Bristol UCU demonstration during the 14 day strike, March 2018. Photo: Jack Hazeldine Bristol UCU demonstration during the 14 day strike, March 2018. Photo: Jack Hazeldine

The annual UCU conference has begun and the leadership, unwilling to accept criticism, has acted anti-democratically and with contempt of its members reports Des Freedman

Democracy thwarted – that’s the outcome of an extraordinary opening day of the annual conference of UCU, the union representing university and college staff including those who took 14 days of strike action in February and March to oppose cuts to their pension.

Three times in a single day, the union’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, led a walk out of full-time officials in order to prevent delegates voting on motions that were critical of Hunt and the union’s leadership. This follows widespread criticism of the lack of accountability of UCU officials during negotiations with the employers over pensions and substantial manoeuvring in order to impose a ballot on the employer’s offer against the wishes of dozens of branches. Motion 10 from Exeter called for the resignation of the general secretary while Motion 11 from King’s censured her for not accurately relaying the positions of branches at a national delegates’ meeting in March. A motion from Sheffield that called for a review of the union’s democratic structures was initially kept off the conference agenda but delegates voted to hear it and then passed the motion itself.

Conference was suspended several times as officials complained that these motions would “breach agreements between Unite [representing the officials] and UCU which protect employees’ dignity at work and right to due process.” Unite has now, apparently, declared a trade dispute with UCU.

For many delegates, this was simply a premeditated attempt to scupper democratic debate and to prevent legitimate discussion about the tactics adopted by the leadership during the dispute. Motions 10 and 11 were both ordered onto the conference agenda many weeks ago so why wait until the very last minute to raise objections? Even more worryingly, where is the democratic mandate to put pressure on rank and file delegates to withdraw motions that have been passed in quorate branch meetings?

According to TassiaKobylinska, a delegate representing Goldsmiths, “the phrase ‘Motions 10 and 11’ will now enter the lexicon of our future discussions about democracy and accountability and making the university ours. Shutting down debate never works and walking out on motions that were democratically voted for in branches has only strengthened members’ resolve to hold the leadership to account.”

In fact, while many branches have been vocal in their criticism of the leadership’s conduct during the dispute, very few were actually willing to table motions of no confidence in the general secretary, focusing instead on more proactive initiatives designed to wrest back control of the dispute from unelected officials. For example, more than 20 branches backed a call for a Special Higher Education Conference designed specifically to discuss the pensions dispute – an event that is now due to take place on 21 June – while conference itself voted for a national dispute committee to oversee any future action.

The leadership’s behaviour yesterday marks the sharpest break yet between the energy and determination of the thousands of new members who joined UCU during the pensions dispute and the conservatism of a leadership that refuses basic demands for transparency and accountability. It demonstrates that there is a gulf between a rank and file that showed enormous spirit throughout the spring and a leadership that shows little concern for allowing this rank and file to shape the union’s strategy.

It’s vital that both motions are debated on Friday – without intimidation or the red-baiting that has inevitably been part of the press reaction. If the officials once again threaten to walk out and suspend the conference, then delegates should do what they did in response to the first walk-outs: continue the debate, listen to the motions and take charge of the union.

There will be voices that argue that the shenanigans at conference mark the end of the UCU as a serious force and as a democratic union. The best response is not to give up on the union but to tackle the bureaucracy by non-bureaucratic means: by building activist branches that will produce delegates who demand a different kind of leadership than the one that we currently have.

So it’s vital that activists remain fully focused on meeting the external challenges we face. Pay is a central issue for the whole union. Ten further education colleges have been on strike with action continuing over the next couple of weeks while higher education members are set to ballot soon on the employers’ “final offer” of 2 percent. The pensions strike is in a hiatus pending the outcome of the deliberations of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), the body that was set up by both UCU and employers in order to come up with a valuation that provides a more meaningful view of USS assets than the one that triggered the initial dispute. There is no guarantee, however, that the JEP will actually deliver on its promise nor that the USS Trustees will actually listen to its recommendations. Activists have to find ways of rebuilding the momentum that has, not surprisingly, ebbed since the dispute was suspended. The Special Higher Education Sector Conference provides one such opportunity but reconvening strike committees before the end of the summer term in order to prepare for further industrial action in the autumn is equally important.

The actions of the leadership in Manchester are shameful and in stark contrast to the imagination and inspiration shown by ordinary strikers in both further and higher education. Our best response to a leadership that can’t take legitimate criticism is to show leadership ourselves: organising to win the pay ballots, to work with students against marketisation and to be the backbone of a defence of public education.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.