Mobilising the political anger that connects the majority of UCU members can give the confidence and determination we need to take on the government argues John Westmoreland
The University and Colleges Union’s (UCU) presidential election has seen the incumbent president, Sally Hunt, re-elected with a sizeable majority over her opponent Mark Campbell of UCU Left. Hunt got 73% of the votes cast and says this gives her a clear mandate.
However, only 12.5% of the union’s membership voted, so what the figures show is that Sally Hunt’s supporters were more successful at mobilising members than UCU Left was. The vast majority of members remained untouched.
Hunt’s comments in victory reveal the nature of the campaign she fought: “I stood on a platform of improving services for members and supporting branches, campaigning on what matters and giving members more say in the union's decisions”. Hunt and her supporters have portrayed themselves as the ‘real union’ and characterised the Left as an unrepresentative group of militants who are hijacking the union for political gain. They emphasized that Mark Campbell is a member of the SWP. It is possible that attacks on the Left will now become more open and vicious.
However, the most important consequence could be that the union moves closer to the TUC and Labour leaderships. ‘Fighting’ the government will mean moderate political point scoring rhetoric, plus an emphasis on a growing mountain of casework in the branches.
But the scale of the government assault will reveal the bankruptcy of Hunt’s boasts. The wholesale privatisation and marketisation of education will involve contracts being re-written and funding becoming more dependent on hitting ridiculous targets. Teachers, students and education will be made an appendage of business.
Life in colleges is frustrating and stressful. As the budgets are cut there is a demand that standards rise. Teachers are being asked to provide political cover for the government cuts, which is precisely why Gove and Cameron place so much emphasis on teacher ‘performance’. When results are affected by increased class sizes and an ever growing bureaucracy teachers are blamed – and students and parents are actively encouraged to blame them.
In my college the Director of Finance showed union reps a chart showing budget cuts of about 9% per year until 2015. He said the reductions were inevitable. I commented that teachers couldn’t be blamed for that and we might as well stop ‘competing’ if we are bound to lose. But no, only funding is going to go down.
Even where people can cope with a heavy workload, by going way beyond the demands of their contract, they still have the fear of failure. New statistical devices are called up by managers to put pressure on staff and make them question their own performance. Any sign of failure leads to a ‘performance review’.
The real story of the election for president is the 87.5% of UCU members who did not feel the need to vote. They did not vote for Hunt’s moderate stance, but nor did they vote for the UCU Left’s strategy of taking increased industrial action.
UCU members have not given in to free market ideology. They are not apathetic and right wing. Anger at their treatment is combined with understanding that they are in a dangerous and vulnerable situation.
Mobilising the political anger that connects the majority of members can give the confidence and determination we need to take on the government. But the trade unions and the Labour Party are not going to do this, and this is where the Left need to look closely at how they can be most effective.
Organising a solely economic response to the attacks moves us onto the ground of the right wing. Sally Hunt will play on the fear of members to talk down action, while promising to work doubly hard to overcome the attacks. Activists in branches are not able to overcome this fear by using the normal methods available to us. With workload and stress levels rising members are reluctant to give up time to go to meetings or even read the barrage of e-mails that they get.
The surface passivity of members will reinforce the arguments of the right. Activists who themselves are over-worked are now having to do even more casework as people go under through bullying managers. Trade union struggle at the present inevitably means slogging away while making precious little gains.
Yet most members understand that the scale of the response we need to fight the cuts has to be much greater than UCU offers. Put simply, trade unions are defensive and sectional organisations that are engaged in the minutiae of the struggle - and we need large scale and significant actions in a world crisis of capitalism.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the Greek meltdown, internationalism is relevant, effective and appealing. Our local and sectional disputes need to be connected to these wider struggles in response to a world capitalist crisis.
Let me give two examples from my own college of how this connection between the wider crisis and the local scene works. The Humanities department brought in outside speakers on two occasions earlier this year - to talk about the Arab Spring and ‘Alternatives to Austerity’.
For both meetings the lecture theatre was packed – about 175 students and some staff with every seat and most floor space taken. Both speakers faced robust and intelligent questions from the students present. Staff and students came away buzzing. John Rees told them he marched against the Egyptian army and about how a dictator fell. When James Meadway attacked the government as ‘economically illiterate’ students discovered that the government tells lies and the BBC support those lies – and, above all, that the arguments against austerity are far stronger than those for it.
This is the real education that Sally Hunt should promote along with the left who want to inject enthusiasm into the union. Everyone present agreed that these meetings bring out the best in people, because we live in times where big ideas and big actions are desired. UCU branch meetings get about 10 people, committee meetings 2, but political meetings can deliver nearly 200.
There is an audience for socialist ideas. After James spoke a delegation of staff and students went into York to join an anti-cuts protest. Three students that listened to James got up and made excellent speeches.
This strategy of building on the political anger will never work unless we can provide sizeable and credible leadership. The Left needs to demand from Sally Hunt and the other trade union leaders the kind of tactics and campaigns that the membership can get involved in.
The most obvious place to start is with a defence of education itself. The need to unite school, college and university teachers with the students that are being denied education as a right has never been more pressing or more achievable, as Gove and the Tories pursue a policy of wholesale marketization.
Every city and campus could hold a ‘Real Education Day’ with speakers and topics and workshops. We could help shape this and connect it to Greece, Afghanistan and Iran. And the next time we go on strike in defence of pensions – which we will hopefully be doing on 28 March - we should be marching behind an international banner.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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