LUCU News: July 2018
In this month’s newsletter, we report briefly on the University’s recent commitment to discontinue investment in the fossil fuels industry and on UCU’s establishment of a Democracy Commission. Most of this issue, however, is taken up with an interview with Matthew Inglis, who steps down as LUCU Chair on 31 July and reflects here on his time in post and on how he sees the future for the union, both locally and nationally.
In its history, LUCU has had many excellent Chairs (or, as previously, Presidents): indeed, one of them, Alan Bairner, begins another term of office on 1 August. However, we are sure members will join the Branch Committee in acknowledging Matthew’s distinction in the role. The past three years have seen many significant demands placed upon the union locally (from maximising participation in the recent strike over pensions to fashioning an effective response to restructures in Schools and sections) – but, throughout this time, LUCU has remained a relevant and cohesive force on campus, in no small part because of Matthew’s qualities as Chair. He has demonstrated to a very high degree all of the attributes he mentions below as indispensable to good union activism.
Rather than embarrass Matthew with further commendation, however, we thought it would be appropriate instead to hear from him as he steps down as Chair. We are grateful to him for taking the time to answer the newsletter’s questions so fully:
Newsletter: some people seem to be born union activists; for others, however, taking on a union role happens more slowly, perhaps even unexpectedly. Could you describe how, and why, you became actively involved in UCU at Loughborough following your appointment as a lecturer in the Mathematics Education Centre in 2008?
Matthew: as with most of my career decisions, it was fairly fortuitous. In about 2011 our department rep announced that she wanted to step down and asked if anyone would be interested in taking over. Prior to this I’d only really engaged with UCU during strikes; but, based on the principle that you should normally agree to do things that sound like they might lead to interesting and unusual situations, I volunteered. A year or so after that I was invited to attend a training event for dep reps held by our regional official on campus. I had nothing else on, so went along. Maurice FitzGerald (formally of the Teaching Centre) was organising it. Afterwards he pursued me as I walked back to my office (in a direction that was completely out of his way) and tried to convince me that the only thing the local Committee was lacking was someone exactly like me. Absurd of course, but those who remember Maurice will recall how persuasive he could be.
So, I joined the Branch Committee in 2013, and ended up serving on JNCC and ARSNC, the two main committees where we negotiate with University managers. These turned out to be extremely interesting, for all sorts of reasons. In 2015, when we needed someone to take over as Branch President, I somewhat naively felt that since the President’s main role was to be on these committees, and I already was, I may as well volunteer.
Newsletter: You describe how, over a number of years, your union commitments progressively expanded, culminating in your time in office as President (latterly Chair). During this period, you were also expected, in your academic role, to produce high-quality research, apply for grants, develop as a teacher, etc. How challenging have you found it to combine union responsibilities with those of the day job?
Matthew: I haven’t found this too problematic to be honest. But I think I’ve been lucky in a couple of respects. First, my School has a reasonably functional workload model. This means that the facilities time I get for my union work has always been taken into account when I’ve been allocated other duties. Second, in my research I’ve been very lucky to have a group of hard-working and intelligent collaborators who are all committed UCU members. So, when there have been periods where my union duties have been unusually heavy (during disputes for instance), my colleagues have always been extremely understanding and supportive.
Newsletter: The previous question might be taken as implying that life as a union activist on the one hand and life as a researcher and teacher on the other are unrelated and unlikely to infuse each other. Does this set up a false division, though? Could you say something about whether, or how, you feel your academic work has been informed and enriched by your union activism (and vice versa)?
Matthew: That’s an interesting question. I certainly feel that my union role has taught me a lot about how the University management structure works, but it might be a push to describe this as ‘enriching’. I suspect that you are right though: there are definitely similarities between academic and union work. When we represent UCU members during a consultation or negotiation, the main job is to construct a persuasive argument so that the person we’re negotiating with both clearly understands our position and agrees with as much of it as possible. This isn’t too different to what’s needed when writing an academic paper or delivering a lecture. There we want the reviewer/reader/student to both understand our interpretation/analysis and to be persuaded by it. Of course, the range of rhetorical moves available in a negotiation context is much greater than in a research or teaching context, but the basic job isn’t that different.
Newsletter: You indicate here that union work makes demands on the rhetorical skills of union negotiators. What other abilities and qualities would you say are required for effective union activism?
