When is it right for a union to support dismissal?

Transphobic philosophy professor Kathleen Stock recently resigned from her position at the University of Sussex, shortly after tweeting that the Sussex branch of UCU ‘effectively ended’ her career by releasing a statement in solidarity with trans and nonbinary communities at the university. Stock has not been a UCU member for some time. Before her resignation there would have been a clear case for the union to support her dismissal even if she were a member.

This article looks at the Stock case alongside the case of Chris Brand (dismissed from the University of Edinburgh in 1997) to explore the broader question of trade unions as organisations with commitments which can be contradictory when the duty to represent individual members contradicts the politics and collective interests of a wider membership and community. It mentions sexual harassment and child sexual abuse, as well as scientific racism.

Tweet by Kathleen Stock @Docstockk reads 'My former union branch @sussexucu has just effectively ended my career at Sussex University. This just sent to all members. 'Statement in support of Trans and Nonbinary communities at Sussex'. Screengrab of tweet overlaid with trans pride flag colours.

Trade Unions are there to protect workers’ rights, including protection from arbitrary dismissal. But are there circumstances under which we should support or even call for dismissal?

In the furore that has followed students at the University of Sussex protesting against transphobic philosophy professor Kathleen Stock, UCU has come into the firing line from Stock supporters. One of their lines of attack is the argument that a trade union must never support dismissal. When pushed, this argument usually collapses. While it’s easy to think of all sorts of extreme scenarios where someone’s dismissal would be uncontroversial, the purpose here is not to explore such extremes but to try and determine where the line should be drawn. 

To do that I’m going to revisit the case of Chris Brand, who was dismissed from the University of Edinburgh in 1997 over bringing the University into disrepute. He had been the focus of serious concerns and an active campaign for some time before this eventual dismissal. 

The case of Chris Brand

Christopher Richard Brand (1943-2017) arrived at the University of Edinburgh in 1970 as a lecturer in the Psychology department, but our story really begins in 1984, when 25 students protested against a class where Brand asked for details of their sexual fantasies and favourite sexual positions. By 1986, he was Director of studies and students were again protesting, this time about repeated racism and sexism. Following an official complaint, Brand was removed as Director but remained on staff. A student from the time recalls: 

In my view Brand began to lose it (i.e. become more extreme in his public statements) when women students began to complain about him in his role as a director of studies. Had he not been doing so much damage I would have felt sorry for him. He was just an angry wee boy ….. taking out his rage on women when he could, in the traditional patriarchal manner. 

Things were to escalate further with Brand revelling in being a scientific racist in the pages of The Independent in April 1996, stating, ‘It is scientific fact that black Americans are less intelligent than white Americans and the IQ of Asians is higher than blacks.’ and, ‘I am perfectly proud to be a racist in the scientific sense.’

The students’ response was to walk out of his classes, begin a boycott of them, and send a letter of complaint to the then departmental head, Robert Grieve. The University responded that, as Brand’s views were inside the law, they would not act. This parallels the Stock situation, where students and others attempted to use internal procedures to raise their concerns but to no avail.

The University’s Student newspaper, The Student, responded with an article titled ‘SACK HIM! – Student fury as Uni backs ‘racist’ lecturer’ and the Student Representative Council passed a motion calling for Brand’s dismissal. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) held a rally in support of these calls.

Brand did draw some support, most notably from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the forerunners of today’s Spiked, who tried to stage a debate between Brand and their own Kenan Malik during the Edinburgh Festival. A picket by the ANL saw the event cancelled. 

Fast forward to October and Brand was appointed to the Ethics Committee of his department and then quickly dropped after students again protested, though he remained on the Committee itself. Student demands for his dismissal persisted and a petition with this demand reached 700 signatures. The University Chaplain, Rev. Iain Whyte, who had earlier offered to act as mediator then came out publicly in support of the students, likening Brand’s views to those of Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels. 

In November, Brand came out in support of paedophile Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, stating, ‘Non-violent paedophilia with a consenting partner over age 12 does no harm so long as the paedophiles and the partners are of above average IQ and educational level.’ This time, the University did act and Brand was suspended. 

By February 1997, it was rumoured that Brand, with RCP backing, was to be nominated to stand for Rector of the University. Whether true or not, it fell foul of the rule that neither staff nor students can serve as Rector. 

Brand faced a tribunal in May 1997. It eventually reached a decision in August that year, finding him guilty of gross misconduct. He lodged an appeal but that also found against him in March 1998. He was awarded a £12,000 settlement. 

I don’t know if Brand was a union member. It seems unlikely but let’s hypothesise that he was. What would have been the correct thing for the AUT, as UCU then was, to have done? Clearly there would have been some obligations. To gauge the situation, let’s first of all look at the demands coming from the students. 

rs21 member Tommy MacMartin was part of the campaign and remembers: 

The argument from the students was that they wanted to study psychology, not Brand’s discredited views on intelligence and that his open support for ideas linking race, class and gender to intelligence made him unfit to teach. That the uni must provide lecturers that can grasp the subject and are able to provide a grounding on that subject. Also that his unapologetic public views on paedophilia were odious and reason alone to have him removed. 

What started with several students walking out led to a clear majority of all students on his course supporting his removal. On campus the wider body of students was a similar story. Less so with lecturers though, but we had more support than Brand amongst them. 

Student politics are often maligned as being naive and taking positions with little thought or deliberation. Yet, the reality is frequently different. Tommy continues,

This took months of leafleting, public meetings, debates, motions to [the Students Association] etc. It was empowering for the students involved who learned a lot more because of it. 

[We were] for students taking control of their education and demanding a better one, of having the right to remove lecturers with insulting and bigoted views if they choose. That includes losing their jobs if they insist on pressing those views. But the demand must come from students and lecturers, not from management. 

