Sally Hunt has survived a bid to force her to quit as general secretary of the UK’s University and College Union for now, but only after the organisation’s annual congress was curtailed in farcical scenes.
The conference closed early on 1 June after union staff refused to allow delegates to consider two motions: one that called for Ms Hunt to resign over her handling of the dispute over the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and another that would have censured her over her actions.
Staff walked out claiming that voting on the motions would have “breached union policies” by imposing sanctions “without any due process”, and said that they had “immediate concerns about [our] health and safety”.
But delegates who issued a statement after the conference’s closure said that they should be able to hold Ms Hunt to account.
The conference did pass a motion before it closed calling for outstanding business to be discussed at another congress in the future, so Ms Hunt’s future will be debated afresh then.
The motions in question criticised the UCU leadership for putting an offer from Universities UK to end the pensions dispute to a vote of members in March without first taking a ballot of union branches. The motions said that Ms Hunt subsequently claimed that a majority of branch representatives wanted a union-wide ballot on the offer, which was ultimately accepted by members.
One motion accused the union leadership of a “continuous pattern of unilateral, undemocratic action” and argued that it should “pressurise employers to accept the will of members, not the other way around”.
Delegates had voted for the motions to be debated. The statement from members claiming to represent the “majority” of delegates said that union members “have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account”.
“We disagree with the walkouts and reject the notion that the motions include a threat to undermine staff terms and conditions…To turn a debate about our democratic process as a union into a procedural employment dispute is to evacuate our capacity to act as a political body,” the statement said. It added that delegates “resolve[d] to continue the motions at a recall conference”.
In a statement, members of the UCU branch of the Unite union said that staff “withdrew their cooperation” from the congress “because congress refused to withdraw motions that breached union policies on staff terms and conditions”.
“The motions in question sought the resignation of a Unite member and to impose sanctions without any due process. This was the sole reason Unite members walked out,” the statement said. “The union is disappointed that their action is being portrayed as an attempt to undermine the democratic structures of UCU, or to stifle debate of UCU members.
“We took our actions to defend our members’ interests and because of immediate concerns about their health and safety.”
Earlier in the conference, Ms Hunt had urged UCU members to remember the “value of unity” and had claimed that the UCU had achieved a significant victory in the pensions dispute, forcing UUK to withdraw “disastrous proposals” to remove the part of the USS scheme that guarantees members a set level of income in retirement.
An expert panel has been set up to assess the valuation of the scheme – previously estimated to have a £6.1 billion deficit – and to draw up proposals on contributions and benefits aimed at maintaining defined benefits.