Hold them to account
Kevin Bean of the University of Liverpool branch reports on the attempts by the UCU leadership to sabotage union democracy
In what can only be described as unprecedented scenes of chaos and confusion, the annual congress of the University and College Union was last week brought to a premature conclusion by a walkout of full-time staff, including the general secretary, and the suspension of congress by the union’s president.
This final suspension on the last day was the culmination of a simmering showdown between the UCU’s leadership and the majority of delegates that had been building up since two similar walkouts and suspensions on the first day of the three-day gathering. The immediate issues in contention were two motions critical of general secretary Sally Hunt for her handling of the dispute with the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS): one from Exeter University called for her to resign, whilst the other - from King’s College, London - censured her for her conduct during the dispute.1 Although sections of the union leadership and full-time officials have attempted to muddy the waters with talk of “breaching employment rights” and “concerns over health and safety”, the real issues at the heart of this turmoil are fundamental questions of democracy and the accountability of elected leaders to the membership of the union.2
This disruption was carefully orchestrated by the general secretary, president and a narrow majority of the national executive committee in close collaboration with senior full-time officials to both prevent discussion of these motions and silence wider criticisms of the way in which the pensions campaign had been handled. After each suspension and walkout the microphones were switched off, so that the majority of delegates who wanted to continue congress business were unable to do so: they were literally trying to shut us up. On four occasions over the three days a majority of delegates voted to discuss the two motions, which had been deemed to be within the standing orders of the union by the elected conference business committee. Yet still Sally Hunt and her coterie refused to have the debate and effectively wrecked the congress.
However, she did eventually put forward some sort of justification - three days after the congress! In an email to all union members on June 4, Hunt defended her sabotage by hiding behind the Unite branch which organises staff members employed by the UCU (and which she has only recently joined). Citing claims that the motions proposed “serious disciplinary penalties on an employee of the union, while denying them the due process”, she suggested that quite justified criticisms of her were based on “the politics of personality” and an attempt to “nullify the democratic election of a general secretary”.
In seeking to blame a militant minority for the wrecking of the congress, Hunt was joined by supporters of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, who condemned critics as “ultra-left” and “opportunist” - their “antics”, which included criticising the leadership and leaking such “disputes” to the press, “can only do damage” to the union.3 Interestingly, the original print version of the report blamed “Socialist Workers Party and anarchist members of the union” for attempting to force Hunt’s resignation, but this was later removed from the online version.
The current known as the Independent Broad Left forms the largest faction on the NEC and, in alliance with the leading full-time officials and supported by the CPB, are determined to maintain their control of the union’s apparatus and thus their domination of the UCU’s ‘permanent government’.
Let us be clear about the significance of what is and is not happening in the UCU. The immediate central issue is one of democracy: is the union to be run by a clique around the general secretary or by its supreme policy-making body, the congress elected by the membership? Hunt cannot have it both ways: on the one hand, she claims democratic legitimacy as a general secretary elected by the membership, but, on the other, she hides behind her rights as an employee of the union. On this somewhat theological reading of her status she is two persons in one and, as such, seems to be accountable to no-one at all - least of all to the members via their elected delegates.
That this question of democratic accountability has arisen at all should surprise nobody. For years the UCU has been run as a relatively cosy club by the IBL-dominated leadership, only responding when it was absolutely forced by the demands of its membership for action on pay or worsening conditions in higher and further education. These campaigns of limited strikes, combined with political lobbying were largely ineffective in either defending the living standards of the membership or in halting the attacks on our sector. There was a widespread sense of defeatism, reflected in general demoralisation in our colleges and universities.