We didn’t arrive at this immediately though, it took plenty of discussion and debate till we worked out a position that made sense and we could agree on, so we hesitated at first to call on him to be sacked for example. 

Brand was failing in his principal duty as a lecturer. His public positions outside the academy were negatively affecting his teaching responsibilities within it. This has parallels in the accusations levelled against Stock.

The trade union perspective

An often used phrase is ‘our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions.’ Solidarity between staff and students is built on this foundation. Detrimental learning conditions for students have a negative effect on our working conditions. This was not simply about Brand’s right to academic freedom to pursue his own ideas and research but the rights of students and indeed of other staff to a safe learning and working environment. 

Returning to the union’s obligations, I would argue that it had three: 

  1. To ensure fairness and due process for the individual member 
  2. To represent the whole membership 
  3. To foster a culture of solidarity with the students 

Unions often have to deal with complex cases, involving individuals who have clearly indulged behaviour which is wholly unacceptable. In determining how to fulfil obligation 1, obligations 2 and 3 need to also be considered. Representation is not endorsement, a distinction that is often lost. A union can therefore be publicly and politically aligned with those complaining while privately representing the individual being complained about. 

Because UCU represents the upper grades within the Higher Education sector, it has within its membership people in senior management roles, who can play significant roles in decisions that are detrimental to the rest of the membership (this is a topic worth discussion in its own right). Again, these people are entitled to representation but that is all. 

A trade union is not a service. It is a collective and one that comes to democratically arrived-at policy decisions of where members stand on certain issues. Every union is a political actor. This brings me to the Kathleen Stock situation 

The case of Kathleen Stock

First of all, whether her behaviour is of a similar magnitude to Brand’s is not the primary question here. My focus is on what position a trade union should take when there is a clear call for somebody’s dismissal, especially over an issue which the union has policy on. Time and space do not allow me to include a detailed account of Stock’s behaviour but this is covered thoroughly in Grace Lavery’s meticulous analysis, which I thoroughly recommend. 

UCU is unequivocally inclusive. Our policy has been developed via numerous motions, particularly since 2017, and is detailed here. Stock meanwhile, as a Trustee of the transphobic hate group LGB Alliance and as a signatory of the Women’s Human Rights Declaration (WHRC), which calls for the ‘elimination’ of ‘the practice of transgenderism’ as well as the repeal of the Gender Recognition Act, has a position that is completely at odds with this. 

The statement released by Sussex UCU and endorsed by the national union is quite clear that they would not support anybody being summarily dismissed but calling for a full investigation into transphobia at the University of Sussex. Stock’s response, saying that it effectively ended her career, is itself telling, as is her subsequent decision to resign.

Had dismissal really been something that was on the cards, and Stock was still a member (she appears to have left at least 18 months ago), she would be entitled to union representation. The reality of course is that it isn’t and she isn’t so it is a bit of a moot point. Meanwhile UCU’s call to investigate transphobia on their campus aligns with similar demands coming from the students. 

The parallels between the Stock and Brand cases are similar in the following ways: 

  1. Both have/had public personas outside the academy and the focus of complaining was on these and/or the impact of this on their job. 
  2. Both have/had been the subject of complaints over an extended period.
  3. Both have/had demonstrable support from their senior management. 

As socialists and trade unionists, we need to understand the power dynamic involved. Who do we stand with? A trade union has responsibility to its membership as a whole and may often find it needs to defend a member or group of members from the actions of another, be it over bullying, sexual harassment, or a whole range of other issues where the power differential is key. Any member who causes major detriment to the safety and wellbeing of others is not entitled to unqualified union support. Union membership is not a Get Out Of Jail Free card. 

Both Stock and Brand’s conduct, over a long period of time, was detrimental to the education of their students and to the wider community. Concerns about this were raised and repeatedly ignored. Having exhausted other avenues, those who campaigned for their dismissal were entirely correct to do so as were those who supported them. 

The situation with Stock perhaps has one key difference that is worthy of specific reference. While Brand was certainly able to shelter behind the power that came with his position in the University, Stock went further. As details continue to emerge about attempts by Stock and her supporters, with the full support of institutional power at the highest level, to gag and discredit criticism, she was not the victim but the perpetrator of the very behaviour she accuses others of. This is a question of class and power and framing it as having anything to do with academic freedom or freedom of speech is just a facade.

As socialists and trade unionists we must side with the oppressed – always. That is solidarity. 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Great article, thorough, clear good arguement. Good reference for unpicking future seemingly complicated contradictory issues. many thanks.

  2. The difference I would say is that Stock is expressing mainstream views. So mainstream that they were actually Stonewalls position until 2017.

    I can’t think of a similar situation where within four years the previous position of a relevant campaign group would be considered bigoted enough to have an academic hounded out if their job.

  3. Great. If you can’t marshal a decent argument to show why someone is (in this case) transphobic, attack them for garnering support from ‘the other side’. Sounds like an ad hominem attack by proxy. I agree with what Boris Johnson said in support of the LGB Alliance. It doesn’t mean I think he’s any the less of a lying hound than he always was, or that I agree with his politics in any other ways.

    Is this what international socialism has descended to these days?

  4. Good and detailed article. It’s also always worth remembering who is lining up with Stock. She got an OBE from the Tory government. She is supported in the Telegraph and Mail. The LGB Alliance, of which she’s a leader, got a message of support from Johnson for their conference last week. Meanwhile Sussex Uni UCU, the vast majority of LGBT groups and even Starmer’s Labour Party say the main issue here is transphobia. The right is with Stock and the left with trans people. It’s not complicated.

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