Leadership candidates see different futures for UCU

General secretary contenders represent political debate over union's direction. John Morgan reports

February 9, 2012

Credit: Charles Fox

The 120,000-plus members of the University and College Union receive their ballot papers this week to elect their general secretary - but how will their choice affect how the union works on pay, pensions and conditions, and its relations with the wider sector?

There are only two candidates: Sally Hunt, the incumbent, and Mark Campbell, a senior lecturer in computing at London Metropolitan University backed by the UCU Left.

The UCU Left is an increasingly influential presence on the national executive committee, the body responsible for conducting UCU business outside its annual congress.

The election comes in the midst of transformative change in higher education fees and funding, the potential expansion of for-profit provision, two simultaneous UCU campaigns of industrial action over pensions, and the prospect of continuing low pay settlements.

The UCU's internal politics and Ms Hunt's plans to reduce the size and power of the NEC may seem dry - but they are key to the union's future direction.

Last year, the union's treasurer and two fellow NEC members accused "SWP/UCU Left" of "seeking to take over our union" and commandeer its resources.

Mr Campbell said the UCU Left "consists in the majority" of people who are not SWP members, arguing that the idea of a takeover shows a "misunderstanding of how trade unions work" as democratic organisations with elected lay members.

This political division was again exposed in the conflict over the UCU's strategy on the Teachers' Pension Scheme, which covers post-1992 university scholars.

Ms Hunt's recommendation to ballot members on whether or not to accept the government's "final offer", which included a better accrual rate than its starting offer, was rejected by a majority on the NEC. The group voting against Ms Hunt included UCU Left members, but was not entirely made up by them.

Instead, the NEC voted to set a date for another national strike on 1 March without a further ballot - putting the UCU in the position of potentially leading other, bigger teaching unions towards continued strikes against the government.

To opponents of the move, it was a dereliction of democracy. Supporters counter that the union already had a strike mandate from members, adding that the government had not substantially altered its stance on vital issues such as the measure used to index inflation for the TPS.

On the other pension front, the UCU last week held a conference on the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which covers academics and senior administrators in pre-1992 universities. Branches voted to suspend the UCU's work-to-rule action after agreement was reached with employers to hold joint reviews of pension rights in redundancy for the over-55s and how the USS' career-average section for new members compares with the TPS.

The UCU elections, which include NEC posts, close on 1 March.


Incumbent promises faction-free democracy in action

Sally Hunt plans to give members a direct vote on final pay and pension offers if she is re-elected as general secretary - and promises to be independent of "faction" within the union.

As an example of the University and College Union's strength, Ms Hunt highlighted its campaign against for-profit providers. This changed the agenda, she said, by winning support from "well over 20,000 of our members who participated by writing to their MPs, writing to the minister, through petitions [or] lobbying...around the issues of privatisation".

The UCU also organised a widely publicised open letter to The Daily Telegraph, signed by 500 professors, which warned against the quality implications of for-profit provision.

"That is what this union is about," Ms Hunt said. "It's not simply saying you take something on industrially or you don't: it's got to be a lot more sophisticated than that and I think our members know that."

Ms Hunt has previously claimed that her UCU Left opponent Mark Campbell is the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party. She said: "If what [members] want is someone who is independent, someone who will tell them the truth...that's what I do.

"If what they want is a general secretary who is clearly part of an organised faction within this union, a faction that has a whip that makes sure people vote in certain ways, has its own membership structure, has its own sub within this union...If that's the choice they make, then don't vote for me."

What about her salary, amounting to £98,298 gross in 2009-10? "The salary is one that has built up over a period of time and is one that is negotiated in the same way [the salaries of] other staff here are," Ms Hunt said.

In terms of how the union makes its decisions, she said that if re-elected she would look "very clearly to change the structures", but would seek members' views through a ballot first.

Her plans would lead to a reduction in the number of seats on the UCU national executive committee.

Ms Hunt said that she wanted to ensure "members are much more involved in decision-making" than they have been to date.

She added: "For example, saying, yes, you will have a vote on key issues such as final offers on pay [and] final offers on pensions, that is something I want to see as part of the structure...That's what I call democracy, not supporting a structure and an executive that is way in excess of that of any other union of our size."

Was the end result of negotiations with employers on the Universities Superannuation Scheme - an imposed two-tier system with far lower-value pensions for new members - a failure?

"No - a failure is where you sit back and accept every employer proposal and say we can't do anything about it," Ms Hunt said, arguing that industrial action had won further talks with employers where there had been "zero response" before.

She added that the UCU had sometimes "spread itself too thin" by "campaigning on pay as well as pensions [and] job security".

Ms Hunt said that if the union's structure were to change, she would hope for "more serious analysis of where and when we should put our energy into certain issues", as it is now "sometimes seen as being out there on all sorts of things that aren't necessarily at the heart of where our members want to be".

Front-line contender says resistance is far from futile

Finding a way around anti-strike laws to mount "a concerted, united campaign to defend public education" will be among the aims of UCU Left-backed candidate Mark Campbell if he is made general secretary.

Mr Campbell, UCU chair at London Metropolitan University, highlighted his credentials as "a working lecturer and UCU activist for the past 15 years", adding he was "in touch because I do the job day in, day out".

He has pledged to draw only a lecturer's salary if elected, describing the current general secretary's salary as "far too much".

The union's only means of responding to a "political attack" by the government on the sector "ultimately is...our political and industrial strength", Mr Campbell said, "whether that means organising lobbies of Parliament ... organising marches in the defence of public education [or] taking coordinated strike action when we have universities such as London Met and others which are enacting those...policies".

But by law, trade unions are allowed to take industrial action only in disputes with employers over terms and conditions, rather than in protest against government policy.

However, Mr Campbell argued that the UCU could still take action, citing the example of universities "cutting jobs...in the attempt to move to teaching-only contracts" or shifting provision to further education colleges.

Where employers refused to sign agreements not to follow such policies, "which would of course jeopardise the conditions of our members, we can go into legal dispute with our employers on that basis", he said.

"There is anti-trade union legislation. That should not stop us having a concerted, united campaign to defend public education," he argued.

Mr Campbell said the UCU was right to strike again in March over the Teachers' Pension Scheme, as the government is likely to impose changes in April and the union needed to "put a marker down" before then to secure better terms.

On the Universities Superannuation Scheme, he said that the pre-1992 scheme was "inextricably linked" to the post-1992 TPS.

Giving his "personal view" on the USS, he said it "would have been better not to suspend action at this point and to work in concert as a united union across both pension schemes".

Asked about Sally Hunt's previous claim that he is the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party, Mr Campbell, who is a party member, said: "I am not 'the candidate' of the [SWP] any more than I imagine Sally Hunt is the candidate of the Labour Party, of which she is a member." He described the claim as a "school-playground insult".

What about the argument that many UCU members yearn for the more genteel days of the Association of University Teachers and might be put off by talk of striking to resist the coalition?

"I understand that argument, but empirically it doesn't hold water," Mr Campbell said. "UCU had its greatest recruitment ever in November last year just prior to the strike...Those members joined precisely because they saw us resisting."

The incomers showed "where UCU needs to build" as they were largely junior researchers and lecturers paid by the hour, "the most casualised and exploited of the university and further education population". He added: "That is an area we need to concentrate on."

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