How to ensure democracy and move UCU ahead

June 28, 2018

Adam Ozanne recently wrote an opinion article titled “UCU congress: how not to turn victory into defeat” (17 June, www.timeshighereducation.com). Although we feel strongly that the issues he raised are best dealt with through the normal channels of debate and discussion within the union, we feel we need to respond here.

Our delegates to the recent University and College Union congress were in the large majority of delegates who wished to have a full and frank discussion about the leadership’s conduct in the ongoing pensions dispute. We are not the “Trotskyist revolutionary vanguardist party” his article refers to. Our delegates represent a broad section of opinions in our branch. We try to reflect this complexity and disagreement of views, which have been expressed, repeatedly, at a series of mass meetings both during and since the recent strikes.

In his article, Ozanne regrettably refers to the proposers of the motions at the congress in poorly calculated and cynical turns of phrase. This is unfair, as they are generally ordinary members of the UCU who were active in the recent strike and now wish to have a voice in the union that represents them.

Since the beginning of the pensions strike, the UCU has been re-energised and has grown significantly. Our branch alone has grown by 40 per cent. Ozanne’s article demonstrates exactly how out of touch some of the union leadership are with this vibrant and rejuvenated membership. Puerile descriptions of them as “ultra-left” will do nothing to stop this tide. Neither will the profoundly anti-democratic and bizarre tactic of closing down properly delegated conferences.

At this crucial point in the pensions dispute, UCU leaders must have the courage to be truly democratic, to refrain from using cheap insults that damage the public standing of the union and to use our renewed strength as a negotiating force to bring the pensions campaign to a successful end.

University of Liverpool UCU committee

 

Adam Ozanne is correct that the UCU has made huge steps this year. He is also correct to call for unity as key for the union moving forward after its congress, which saw majority votes to hear motions blocked by repeated shutdowns.

Ozanne expresses concern about the representativeness of congress, but as a body drawn from elected representatives across all branches, it is the broadest democratically constituted body of the UCU, working on the principle that branches represent their members’ positions rather than these views being interpreted by a centrally elected leader. Unions have much to gain from increased participation, but removing representatives to instead guess at the unexpressed will of membership is an anti-democratic response to this issue.

To deliver unity, the independent broad left (or IBL, the faction Ozanne represents in the union) must be transparent about their organising and objectives. They must also present a vision of how they see the union progressing on pay, pensions, casualisation and working conditions, rather than centring their arguments around opposing the ideas of other activists in the UCU Left.

Each year, the IBL runs a slate of candidates for elections for the national executive committee; once elected, they vote as a bloc, generally in opposition to starting or continuing industrial action. This is presumably what Ozanne refers to when using the term “moderate”. They were endorsed by Sally Hunt, the general secretary, in a previous election, and they have supported her on their slate. Unlike members and supporters of the UCU Left, they do not always declare their participation in this slate or their intentions to vote collectively once elected in their communications to members during election periods.

At this year’s congress, they were key players in the dramatic events in pursuit of their aims.

There was no collective position on the contentious motions from the UCU Left, but those of us elected to the NEC worked to support the right of branches to get these motions heard. The motions had no legal weight to remove the general secretary – rather, they represented a political challenge to her continued leadership. Had she heard criticism openly in congress, she would have most likely seen it off and strengthened her position, and in doing so strengthened the union as a whole in showing that there are robust democratic structures of accountability within which our representatives at all levels are directly answerable to members.

The congress was a snapshot of a union in transformation. A newly determined layer of membership is developing. Young, often casualised and angry members are leading the union forward. It is this wave of energy that drove the progress that has been made in the USS dispute this year, and it is this energy that has been frustrated by actions to end that dispute and to block democratic participation at congress. If the IBL, and Hunt too, cannot connect with and understand the membership that they claim to protect, there can be little movement forward for them under current structures.

In the long term, Ozanne’s IBL faction can best deliver unity through openly declaring its intentions in elections and ending its actions to block transparency and accountability in union decision-making. More immediately, when congress reforms to continue later this year, there must be a push for unity. This unity has to be focused on how we progress on pay, pensions, casualisation and working conditions for members, not internal power. It must be delivered through transparency and robust democratic accountability. The contentious motions must be heard and answered, allowing us to get on with our members’ business.

Rhiannon Lockley
UCU National Executive Committee


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