UCU: when the branches and the centre are brave

The UCU is in a unique position of strength and reflection – the low turnout for the pay dispute ballot doesn't change that, says Michael Carley 

October 23, 2018
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Last week, the University and College Union finished the business of its 2018 Congress, which had ended early in a dispute over whether to consider motions critical of the general secretary, Sally Hunt. One, from Exeter University UCU, called on congress to demand that she go; a second, from King’s College London UCU, moved to “censure” the general secretary, though with no demand that she resign. 

Congress delegates withdrew the Exeter motion and passed the King’s College motion. Far from the fight between factions that had been predicted, congress dealt efficiently and respectfully with the two contentious motions and moved on to deal with the rest of the policymaking business. 

There was no sense, however, that the tensions that led to the motions being brought have been completely resolved, only that it will take more than two motions to settle matters. These tensions came to a head at the end of this year’s strike over the USS pension scheme. It is too early to tell what the outcome of the strike is for USS, but we can begin to delineate some contours of the outcome for UCU, after a summer of debate between and within the union’s five or so factions. 

The argument about whether UCU should have put the employers’ offer to a ballot of members became the old argument about the role of the full-time officials, of the elected national leadership and of the rank and file activists at branch level. It’s an argument often framed in terms of “democracy” versus “bureaucratisation”. 

Members and branch officers have a long-held worry about being led to the top of the hill and marched back down again, which resurfaced during the USS dispute. This time we managed 14 days of all-out strike, unique in our union’s history, and may have secured defined benefit pensions for the foreseeable future.

The debate during the summer centred on the role of the general secretary in the decision to put the employers’ offer to members in a consultative ballot and effectively end the dispute. The strike has been acknowledged as successful, in winning concessions from the employers and in the effect it had on the membership, which has emerged from the dispute with a sense of its own strength and with a sense that much more is up for grabs: the self-organised autonomous groups that came together on picket lines and elsewhere to discuss the dispute very quickly moved beyond bread and butter issues and on to questions about governance, marketisation and the purpose of higher education. 

They also turned their gaze inwards to look at how our union is run. What has been missed is the role of the national leadership in the strike. As the Daily Mail and The Times breathlessly reported, UCU national officials planned the dispute. A valid complaint about our previous pay disputes was that we did not have a strategy beyond a few days of action and that we backed down early. Given the stakes – the loss of any meaningful pension – the gamble of a 14-day strike was justified, but it was nonetheless a gamble. It paid off. The strike increased in size during the 14 days, as more university staff joined it. 

The national strategy worked: the employers were rebuffed once and the concessions they made to end the strikes are leading to the collapse of their claims about the scheme’s valuation.

The outcome of the dispute within UCU has been the formation of new factions debating what our union should look like, but no one group has been able to set the terms of the debate. The old dogmas of the union’s left and right are no guide on this ground: the right were wrong to think that members would not have the stomach for a long strike; the left were wrong to think that the leadership would never propose it. In the words of one official, we are in the unprecedented position of having “brave branches and a brave centre”.  

If the centre trusts the branches, we might see more strikes on the scale of the USS dispute. If branches demand action from the centre, they risk getting what they want.

The outcome of the ballot on industrial action over pay, announced on Monday, offers no support to any dogma. The turnout was higher than for any previous ballot on pay, but it did not reach the required 50 per cent in the vast majority of branches, even though there was a large majority of votes in favour of action. 

There is greater militancy and willingness to strike, especially in branches that struck over USS, but not enough to reach the threshold set in the anti-union legislation. The implications of the ballot for debates inside the union should start to become clear after the special conferences to be held in Manchester on 7 November, but for now nobody knows anything.

Michael Carley is a member of UCU’s national executive committee and president of the University of Bath branch of UCU. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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