UCU leader pleads for unity amid resignation calls

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt faces demands to stand down over her handling of the pensions strike

May 30, 2018
sally_hunt

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.

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.

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.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Congress witnessed in Manchester a direct attempt by the SWP led UCU-left faction using some critical motions from Exeter & Kings to force the resignation of the General Secretary who recently won re-election by a massive margin against their candidate. The usual Trotskyist line was taken that the members are at one and the same time both furious and incandescent with anger but also so badly informed and sheep like that a couple of lines in an email from Sally Hunt can completely transform their decision making process over the USS dispute. This forms part of the ongoing SWP/UCU-Left led tactics to try desperately to get around the hard reality that members consistently vote for candidates other than their own onto the unions main day to day decision making bodies such as the NEC and that they are in a permanent minority . The calculated misleading language of Transformation and Democratic review is used in the common vanguard type fashion to disguise the functional reality that this faction wants to move away from genuine mass member democracy illustrated by their hatred of modern tools such as e-ballots and return to small groups of activists representing their fantasy of militants leading the authentic voice of the people in small meetings most members wont be able to attend. The 21,683 or 64% of members voting to accept the hugely revised offer this year are treated as though they had no agency and are represent an inconvenient fact to be brushed over. This strategy was also illustrated when they voted this week against modern electronic handsets for taking votes which would prevent them monitoring how people are voting . The presence of SWP member delegates marching up and down isles during votes at Congress checking out peoples voting is a familiar site at Congress comic to some of us but certainly inhibiting to others. In truth the attack on the General Secretary and other officials of the union was a clear attempt to threaten with dismissal any full time official who refused to bend to the will of the SWP led faction as is the setting up of activist led consultations and alternative structures to represent their revolutionary vision of the members against the inconvenient fact that in the real world the members consistently vote into office those members who whilst being almost entirely on the left reject the idea that a small Trotsyist party and its front organisations should dominate the union and believe that mass union democracy is a rather good thing.
I despair at those, like the author above claiming to represent TeessideUCU, who insist on interpreting everything that is happening in the union in 2018 through the prism of 1980s struggles. I, and I'm confident the great majority of UCU members, have zero interest in these historical reenactments. What we're interested in is having a union which is fit for purpose in the current decade. My branch committee voted for Hunt's removal not because we're proxies of the SWP (I was still in school the last time the SWP were relevant), but because we are sickened by the manner in which Hunt abused her position at multiple points during the strike, in order to railroad through an agreement that suited her. This is simply about holding accountable an elected official who has abused their office. The petty factional power games being played out by our leadership must not be allowed to hamper the union just at the moment when a major victory over pensions is still achievable. Hunt needs to stand down because the UCU membership deserve better than being treated as pawns in the Old Guard's squabbles.

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