The death of irony at UCU congress

The Congress of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) was disrupted yesterday by an attempted coup by full-time officials. Congress was suspended twice – once for two and a half hours in the morning and again for an hour in the afternoon – after officials walked out, thus preventing vital tasks for the running of Congress from taking place. The trigger was a number of motions on the agenda criticising the conduct of general secretary Sally Hunt and her handling of the recent strike. The walkouts were organised by the Unite branch to which UCU full-time officials, including Hunt, belong.

The first walkout took place after a successful challenge to a decision of the Congress Business Committee. A motion, labelled B19, from the University of Sheffield branch, calling for the establishment of a democracy review, had originally been left out of the order paper. A vote in Congress restored it to the order paper and, as a consequence, the officials walked out.

The officials objected to the motion including, in its definition of the review, discussion of the accountability of elected officials. Everybody took this as a reference to Sally Hunt, as indeed they were intended to, and the Unite branch complained that this interfered with the terms and conditions of employment of one of their members. The officials walked into an adjacent room and began to hold a union branch meeting. As soon as they walked out, the UCU President, Joanna de Groot, a lay not a paid official, suspended Congress on the grounds that it was impossible to continue it. This enabled her not to call on any of those wishing to speak about what was going on. She and the rest of the platform then left the room, along with a number of Hunt supporters in the body of the hall.

The main body of delegates remained in their seats and an impromptu meeting was held to discuss the situation. Hunt supporters took the line that the walkout was taken by members of Unite and it was our duty to support our fellow trade unionists. But the main argument in opposition to this was that the question involved a question of democracy and the accountability of the general secretary. In the end, a statement was agreed, giving our support to the officials’ defence of their terms and conditions, but affirming the right of UCU members to hold their general secretary to account.

Meanwhile, negotiations were taking place with the Unite branch and, after two and a half hours, a compromise was reached over motion B19, in which mention of officials was removed. Agreement was also reached on a couple of other motions, where the Unite branch had found contentious phrases, but no agreement was reached over two other motions (numbers 10 and 11), the first a motion of no confidence in Sally Hunt and the second censuring her.

The motion in favour of a democracy review, B19, was passed, but the problem reappeared when Congress came to debate motions 10 and 11. The National Executive Committee, or, to be precise, its majority, proposed that they be withdrawn on a procedural motion. (A minority of the NEC opposed this move.) After a heated debate, the procedural motion was defeated and the officials walked out again. Congress was suspended once more. The Unite branch then declared a trade dispute and requested an urgent meeting of the Joint Negotiating Committee, between Unite representatives and the UCU lay leadership. By this time, it was five thirty in the afternoon and Congress was adjourned for the day.

A meeting of the UCU Left, scheduled for that evening, was brought forward and its subject changed from a celebration of the role of the rank and file in the recent strike to a discussion of the day’s event at Congress. The meeting was extremely angry and lasted over two hours. It emerged that the movers of motions 10 and 11 (the Exeter and KCL branches) had both offered to allow their motions to be voted on in parts, thus enabling the disputed clauses to be considered separately. This had been rejected by the Unite branch officials.

It seems that the officials, or at least those who make the running in the Unite branch, want a confrontation over the issue of officials’ accountability. At the heart of the fight is the question of who controls the union: the officials or the membership?

The background to all this is the all-out strike that the union ran against the attempt by Universities UK (UUK) to alter the pensions of those working in the pre-1992 universities. The UCU strike was, in so many ways, an outstanding success. It unleashed the creativity of the rank and file and recruited new members. It brought to the fore the trajectory of the neoliberal university, at times uniting staff and students around a common vision of a democratic, accessible and critical academic sphere. For many, the strike was a reminder of the potential of universities to be sites of resistance and solidarity. The current wave of strikes in further education owe much to the sense of union power generated by their university colleagues.

However, the strike also exposed the tensions inherent in any trade union as to who runs the union and in whose interests. The most marked point of conflict was when the UCU bureaucracy reached a compromising backroom agreement with UUK on 12th March and there was an immediate backlash from the membership. The next morning, hundreds of staff and students protested outside the UCU headquarters under the slogan ‘No Capitulation’ while branch representatives spoke out unanimously against the deal. In that instance, the leadership backed down.

UUK ultimately withdrew their threat to unilaterally change how pensions would be calculated and made proposals about how things could go forward. The response of most activists was that this time UUK’s proposals were a serious starting point for actual negotiations, as against the phoney posturing that had hitherto been engaged in. The response of the general secretary, on the other hand, was to treat a starting point for negotiation as a potential final agreement and put it to a ballot of the membership. The ballot went out without a recommendation from the National Executive Committee, but the general secretary sent out emails recommending acceptance. The whole process was rushed so that there was no time to organise branch meetings or any other forums for the membership to discuss the proposals. The membership voted to accept the proposals as they stood.

The question comes down to who controls vital decisions in the union. Should the final decision be that of an informed membership or should officials be able to decide what’s good for them? At the end of the first day of Congress, the issue remained unresolved, though things had not gone exactly as Hunt and her supporters had intended. They had assumed that the delegates would roll over and surrender. We did not.

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