UCU congress: we are the university, and we are the union too

The chaos at the UCU congress reflects the same concerns around democracy and accountability that members have about university leaders, writes Mike Finn, who argues for a member-led union

June 28, 2018
UCU pensions sign
Source: Alamy

This year’s university strike was the largest mobilisation of university staff in industrial action in British history. Its strength lay in the branches and the membership as a whole. It was branches who coordinated teach-outs and volunteer universities, who adopted local messages particular to their own circumstances and, most of all, it was the unpaid rank-and-file members who manned picket lines alongside the snowmen. Meanwhile, nationally the narrative on the strike action was shaped, as Sherrill Stroschein has noted, through the citizen journalism of academic experts on pensions, higher education policy and industrial relations operating through blogs and social media.

It is in this context that an essential argument about democracy erupted at the recent University and College Union congress. Our branch, Exeter, moved Motion 10, a vote of no confidence in the general secretary. But this was only one of four motions about democracy and accountability brought to congress, which, although they made it through the hurdles of approval of the congress business committee or floor votes from congress delegates, saw paid officials walk out – not in their capacity as paid officials, but rather as members of the Unite trade union defending a fellow member (who also happens to be their employer), the general secretary.

What became clear in this process was that the UCU at a national level is unwilling to countenance substantive internal criticism. Had Motion 10 been debated as it should have been on the first morning of congress, it would have been roundly defeated. But as congress progressed – or didn’t – it became clear that the leadership had no appetite to even allow criticism to be aired. Motion 11, brought by colleagues from King’s College London, called for the general secretary to be censured by congress. Discussion of this, too, was out of bounds.

Both at the time and since, much effort has been made by supporters of the general secretary – notably among the Independent Broad Left faction – to argue that the motions were part of a plot. But the truth is more prosaic. Concerns about democracy and accountability in the UCU are not separate from the concerns about democracy and accountability that we have about our leaders in universities. As the hashtag #wearetheuniversity erupted as the leitmotif of the university strike, it came from a place where ordinary academics and academic-related staff grew tired of being told what the “university” (meaning management) thinks, when they themselves – along with students – are the university.

Ditto the union. The branch delegates’ “briefings” called during the strike were hastily convened and had no formal say. Decisions in the UCU are taken within the national executive committee (which the IBL faction controls), and who votes for what is often not communicated to members, branches or regions. The union at the national level is driven by a factional struggle that is meaningless to most members, but in this context it was and remains significant that motions 10 and 11 were consistently argued by members of the IBL to be the work of UCU Left or the Socialist Workers Party, when this manifestly was not the case.

Such arguments missed the point, perhaps – as one of the King’s delegates has argued – deliberately. The motions came from revitalised branches that felt that they had been muzzled by the leadership, only to find themselves muzzled again at their annual congress. Some were members of new rank-and-file groupings apart from the traditional factions; some not. All had been democratically voted and ordered on to the agenda. And they went – in the cases of motions 10 and 11 – unheard. After all this, we welcome the news that motions 10 and 11 will be heard at the recall congress scheduled for October, where the democratic debate we should have had already can finally take place.

During the dispute, the Financial Times’ pensions correspondent, Josephine Cumbo, noted that Universities UK’s behaviour smacked of “an organisation not comfortable with scrutiny”. In this, the leadership of UUK and the UCU have come to mirror one another.

For my part, I don’t believe that democracy and effective campaigning are mutually exclusive – which is an argument that has been put to us with regularity at congress and since. To take that line is a dangerous road, I fear. Our branch, at its AGM this month, passed a series of motions on anti-casualisation, mental health in the workplace and opposition to restrictive trade union laws, to name a few, campaigns in which we are actively engaged.

As delegates, we do not accept “logics of inevitability” that mean, in the long run, the managed decline of the academic profession, the university or, indeed, education as a whole. We believe fervently that a truly member-led union drawing on the lay expertise and experience of that membership, engaged in democratic debate, is stronger, not weaker, than the alternative.

Because #wearetheuniversity – and that means #wearetheunion, too.

Mike Finn is president of Exeter UCU and director of liberal arts and senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter.

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