Ballot on boycott urged

July 6, 2007

The proposed academic boycott of Israel is unlikely to go ahead unless it is endorsed in a ballot of all 120,000 members of the University and College Union.

The UCU congress last month voted to ensure that discussions are held at every union branch on whether a boycott would be an appropriate protest against the treatment of Palestinians.

The union is deciding how best to facilitate these debates before a national position is taken, but two branches have already stepped up the pressure for a full ballot of all members. Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have surveyed their members, most of whom oppose a boycott. Some 96 per cent at Oxford and 89 per cent at the LSHTM said there must be a full national ballot before any national boycott is mounted.

Terry Hoad, president of Oxford UCU, said there had been "unfortunate misrepresentation" of what had happened at congress, with the widespread view that there had been a vote to move towards implementing a boycott.

"It very much isn't that. It calls for a discussion but doesn't prejudge the outcome of that at all."

Dorothy Wright, branch chair at the LSHTM, said the issue was distracting attention from other union decisions and was potentially damaging financially if it gave rise to lawsuits. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has already threatened legal action. "There are a number of us talking to each other who just don't believe the vote in congress was reflective of the wider membership," Ms Wright said.

The branch wanted a commitment from the UCU leadership to hold a full membership ballot rather than the issue being decided by next year's congress or a special congress.

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: "I have said before that I do not think the majority of UCU members support a boycott or believe it should be a priority for the union. I believe the best way to test this view is in a full membership ballot. The most positive way forward is for all sides of the debate to give a similar commitment."

But Tom Hickey, chair of Brighton University's UCU and proposer of the motion, said it was "bizarrely inappropriate" to call for a ballot at this stage, since this would prevent debate. The union vote was not to have a boycott but to have a discussion, he said.


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