Factions must not be allowed to take over

June 14, 2018

We are long-time trade union activists with several decades of commitment to trade unionism who have served the University and College Union, its predecessor unions and others at all levels. We were disturbed, angered and saddened to see the UCU congress used to put forward a number of divisive motions that led directly to a split among delegates and to a dispute with the Unite union on behalf of UCU staff (“Sally Hunt clings on as UCU leader as congress curtailed”, News, timeshighereducation.com).

The issue has been somewhat misleadingly presented as a dispute between the membership and officers or as about criticism in the motions of the general secretary, Sally Hunt. In fact, concerns were raised about the wider implications of the motions, and there were related calls on social media both before and after congress to give activists at congress the power to call for any paid official’s resignation and to seek recall elections for any elected officer they considered to be insufficiently supportive of their faction.

Such moves would destroy the democratic checks and balances built into the union’s structure, enabling factions to intimidate paid officials whose job it is to offer unbiased professional advice and also to harass members of the national executive committee with calls for recall elections if they did not fall into line.

These proposed changes would lead to the practical disenfranchisement of the majority of union members and would seek to allow the union to be ruled by a small activist vanguard.

The attempts to push this anti-democratic activist vanguard position is part of a worldview that has been agitating against the use of modern democratic tools such as e‑balloting, which would allow the direct views of all members to be ascertained.

At a time when society is finally recognising the negative influence of climates of intimidation, it should also give delegates pause for thought to see women and other elected officers and officials so visibly distressed by the hostile atmosphere generated by these divisive, attacking motions.

In terms of the particulars of the dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme, it is important to note that it was the general secretary, the national executive committee and the higher education committee that initiated, led and prosecuted the action. This they did together with activists from all factions and from none, and with the many new members who engaged in and helped to shape the inspirational demonstrations of union strength. We note that, after the employers’ climbdown, the decision to end the pensions dispute while the expert panel meets was made not by the general secretary but rather by the huge majority of the thousands of members who voted.

Over several months, there were lengthy debates across the branches regarding the USS dispute; there were strong, articulate arguments presented against a “yes” vote in the ballot. The simple fact is that the arguments advocated by the “no” activists were democratically rejected by the mass membership. The idea that one of the most educated union electorates in the world was swayed by a single email from Sally Hunt, after months of debate in branches, is risible.

This tragic turn is indeed a question of union democracy, but not in the way that some factional UCU comrades would have us believe. The pushing-out by a cadre of activists of a general secretary elected in the past year by a democratic majority, against a UCU-Left candidate, would not be a victory for democracy; the subsequent intimidation into silence of professional union officials or elected officers of the UCU would not be a victory for democracy.

To quote the inspiring words of the current leader of the Labour Party, is politics for the many or for the few? We pose the same question, and we say that the UCU should be a union for the many members, and not for the few activists of any view or political position.

Terry Murphy
University and College Union, northern region chair

Richard Bathgate
UCU, northern region deputy chair

Emma Jane Phillips
UCU, northern region secretary

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