By Rebecca Anderson
DELEGATES TO UCU’s 2018 congress witnessed an unprecedented attack on their democratic rights by the union leadership.
Officials repeatedly suspended conference when delegates refused to withdraw motions critical of the union leadership’s behaviour during the recent 14-day pensions strike.
The strike ended with members voting to accept a deal, which puts off a final decision but provides no guarantees.
Although dozens of branches, and the branch representatives’ meeting voted against accepting the deal, General Secretary Sally Hunt and senior unelected officials urged members to accept the deal. Hunt claimed she had a mandate to do this from a majority of branch reps but has repeatedly refused to provide evidence for this.
This abuse of a privileged position provoked widespread anger within the union, particularly amongst the thriving grassroots networks created by activists to sustain the strike and recruit 16,000 new members.
Four motions were submitted to congress addressing members’ concerns. Two called for a review of the union’s democratic structures, including a commitment to discuss “the appropriate number of full time elected officials and how elected representatives are to be held to account.” The other two went further: one censuring Sally Hunt, the other demanding her resignation “with immediate effect”.
The Conference Business Committee, responsible for conference standing orders, ruled that these motions, submitted by KCL, Exeter, and Sheffield, were “in order”.
A ‘strike’ is called
The response of UCU officials was to try and block them by walking out and suspending the conference, when delegates voted to keep them on the agenda. Top elected officials, including Hunt, followed them into the wings.
Delegates responsible for the motions successfully persuaded the officials to back down in respect of the two motions calling for a democracy review and delegates were able to pass these motions. However, despite delegates voting five times to keep the remaining two motions on the agenda the officials kept suspending the conference – three times in total – and eventually ended it early on the final day.
UCU officials claimed that the motions were a breach of the General Secretary’s employment rights and went so far as declare a trade dispute and picket the conference. Disgracefully, their own union – Unite – supported them in this charade.
Delegates were quick to point out that to consider an attempt of union members to hold their General Secretary to account a breach of her employment rights makes a mockery of trade union democracy.
Delegates from the University of Exeter wrote in a statement:
“We pointed out that in practice this meant that members of the Unite union are able to exercise a veto on the topics which UCU members can discuss at their annual Congress. We further pointed out that this was clear interference in the internal business of a sister trade union, and a potential breach of TUC rules. Furthermore, we disputed their interpretation of the General Secretary’s status as an employee, highlighting that she is the most high-profile elected official in the union [£137,000], and as such must be accountable to Congress, the union’s supreme policy making body.”
After officials terminated the Congress on Friday, delegates produced a collective statement:
“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’ pensions, jobs and pay.”
Oust the bureaucracy
For 14 days, UCU members stood on picket lines in blizzards and freezing temperatures, held mass meetings and teach-outs and recruited 16,000 new union members. Congress delegates voted to fight for an above-inflation pay rise and recognised that the membership knows best how to conduct that struggle and has a right to control it.
The officials’ response was that of a trade union bureaucracy, acting as a caste of well-paid negotiators whose role as compromisers between workers and their employer creates, for the bureaucracy, interests separate to the members they represent.
Almost every trade unionist will agree we need skilled leaders. But they, all of the top ones who negotiate and control action, should be elected, accountable and replaceable, should the members they serve so desire. Sally Hunt was elected. She should be replaceable – “with immediate effect” if need be.
Maybe it was the thought of dropping down to a lecturers’ average wage, currently £39,000 made Hunt lose her nerve – as it would have reduced her salary by nearly £100,000. There’s a solution to that: pay all elected officials the average wage of a skilled worker, in this case a lecturer. Careerists make poor democrats.
As for Hunt’s initial and by far most costly offence – to override strikers’ directly elected representatives and manipulate a vote to end their dispute on false information – there should be a constitutional right in the rule book for strikers and their reps to control every aspect of their dispute: in negotiations, the calling of strikes, their duration and their ending. General Secretaries are there to work for the strikers, not control them.
These are the kinds of changes that UCU branches should be discussing and submitting to the democracy review – but also fighting to implement now, insofar as rank and file control of disputes is concerned, in the forthcoming pay dispute.
Momentum is everything: if UCU militants can bounce back from this impudent bureaucratic sock on the jaw, the members can put everything they learned from the pensions strikes back into action, but this time forearmed against interference from the officials.