RHUL-UCU go to the Equalities Conference

It was a diverse group of UCU representatives who trekked to Manchester recently for the annual equalities conference; with RHUL in attendance at the disabled, women’s and LGBT+ sessions.

Disabled members meeting

The session kicked off with a collegial and relatively informal meeting for disabled members. The first item was a report on the first annual Day of Action for Disability in Education. This programme led to a series of events across the country and gave rise to a meeting in Parliament to call for legislation limiting the time employers can take to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled staff, to reverse cuts to special needs budgets, to introduce statutory disability leave for those who need time off due to their disability (thereby saving their jobs), and to strengthen accessible building regulations. It was agreed to make this an annual event, with greater publicity and advance notice next time.

The focus of subsequent presentations and debate was mental health, the links between stress and poor mental health, and the need for employers to take greater care of their staff. In part this was identified as arising from the lack of support for disabled colleagues working in universities, whether their problems were related to physical impairments, neurodiversity or mental health conditions. Of course mental health challenges also relate very directly to work-related stress – a connection most employers are aware of, and which our pay and equality claim this year attempted to tackle. Some universities are identifying this as a problem and even taking their own action, using commonly recognised measures of stress developed by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).  Yet we learned that certain universities, having distributed stress surveys, are withholding the results – a behaviour which speaks volumes. Sadly there wasn’t enough time for the interactive activities but we learned that, following the receipt of a formal “Improvement Notice” from the HSE relating to levels of work-related stress, the University of Liverpool had introduced a “Stress Management policy”. UCU branches are being encouraged to start work on reducing work-related stress by undertaking their own stress surveys, so we will be looking at the Liverpool policy for use at RHUL.

Whilst there had been a baffling array of motions for debate at the re-convened Congress in Manchester in October, delegates at the disabled members’ track only had one motion to discuss and vote on: a motion calling for university and college employers to go beyond tick-box exercises when discussing the need to develop more inclusive, disabled-friendly employment policies. The Disabled Members Standing Committee will develop a comprehensive inclusion policy to share with all Further Ed and Higher Ed establishments.

Women’s meeting

Despite chaos on the railways due to ‘high winds’ leading to most trains to Manchester being delayed and some cancelled altogether on the day of the Women’s meeting, the meeting was well attended, at least in the second half which was the point at which the RHUL delegate arrived off the delayed train from Euston. Sadly she had missed the two invited speakers who were Lynmarie O’Hara from Unison talking about the Glasgow women’s equal pay strike and Jo Seery from Thompsons Solicitors talking about sexual harassment non-disclosure agreements: the pros and cons of having them/not having them. The content was referred to throughout the rest of the meeting, suggesting both talks had been valuable. Three workshops were offered in the afternoon: a) Tackling sexual violence, b) Maternity pay – women on casualised contracts, c) Menopause – supporting women at work.

The RHUL delegate joined the first workshop on sexual violence which included sexual harassment. It was remarkable how many of the cases reported by delegates were very senior managers (all male). Many of the (female) recipients of their attentions were unwilling to name them but when they did the outcomes were unsatisfactory. On at least one occasion when the perpetrator of the harassment left the university as a result, he moved on to another university in a similarly senior position. This is particularly troubling as those who harass are often serial harassers and the problem will not be solved if they are free to repeat the behaviour at another university on the rare occasions that their guilt is established and they are required to leave their previous position. At least one caseworker at the Women’s meeting had had the disturbing experience of representing a member who was being investigated for, and was found guilty of, harassment.

Motions passed by the Women’s meeting included a number of requests to National Executive Committee including an investigation of non-disclosure agreements with the aim of developing a campaign to counter them. This motion also sought to bring a rule change to Congress 2019 aimed at expelling from UCU membership those found to be responsible for sexual harassment.

LGBT+ meeting

The meeting was well attended.  Outside speakers included a discussion on bisexuality and on intersex.  Bisexual and pansexual behaviour and identification are often ignored in the scientific and policy discussion, and there is evidence that these individuals do less well in economic and social measures.  With intersex individuals, there is a real problem in that others – parents and medical professionals – make decisions on early surgical interventions, without allowing the individual to develop and make their own decisions.  Another speaker discussed the treatment and situation of LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers, and the role that has sometimes been played by the idea that individuals could avoid persecution in their country of birth by disguising their identities.  A third speaker presented the issues on trans individuals, which quickly turned into a discussion on the interactions between feminism and gender self-identification, with the occasional mention of Germaine Greer and whether or not there was a legitimate role for withdrawing invitations or ‘no platforming’ in cases where far right, fascist groups were not involved.

Plenary and conclusion

The plenary focused on presentations from an LGBT+ and a Justice for Grenfell activist, which led from their own experiences to the consideration of intersectionality issues, and then an oft heated debate on the rise of the right.  One of the most valuable parts of the whole itinerary was a look at preparation of discrimination cases, but sadly this was curtailed by the earlier debates.  UCU will be launching a booklet for each member giving them step-by-step advice on how to identify whether they are subject to discrimination and how then they might collate the evidence needed to win their case. Overall this was an illuminating and collaborative gathering, from which valuable insights were gleaned.

Posted on behalf of RHUL-UCU Branch representatives.