Matthew: There are a great many different aspects of union activism and I think these require quite different abilities and qualities. For instance, when University managers propose a new policy, we need to forensically analyse what consequences it might have for our members and whether it is consistent with various existing national agreements. This is a very different activity to making a speech at a Branch meeting with the aim of persuading members to vote for industrial action. Supporting a member who is distressed by the behaviour of their line manager is a completely different activity again. An effective Branch Committee will have a range of people with a range of skills: some will be good at forensic analysis of proposed policies, some at negotiating, some at campaigning, and some will be good at empathising with members in distress. I’d like to think that, between us, our Branch Committee covers most areas pretty well.
Newsletter: Demonstrated not only by the Branch Committee but by so many of our members at Loughborough, the skills and abilities you mention were strikingly on display in the strike in February and March over the future of our pensions. Several months later, what are your reflections on that four-week period? What was learned?
Matthew: Obviously, the main lesson was that UCU members are willing to stand up to unreasonable managers and that, despite the anti-union laws, when we stick together we win. That’s something that all our members – and all UUK’s members – need to remember.
But there were other lessons too. I think the Branch worked very effectively with local managers to positively influence the national course of the dispute. For example, the Vice-Chancellor’s public letter of early January was one of the first signs that UUK’s line was not going to hold. As he explained at the time, this letter reflected the constructive discussions we’d had in the autumn. To my mind, this is a very clear example of the benefits we can accrue by openly engaging with management. Although we won’t always agree, it benefits us, them, and the University as a whole if we can maintain the kind of constructive relationship envisaged by the Partnership Agreement.
I’m less happy with our failure to achieve an equivalent relationship with the Students’ Union. Although we were supported on the picket lines by students every day, we had no official support from LSU. This was in sharp contrast to the situation at the majority of universities involved in the dispute, and to the position of the National Union of Students. I think we all need to ask some searching questions about why, despite Branch officers’ attempts to engage with them, student representatives were not willing to support their staff.
Newsletter: As you step down from your position as Branch Chair, how would you assess the state of the union, both locally and nationally?
Matthew: Locally I think we are in a fairly healthy state. Our membership is higher than it has ever been, we continue to provide high-quality casework support to members who need it, and we’ve had some notable policy successes (e.g., improvements to the lecture capture policy, defending automatic increments, refunds for unlawful strike pay deductions, defending Tier 2 visa holders from unreasonable monitoring, etc.).
But nationally the picture is not as positive. Recent events at UCU Congress indicate that the union faces serious internal challenges [for a report in Tes on the events Matthew refers to, click here]. My view is that there exist two quite different and possibly incompatible views of what a union ought to be: should it be member-led or activist-led? More precisely, what happens if a particular course of action, or a particular General Secretary, seems to command the support of the majority of members but not the majority of activists (or vice versa)? The union’s decision- making structures (a mixture of votes taken by activists at Congress, votes of committees elected by the wider membership, and all-member ballots) are not designed with such a scenario in mind. Unless people with quite different views are willing to calmly discuss their positions and become much more willing to compromise with each other than currently seems to be the case, then there is a danger that the union may become dysfunctional.
UCU’s Democracy Commission
Members may have seen that delegates to this summer’s UCU Congress voted to establish a Democracy Commission to review the union’s structures of representation and governance, with a view to producing recommendations for national discussion next year. Further details can be found here on UCU’s national website. Each Branch is entitled to nominate one of its members for election to the Commission – and so, if anyone is interested in being considered for what is an interesting opportunity to contribute to thinking about the union’s future, please contact us as soon as possible. The timetable is tight, with Branch nominations to be received at UCU head office no later than 5 p.m. on Friday 10 August.
Campaign against fossil fuel investment
Space allows us only to note briefly here the University’s decision, announced early this month, to discontinue investing in fossil fuel companies and to divest itself of existing holdings within three years. We greatly welcome this new policy, since, as reported in previous newsletters, disinvestment from fossil fuels has been a campaigning priority not only of UCU nationally but of Loughborough students who belong to the People & Planet group.
To be continued
Our next newsletter is scheduled to appear in late August. In the meantime, continue to contact us with your views and suggestions with regard to LUCU activities on campus. The Committee’s contact details can be found here; we hope you will also follow us on both Facebook and Twitter.
LUCU Committee, 31st July 2018