The head of the University and College Union has urged higher education staff to remember the “value of unity” following calls for her resignation.
Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, told delegates at the trade union’s congress in Manchester on 30 May that the unprecedented strike action over proposed pension reforms in February and March – which saw 14 days of walkouts at universities – showed the importance of remaining united.
Employers were forced to withdraw “disastrous proposals” to end the defined benefit section of the Universities Superannuation Scheme because “when we work together we are very hard to beat”, said Ms Hunt.
The success of the strike was because “at key moments we all saw the value of unity”, said Ms Hunt, who added that “the gains we have made this year are directly related to the unity we showed last year”.
That did not mean, however, that members should not disagree on certain issues, she said, adding that “sometimes here at congress we test to endurance the theory that the more you have in common with someone, the more you can find to argue with them about”.
The UCU’s annual meeting was hit by division after a motion was tabled calling for Ms Hunt’s “resignation…with immediate effect”.
The motion was tabled by the University of Exeter’s UCU branch, which claimed that the decision not to refer Universities UK’s pensions offer, made on 28 March, to branch representatives before opening it up to a membership ballot was “representative of a democratic deficit in the union”. The offer was later backed by UCU members after an earlier offer, made on 14 March, had been rejected in a poll of members.
A second motion, tabled by King’s College London, also called for the “censure” of Ms Hunt over her handling of UUK’s March offer, while a third motion called for a “democracy review”.
According to reports on Twitter, congress was suspended after several national officers – including Ms Hunt – walked out over the proposed discussion of various motions, which were held in private session.
#UCU2018 UCU President - from same faction as Sally Hunt - now complicit in shutting down Congress by declaring Congress suspended - without consulting the delegates - THIS HAS GOT TO BE THE BIGGEST FLOUNCE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNION - It is over for this caste of bureaucrats! https://t.co/KDb6x7yf5N— UCL-UCU (@UCL_UCU) May 30, 2018
A document distributed by Unite – the UK’s largest trade union – said that hearing either of the motions would “breach agreements between Unite and UCU which protect employees’ dignity at work and right to due process”, adding that any calls to censure or sack Ms Hunt “without any due process” would be “wholly unacceptable” if applied to any other member.
The controversy comes amid disagreements within the union over whether the UCU was right to suspend its industrial action over pension reforms after UUK agreed to establish a joint expert panel to re-examine the assumptions and valuation of the USS.
Sally Hunt tells UCU congress that the gains we made this year were made when we were most united. She is right. And those gains stopped the second she broke ranks with the membership in struggle and called for us to abandon our action, just short of victory. #UCU2018 #UCU18— PerrierCommunist (@PerrierCommuni1) May 30, 2018
In her address, Ms Hunt said that the UCU had gained 16,000 new members in the past year, which she described as an “extraordinary achievement”, while membership among casualised staff has increased by 24 per cent and doubled for members aged under 30.
Ms Hunt said that the increases were helped by a policy introduced last year that allowed free membership of the union to staff who were new to the profession or employed at the margins of teaching.
She said that this radical offer demonstrated that UCU was a “union for everyone – not an exclusive club for the most secure or the better paid” and was “an investment in the future of our profession and our union”.
She also paid tribute to the many MPs who sent messages of support and joined striking staff on the picket line, giving particular thanks to the Labour front bench and leader Jeremy Corbyn who sent UCU delegates a video message on the eve of the conference. She also thanked students for their support during the dispute.
“We want to say a huge public thank you to students for their support in our struggles,” said Ms Hunt.
“We stood side by side with you to fight fees in 2006 and again in 2010 – and we are still with you. But your support of UCU in the USS dispute and beyond shows that we have an unbreakable alliance,” she added, saying that union members “will never, ever forget the solidarity you showed us and we will give it back.”