That changed with the USS pensions dispute earlier this year. A series of strikes in defence of our pension rights galvanised the membership and brought a whole new layer of activists into the union.4 As the general secretary acknowledged herself in her report to congress, the union has been transformed by these strikes, which saw some 40,000 lecturers, researchers, academic-related and professional support staff take action across 64 institutions.5 As a result UCU activism has increased and membership was boosted by no less than 16,000. Many of these new activists are from groups previously unorganised who are being drawn into trade union activity for the first time - such as early career academics on short-term contracts and other members of the growing precariat in British higher and further education. These new voices - bringing a new urgency and a radically different sense of how their union should be run - were very much among those we heard from May 30 to June 1. It was clear from listening to contributions from the floor that easily 50% of the speakers were at their first congress. They brought the militancy of the picket lines and a belief that a fight could be won into the conference hall: in tone and enthusiasm they were a million miles from the stale platitudes and tired rhetoric heard from the platform.
The various defeats that the leadership suffered (when we were actually allowed to conduct congress business and discuss motions) and indeed the ‘nuclear option’ that Hunt and her friends ultimately deployed are pointers to the future.6 They show both the militancy of the new wave of activists and the fear of the leadership that the balance of power in the union is finally shifting against them. This sense that the UCU was being transformed before our eyes was best captured in the dying minutes of the congress. When a national official, the head of democratic services (no irony intended), finally came onto the platform after the last walkout to announce that the conference had ended, a majority of delegates stayed put in the hall and convened an impromptu session which voted to continue the fight for a democratic union. After 30 minutes discussion the following statement was signed by 131 delegates, a clear majority of the delegates:
We, UCU elected delegates, voted repeatedly in line with the advice of our congress business committee to hear motions criticising the general secretary, which were in order. Unfortunately the general secretary and a narrow majority of the national executive committee refused to accept the right of congress to debate these motions.
We believe the union members have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account. This is a basic democratic right in all trade union and representative systems (eg, parliament). We disagree with the walkouts and reject the notion that the motions include a threat to undermine staff terms and conditions. There is no issue with the conduct and performance of our wonderful and hardworking UCU staff members. To turn a debate about our democratic process as a union into a procedural employment dispute is to evacuate our capacity to act as a political body.
We resolve to continue to conduct the campaigns and defence of our members over pay and pensions that we all agree on and also to urge a debate in all branches and union bodies to discuss democracy in our union. We also resolve to continue the motions at a recall conference and not be distracted from the campaign to defend our members’ jobs, pay and pensions.7
The fight now goes out to the membership. As Sally Hunt’s email has shown, the leadership and the full-time officials will attempt to utilise their control of the apparatus to put the case in defence of their actions at congress. In response activists are taking their case directly to the members by calling branch meetings and passing resolutions of protest. Elections for delegates to a special higher education sector conference on June 21 are also underway. Various regional and local committees are organising meetings and rallies to discuss the way forward for the defence of democracy in our union, such as a conference called by London region for June 9 on ‘Which way for the UCU’ or the rank-and-file network meeting in Sheffield on June 23.8
The issues are clear. The next few months will see serious battle joined - between those who are resisting change and defending the status quo, and those who want a democratic union fighting for our interests. The leadership must be held to account - for the future of the union it is a fight we must win.
1. For the exact wording of the two contentious motions see www.ucu.org.uk/article/9501/Business-of-the-Strategy-and-Finance-Committee#2.
2. See www.timeshighereducation.com/news/sally-hunt-clings-ucu-leader-congress-curtailed.
4. For examples of this process, see my Weekly Worker articles, ‘Wave of militancy’ (March 1), ‘Taking stock at half time’ (March 22) and ‘Build on what we achieved’ (April 26).
5. See www.ucu.org.uk/article/9516/UCU-general-secretary-Congress-2018-speech.
6. Before the final shutdown on Friday, congress had passed a motion reaffirming the right of members to debate and vote on motions critical of our elected representatives. Delegates also committed the union to a recall congress at the earliest opportunity to deal with business lost as a result of the leadership’s sabotage, along with a special delegate conference to discuss how to build greater democracy and transparency in the UCU.
7. See #OurUCU: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1iFQDA3dv4tjp1_m6fsZXlmK4DKidFaTBlfhtf2gk7ZE/edit.
8. For further details on the London region meeting see https://uculondonregion.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/after-congress. For the rank-and-file meeting see www.facebook.com/events/2051183441873202/.