our workplaces
Challenges as a country
Unity is the key to fighting these challenges
We see the big issues our members struggle with in branches
workload, stress, casualization and equalities.
I’ll delighted to welcome Kathy Jenkins from Scottish Hazards to talk to us on workload and work related stress. And also to welcome Letitia McGowan from Unison to address congress on the fantastic success of the equal pay campaign in Glasgow.
Branches are the keystones of our union I must take a minute to recognise the immense work they do, day in day out for their members facing these challenges. QMU, taking action to defend members from swingeing cuts, Heriot Watt, smashing the 50% barrier as they GTVO, Edinburgh for detailed and driven work on casualization, Glasgow for H&S approaches to work related stress.
Work done by the inspiring activists in branches along with our colleagues in the UCU Scotland office.
It has been a transformative year
In which we have seen our membership and influence grow – We have grown our membership to over 7000 in Scotland
A transformative year in which we have fought and won at work.
In which we have increased participation in the union at every level
UCU Scotland starts from the position that the staff who deliver education must be at the centre of a fair, just and efficient education system. As I see it, questions of professional status and of academic freedom form a bridge between employment issues and those affecting the state of universities.
They remain as pressingly important as ever, if not more so. Progressive encroachment on the professional autonomy of our members in their workplaces through performance management schemes, have a direct impact on their working lives not least through workload.
The truth is that they have been actively created by the gradual development of managerialism internally in response to successive government initiatives from the Thatcher period onwards. I needn’t rehearse these factors here: they can, I suppose, be summed up in two mantras – ‘value for money’ and ‘efficiency gains’ From the outset, instead of actively challenging the obviously destructive policies of government, VCs and governing bodies rolled over and accepted almost without a murmur the supposed need for crass efficiency gains. We see this starkly in the rush to the game of REF and the destruction this causes to research that doesn’t fit the game playing strategies that we are about to see enacted in our universities.
Together we must keep pushing for the things that I think matter.
Like opposing the march of the market in higher education: misplaced priorities and treating higher education as a zero sum game rather than a public good and a civic and political and economic resource for the polity. This is a deep institutional problem, and a deep political problem.
Like proper investment in our universities – we have seen a Scottish budget that attacks HE with damaging consequences for students and staff in universities, at an already uncertain time – if we want Scotland to have a world-leading university system, that is also accessible to students from hard to reach backgrounds, it needs to be properly funded
Like our work with NUS, University Scotland, Scottish Government and Equally Safe in HE on fighting GBV in HE. I have had the privilege to sit on committees working together to address the 1 in 7 reports from students of unwanted sexual behaviour during their time at University. We have produced GBV support cards given to all staff in Colleges and Universities and are working towards strategy for Fresher’s week.
Like standing up for staff on casual contracts – the people who make our universities tick – and who deserve so much better. Local claims at various universities across Scotland are beginning to take effect as we see staff moved from zero hours or zero hours by another name, to contracts and gaining the employment rights that come with this.
And these are just some of the challenges that face us in Scotland over the next months and years. If we look beyond our horizon, to borrow a shipping forecast metaphor, that the outlook is not fair. Yes, here it comes – the B word
Brexit. I started writing this speech earlier this week so who knows where we are, certainly not the government. And this is still true on Thursday evening as we look to MV 3 on Friday.
What we do know is that Brexit is looming over everything we do, causing fear and anxiety across our membership. UCU members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of the union supporting a referendum on the final Brexit deal negotiated by the UK government (whatever and whenever that may be)
We see a huge outpouring on the streets and through petitions, as a split parliament and country tries to find a way forward.
And we also witnessed the dreadful events in Christchurch, the damage to mosques in Birmingham and Newcastle – events that are driven by hate and fear. We see extremists organising groups on campus and we know that racist attacks are on the rise. The rhetoric of the right fuels this fear and hatred and as TU we MUST call it out, stamp it out whenever we see it.
Education is what this union is all about and our response to the horrific incident in Christchurch must be to continue to champion knowledge, truth, tolerance and diversity. These are values that are worth fighting for.
And we can learn from the magnificent response from New Zealand both government and people – united in the face of hatred and we can watch real leadership show steel and compassion as Jacinta Arden says “We are one”
All these things matter to our members so we will campaign on them across this union because these issues of equality, justice and opportunity are in the DNA of UCU Scotland; hard wired into everything we do.
Our strength – our unique strength – in the trade union movement- is the spirit of solidarity that permeates everything we do. It is that commitment to each other and to a common cause which gives us everything we need to fight back.
We see clearly what happens as polarising debates breed distrust, contempt and fear and hatred. But it is that spirit of unity that I have had the huge honour to witness at first hand across all our branches in my term as president that gives me hope for the future.
As we move to our debates I know we will do so in that spirit of solidarity, to be calm and reasonable in our discussions, to listen and to respond to opposing views and to show our spirit of unity at all times.
Let us celebrate the achievements we have made, the USS action, in the equality gain, in local claims, in the changes in governance, in opposing GBV and look to the future – we have a day of debate, discussion and planning ahead.
Let us make this Congress a celebration of what our members do and a signal of our determination to defend them and defend education.
If I can crave your indulgence for a moment longer, I’d like to thank my fellow officers, the UCU Scotland staff who work incredibly hard supporting branches and our members, my colleagues, family and friends for supporting me to be able to take on this role. I’d thank my son but as he’s 16, that’d embarrass him forever, so I won’t.