Not unanimous, but united

The UCU is a democratic, future-facing endeavour proud to fight for both the one and the many, Sally Hunt affirms

January 17, 2013

The University and College Union and its elected national officers were recently subjected to a highly partial attack in these pages (“A house divided can’t stand”, 20 December).

Fawzi Ibrahim, the former UCU trustee behind the claims, made similar criticisms the centrepiece of his unsuccessful bid to win election as a national officer in 2009.

He was unable to persuade UCU members then, and I am puzzled as to his motives in publicly attacking our union now.

In fact, while the UCU undoubtedly faces great challenges we have much to be proud of, and the need for the protection only we can provide for staff has never been greater.

In 2012, our branch representatives, staff, officials, elected officers, volunteer representatives and legal experts raised more than 8,000 individual cases in over 600 workplaces on behalf of members treated unfairly at work.

In those cases where detriment was significant and compromise impossible, we won almost £10 million for members in recompense.

That is the reality on the ground of what the UCU does every day: we are there when our members need us.

And while we are committed to this individual support as the cornerstone of our contract with members, the UCU is at its heart a collective endeavour.

Take the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Nobody likes what the government and employers are doing to reduce the value of our pensions. But it was the UCU, working in coalition with teaching unions, that won limited protection for many TPS members and reduced the losses originally proposed by the government for everyone. The battle goes on, but without the union every TPS member would now be much worse off.

And it is the UCU that, having defeated employer attempts to remove a final salary scheme for existing USS members, is continuing to press for better treatment for new staff.

We are not perfect, of course, but the role we perform is vital. Without the union, staff would be paid less, worked even harder and treated less fairly.

That is why, in these toughest of times, the union’s leadership is acting decisively to face our challenges head on and ensure our survival as an independent union.

Over the lifetime of this Parliament, more than 1 million public sector workers are projected to lose their jobs. This includes many thousands of UCU members. Indeed, as redundancies and early retirements increase and staff who leave are less likely to be replaced, we, like other unions, have seen our membership (and income) fall.

In response to this, the union’s national executive committee will later this month consider proposals to secure the union’s long-term future. My priority is to ensure that the individual and collective services we provide to members are maintained.

We took an important step towards this last month when we sold our former London headquarters on Britannia Street.

The road ahead for trade unions will be difficult. The government seems determined to destroy public services, including further and higher education. It is also trying to reduce many basic employment rights.

To deal with this double whammy, the UCU must be at the top of its game and we must reach out to those in the sector who have not yet joined us. That means, in my view, modernising how we communicate and embedding members’ participation into our decision-making.

As an academic union we will always place robust debate at the heart of everything we do, and as a democratic organisation we won’t always agree with each other.

As general secretary nobody knows this better than me - but that is a strength, not a weakness.

We have come a long way in the six years since merger. While some of the UCU’s critics seem stuck in the days of our predecessor unions, the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, more than a third of our current members have joined since that date. It is to the future that we must look, not the past. Are there difficult decisions ahead? Yes. But will the UCU still be here to support those who need us in the years to come? You bet.

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