More transparency will improve the UCU’s democratic processes

Vicky Blake outlines recommendations from the University and College Union’s democracy commission, established after intense infighting at the union’s 2018 congress

December 5, 2019
Magnifying glass

The University and College Union is holding a special congress on Saturday 7 December to consider the recommendations made by a temporary elected body, the democracy commission (DC).

The DC was established as a mechanism to discuss and debate necessary changes to increase accountability and transparency in the union’s democratic structures. The relevant motions that constituted it can be found here. As one of the commission’s co-chairs, I have been reflecting this week on what we set out to achieve, the difficulties we encountered and how we must learn from this to build and open up our structures.

Trade unions thrive through democracy and the active participation of their membership. In the end, trade unions are their members. Labyrinthine bureaucratic structures, rules and processes, accompanied by jargon overload, often frustrate this. Anyone familiar with what happened at the UCU congress in summer 2018 will be well aware of what can happen when things go wrong – when trust in union structures and processes breaks down.

Armed with a folder full of rules, standing orders, processes and structures, we set to work. Although our mandate was wide-ranging, the motions that established the DC were silent on how we should conduct our business. The 42 delegates elected met nine times in just under a year between October 2018 and September 2019. We were not a decision-making body; we were a commission that was mandated to submit recommendations via the union’s national executive committee (NEC) to congress.

It was our firm belief that the German statesman Otto von Bismarck was wrong when he said the two things you shouldn’t see made are laws and sausages; the DC modelled transparency by publishing its minutes on the UCU website, in addition to supplementary papers provided by members of the commission.

That transparency shows something that is probably always true: democracy is messy. The politics of the individuals elected to the commission were varied, as they should be, and this led to much debate within the commission. In terms of process, the motions that constituted the DC did not delimit how we were to manage our affairs; this left space for creativity. It also meant that we had to work fast to ensure both that voices were heard and that the commission would ultimately be able to provide meaningful recommendations.

In the spirit of collective action that trade unionism represents, not all individuals on the commission agree with each and every final recommendation that appears in its report – some would strongly disagree with individual recommendations – but we do take collective responsibility as a commission for the report. In our interim report, we noted that we had divided our work under five headings:

  • Recall (of elected members and general secretary) and triggers (for recall)
  • Accountability (other than recall) and transparency
  • Structural issues/implications, including the role of paid officials
  • Conduct of disputes
  • Engagement and representation.

Working groups considered each area and brought forward proposals. In our interim report, we agreed in principle that all those elected to the NEC should be subject to recall; technical issues were then flagged around which bodies would have responsibility for this process.

The office of the general secretary – criticism of which via submitted congress motions triggered the 2018 events – should also be subject to recall, and in our final report we recommended that the position’s term be cut to three-year terms and be term-limited to three terms in total.

We recommended the constitution of national disputes committees to manage disputes; we recommended the creation of elected deputy general secretary positions, to ensure that if the general secretary is required to take a leave of absence, the running of the union would be assumed by officials elected by the membership. We made numerous other recommendations besides, all available in the final report.

We faced huge difficulties not merely in discussing the issues among ourselves, but also in terms of the options available to us for implementation. We were regularly presented with legal advice informing us that certain avenues were not possible; we noted in our report that it would be helpful if we could receive legal advice as to what was possible.

Delegates to the commission worked hard to achieve compromises, and where that wasn’t possible we reached a majority decision. We sought to model the kind of practice that has become the norm in community organising, if not (yet) in “traditional” trade unionism: non-hierarchical, inclusive and feminist.

Contributions and insights from delegates new to UK-level UCU activism were particularly welcome. The challenge of demystifying the union to make it more transparent to members as a whole was greatly aided by the points they raised and the questions they asked. Delegates were asked to find time for this important work on top of their existing workloads, despite many of them not having backfilled facilities time to support their participation.

As we noted in our interim and final reports, the work of the democracy commission needs to be ongoing, beyond the commission itself. It was only ever possible for it to make a start. What is required now is that the union as a whole, at all levels, engage in a culture shift towards prioritising democracy and democratic norms in its practice. The DC was never intended to be the last word, but rather the opening words of a bigger conversation.

It’s in that spirit that I look forward to discussing its report with delegates at the special congress in Manchester this week. We are agreed that the events of congress 2018 must never happen again. In difficult circumstances, I am proud of what the commission managed to achieve, and I am excited by the opportunities this conversation presents for our activism and campaigning in the fights to come.

Vicky Blake is vice-president of the University and College Union and chair of its higher education committee. She is also a widening participation officer at the University of Leeds.

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