Lack of branch support for action led to dropped ballot

UCU head criticised for starting vote without backing keeps quiet at congress. Melanie Newman writes

June 4, 2009

Nine out of ten University and College Union branches did not support the abandoned ballot for industrial action over pay last month, Times Higher Education has learnt.

A member of the UCU's higher education committee (HEC) said the lack of support was laid bare by a survey of branches carried out by the union ten days into the ballot.

"Branches were calling up and saying that their members were not supportive," he said.

The union called off the ballot after employers threatened legal action over errors in the membership data submitted to institutions in advance of the vote.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, blamed software problems for the errors.

But the HEC member, who asked to remain anonymous, said branches were likely to have voted against industrial action in any case, given that the survey of 75 branches found that more than 90 per cent did not support the ballot. He also claimed that the decision to ballot was taken unilaterally by Ms Hunt.

"Officers of the union agreed to give negotiators the power to threaten industrial action as a sabre-rattling mechanism. Within days, this had been converted into a call for a ballot by Sally," he said, adding that pay negotiators had been "kept in the dark" about the plans.

At a closed session on the pay negotiations at the UCU's annual congress last week, one delegate claimed that the HEC had not authorised the ballot.

An emergency motion to congress supported by delegates from ten UCU branches said that members were "concerned at the debacle surrounding the calling of a ballot".

It added: "In particular, conference is concerned about the lack of consultation with local associations/branches and the apparent lack of a democratic mandate for the ballot."

Consultation with branches had taken place only after the ballot, the motion noted.

The motion, which was proposed by University of Salford representative John Dobson, called for a subcommittee of the HEC to be established to investigate the affair.

However, it was not passed.

The HEC committee member claimed it was "shot down" by members of the Socialist Workers Party who are highly influential in the union.

Ms Hunt did not speak during the debate but watched from the audience.

Michael MacNeil, the UCU's national head of higher education, is understood to have taken much of the blame for the ballot problems.

One delegate said: "I'm outraged that Sally wasn't visible during the debate but allowed Michael to take the rap alone."

Another said: "I was very frustrated that the full story didn't emerge during the debate. Sally was not on the platform. She wasn't prepared to answer our questions."

A third delegate complained that the vice-chancellor of his institution had found out about the ballot for industrial action before he had.

A UCU spokesman said: "Just like other unions, we consult with members on a range of issues at branch, regional and national level. We will continue to do this."

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