On Friday, the General Secretary sent notice to all UCU members of a flat rate levy which will be applied in order to support the union’s fighting fund.1 The prospect of a flat levy has caused huge upset, with pain most keenly felt by casualised members and those on lower salaries. 

Many of the NEC members (including me) who ultimately voted for the authorisation did so on the understanding it was a last resort, and that motions and proposals passed with respect to additional financial measures and fundraising efforts should be deployed, at full pelt, to avoid the need to impose a levy at all. Many NEC members were distressed and very uncomfortable with a flat levy, and in light of [Rule 11.3] suggestions of progressive rates and/or alternative installments were made, but NEC were advised that our rules and accounting constraints meant there was no other option than a flat rate. Various proposals were put forward with respect to alternative allocation of funds and savings from other budget lines and with respect to borrowing from the budget a year ahead. Several key proposals were met with advice that they were not possible in that they were not permitted by union rules or fell foul of accounting standards.

Since the decision was communicated (and discussion of it therefore permitted) a number of members with legal and financial backgrounds have contacted me directly to question the advice given to the NEC on constraints in how a levy could be administered. As President, given doubt that has been cast on that advice, I have begun to investigate this process in detail and to identify what can be done about it.

I have written urgently to the UCU General Secretary, the UCU Senior Management Team, and the lay UK Officer team (which includes the Treasurer) to request clarification of the advice that was consistently given to the NEC on these matters. I am working hard to identify a way forward that would enable the NEC to consider and decide upon necessary alternative options to protect our lower paid and precarious members. 

As a first step, I will formally propose to the GS that the NEC should hold an urgent special meeting to determine a means of protecting our most precarious and lowest paid members from any levy. I believe the NEC urgently needs to meet in order to review the situation, including:

  • Information which queries the limited possibilities previously presented to the NEC
  • Information received from branches that are in a position to donate from local funds
  • Information recently communicated to me about an approach taken by the previous GS which was designed to avoid the need for a levy

A strict confidentiality requirement was placed on all NEC members regarding financial information communicated to the NEC on 14 February and 19 June, alongside an embargo on the information that a levy would be applied at all: no NEC member (myself included) have been permitted to discuss the levy or the union’s financial information with branches or members until the news was communicated by the GS. I very much hope that the branch officers briefing called by the General Secretary on Thursday 2 July will help to address this and that representatives will be given more information they can take back to branches, to report back to members. I believe the Treasurer (Steve Sangwine) and the past President (Douglas Chalmers) will be present to help answer questions.

Concerns currently being raised by members now that the levy has been announced were also raised by many members of the NEC. Though not yet distributed via branch circular or on the [NEC section] of the website, the  minutes from February appear to now be available on this [link], in circulation on social media since yesterday. The minutes are brief, but they do indicate that the issue of whether a levy could be applied in a differential and/or proportional way was discussed. A proposal to make the levy progressive was met with the information that this was not possible. This is now in doubt, as explained above, and I intend to get to the bottom of it. 

I will issue a further statement after the branch briefing, which I hope will help us to identify the most appropriate way forward. I believe it is vital that we, as a union, find a way to protect our lowest paid and most precarious members. I note that many branches have already swung into action seeking ways to mitigate the impact of the levy on members who will be hit hardest by it. 

We must urgently find a fairer way forward which protects our most precarious and lowest paid members while enabling the union to fight industrial disputes.

  1. Notes

By definition union activities are governed by rules to control the use of money raised from members. Some funds are also controlled by law, e.g. the union’s political fund. The full union rules are [here].

The fighting fund budget is used to pay for the running of any formal industrial (postal) UCU ballot in Further or Higher Education, usually by Civica (formerly Electoral Reform Services) and to support members’ claims following a strike designated as one of ‘national significance’. The proportion of subs income placed into the fighting fund is also stipulated within the rules, as ‘at least 1%’ (rule 31.5). The exact amount placed into the budget is determined when the budget is put to Congress and confirmed each year. Difficulties with holding Congress at the usual time (due to the pandemic) means the accounts and budget that would usually be presented in 2020 are not yet in the public domain. However the equivalent information presented to Congress 2019 can be found from links listed [here]:

For members participating in any dispute to be able to access the fighting fund requires a decision of the full National Executive Committee (NEC). It cannot be decided by either the Further, or Higher Education Committees alone. The decision to raise a levy can also only be taken by a quorate and properly called meeting of the NEC, and requires a two-thirds majority.

As others have also explained, the decision to authorise a levy to the membership can only be taken by a quorate meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC), which is the union’s full elected executive body comprising Further and Higher Education representatives (see Rule 11). A decision to apply a levy requires a two-thirds majority. In rule, NEC meetings are called by the President (at that time Douglas Chalmers) and the General Secretary (Jo Grady). It is usual for the General Secretary to give a report at meetings of the NEC, HEC, and FEC, and in so doing to offer advice to the meeting, and to take questions from the floor. 

The decision about the levy was taken, along with a motion and further proposals from the floor, at a special, short meeting on 14 February 2020. The entire meeting was marked as strictly confidential. Confidential papers were tabled on the day, and collected back in again at the end of the meeting. Members were reminded not to make copies of the papers. This level of confidentiality was explained in connection with the industrial sensitivity of the business for which the one hour meeting had been called by the General Secretary and President: ‘the specified business of union finances, including expenditure charged to the fighting fund’. 

In outlining the paper circulated on the day and in responding during debate, the Honorary Treasurer (Steve Sangwine) informed the meeting of advice that the only possible way the UCU rules allow a levy is at a flat rate, and that no specified groups members could be exempted. This was questioned by numerous concerned members at the meeting and the advice reiterated, noting rule changes would be required at Congress. 

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