The congress of the University and College Union (UCU) on 30 May to 1 June was repeatedly shut down by officials to prevent discussion of motions criticising the General Secretary, Sally Hunt.
The 14 days of strikes this year to defend USS pensions in 65 universities, and a coordinated wave of local campaigns in further education colleges, have boosted union membership and pushed forward a new generation of activists.
But in mid-March Hunt attempted to sell members a raw deal from the employers to halt the strikes, only to be pushed back by a resounding “no” from branch delegates and a hundreds-strong protest by members outside union HQ.
Two weeks later the employers made a somewhat-improved offer, pausing the implementation of cuts and establishing a Joint Expert Panel to re-examine the issue. The leadership put it to a ballot of members. Ultimately it was accepted by a 64% majority.
Many activists objected to the conduct of the leadership, and Hunt particularly, in securing that “yes” vote.
Despite denying branch delegates an indicative vote on whether the offer was good enough to merit a ballot, Hunt claimed the majority of branches wanted one.
Despite the union executive not agreeing to issue a recommendation, Hunt sent four emails to members urging them to accept the deal and misrepresenting the position of many “no” advocates. Just one message setting out the “no” case was sent, a mere 24 hours before the ballot closed.
Two of the contentious motions at the congress were proposals for democracy reviews questioning the balance of power between members on the one hand, and the leadership and senior appointed officials on the other. Two specifically protested the General Secretary’s conduct in the pensions dispute: motion 10, from Exeter University branch, called for Hunt’s immediate resignation, and motion 11 from Kings College London branch censured her specifically over her claim that branches supported the ballot.
On arriving at congress, delegates were handed leaflets by the Unite chapel representing UCU staff declaring that the offending motions would constitute a breach of staff employment rights. If they were discussed, staff would walk out and shut the event down.
Repeatedly across the three days of Congress, the elected Congress Business Committee emphasised that the motions had been deemed legitimate, and delegates voted to hear them.
But staff walked out and shut down proceedings each time, even declaring a trade dispute (since then, an email apparently leaked from the Unite branch covering this chapel indicates that the branch does not yet have an official position on the walkouts).
Farcically, senior officials walking out with their employer, the General Secretary, to lock out members from their own congress, was framed as a “strike”. Those who suggested the Congress should continue despite the officials’ walkout were branded “scabs”.
A compromise was reached to edit the democracy review motions, which were then passed. When it came to the motions criticising the General Secretary, UCU officials acting in their capacity as Unite members absolutely refused to accept any option other than removing them from the agenda.
The frantic defence of the General Secretary’s right to continue drawing her £138k salary is particularly galling for the growing proportion of her members who find themselves precariously employed on low wages and diminishing, insecure pensions.
Some right-wing members of the exec argued that if members didn’t like what officials were doing they should wait until the next general secretary election in 2022 – and that expressing dissent in the meantime makes the union look weak in front of the employer.
That argument is particularly weak at the end of a year in which twice as many new members joined the union as voted for Hunt in 2017.
Hunt’s supporters also engaged in shameless red-baiting and McCarthyite conspiracy claims. Even though none of the Exeter and KCL delegates were members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, efforts to hold the GS to account were claimed to be a secret SWP coup attempt.
Hunt had support from the Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain, who are a leading force within the right-wing IBL faction on the UCU’s executive that supports Hunt against the left.
The CPB’s paper, the Morning Star, published a report by Young Labour International Officer Marcus Barnett relaying their denunciation of the “tactical insanity” and “opportunism” of the attacks on Hunt by “ultra-left elements”.
The third and final shutdown saw the congress closed early without discussion of motions 10 and 11. However, before this happened, delegates managed to pass emergency motions opposing the suppression of dissent against an elected representative and requiring a recall conference to deal with these and the other remaining business which was curtailed by the shenanigans.
After proceedings were halted, the majority of delegates remained and collectively agreed a statement under the banner “Our UCU”, opposing the shutdowns and urging debate in UCU branches and bodies about the state of union democracy.
The episode was an almost cartoonish illustration of the tendency of union bureaucracies to become self-protecting, self-perpetuating machines – in confrontation with their members if necessary. Many members who would not previously have wanted to force Hunt out, will have been convinced by this farcical display of disregard for basic union democracy and rejection of accountability.
Making the UCU fit for purpose cannot simply be a matter of replacing the faces at the top.
While it has provided valuable opposition, the UCU Left faction functions largely as an electoral vehicle and agitational platform.
A genuine transformation must come from below and requires a grassroots network bringing together the activists – and crucially the branches – who are committed to more participatory democracy and more militant strategies both locally and nationally. The initiatives which sprung up during the USS campaign, like UCU Rank-and-File and UCU Branch Solidarity Network, are a promising start, and efforts of this type will be key to winning the battles ahead.
Immediately, supportive branches must apply pressure on HQ to hold the recall conference mandated by Congress’ emergency motion as well as debating the matters locally.
Though we must hope it does not come to this, branches should be prepared to run it themselves if HQ refuses.
You can read comment by a Unite member here.
• Coverage of the USS strikes and deal can be found at: bit.ly/2sz3m21, bit.ly/2HmzgDA, and bit.ly/2sz3m21
• Text of the motions: bit.ly/2sGRFWI
• Statement by Exeter delegates: bit.ly/2Jjrlml
• Statement by King’s delegates: bit.ly/2Jil5Aa
• OurUCU on Twitter: OurUcu
• A follow up meeting has been organised by London Region UCU for Saturday 9 June: bit.ly/2Lz1lnX