#OurUCU: The Real Culmination of the UCU’s ‘Turnaround Year’

by Craig Gent

4 June 2018


At this year’s University and College Union congress, a handful of motions which either directly or indirectly scrutinised the general secretary, Sally Hunt, provoked mass walkouts from UCU staff (who, along with Hunt, are organised in Unite). The congress was ultimately abandoned.

But the issue at the heart of the conference fast transcended any question of Hunt’s performance, instead becoming a battle for what constitutes – and who gets to define – the boundaries of acceptable debate within the trade union’s sovereign forum.

Who gets to debate what?

On arrival, delegates from ordinary branches and the various regional and national committees were handed leaflets signed by the Unite committee for the UCU staff branch, arguing that if a selection of motions were allowed to be debated, it would “breach agreements between Unite and UCU which protect employees’ dignity at work and right to due process.”

Causing particular offence were motions advocating a review of UCU’s democratic structures, and a pair of motions – a motion of no confidence, which called for Hunt’s resignation, and a motion of censure – which sought to reprimand the general secretary for her handling of the end of this year’s higher education pensions strike. The Unite committee informed delegates that “if these motions are debated, Unite will need to hold immediate emergency meetings to consider [the branch’s] response to this attack on [its members’] rights.”

Over the course of congress, three walkouts occurred in response to UCU’s repeated decisions to allow the motions to be presented for debate, the last of which resulted in the premature close of congress.

While UCU delegates generally respected Unite members’ right to hold emergency meetings, two points of contention arose on the conference floor.

First, whether scrutiny of Hunt – as the UCU’s elected political figurehead – by congress could be considered an attack on her rights as an employee of the union, as Unite argued. Hunt’s supporters in UCU first argued that debate of the motions constituted a generalised threat to union staff’s conditions. When advocates of the debate repeatedly clarified the intention was not to criticise staff but to allow branches to hold their elected leader to account, Hunt’s supporters instead argued debate of the motions constituted victimisation and bullying.

Second, whether congress could proceed without the presence of the UCU’s full-time staff. With each walkout, UCU president Joanna de Groot, as chair of the session, suspended congress on the grounds it could not proceed without tellers to count votes. Moreover, professional staff instructed the audiovisual equipment to be turned off whilst congress was suspended. De Groot used the walkout of staff to invoke her power as president to suspend congress for 30 minutes at a time (though in reality longer) in cases of “grave disorder”.

When, following the final walkout, the head of democratic services (a member of professional staff) returned to the conference hall with word that the president would not be returning and congress would not resume, delegates invoked rules which allowed them to nominate a new chair and appoint new tellers. However, Hunt’s supporters had congregated around the venue’s audiovisual staff to stop other delegates from persuading them to turn the audiovisual equipment back on, accusing delegates of intimidation. The new chair proposed a close to the conference, with outstanding business to be remitted to a recall congress which had been agreed by delegates earlier in the day.

How did this happen? The politics behind processes.

A separation needs to be drawn between the general secretary and the rest of the union’s paid officials. Not only is Hunt the elected leader of the union, indeed the only elected official, but at UCU headquarters she is also the employer of the union’s staff. For this reason, many delegates and online observers have been cautious about laying the blame for the farce at the feet of ordinary UCU staff as Unite members.

Less caution is required regarding the actions of the Independent Broad Left (IBL) faction, which acts as Hunt’s praetorian guard. Generally comprised of current and former members of the Communist party of Britain (but including Labour members and others), IBL dominates the top strata of the UCU’s democratic structures and the top table at congress.

IBL’s approach at this congress partially involved weaponising the language of industrial action and health and safety to pull on delegates’ trade unionist heartstrings. Standout moments included organising a ‘solidarity picket’ outside the congress hall after the first walkout, at least one accusation that congress appointing its own (unpaid) tellers would amount to using ‘scab labour’, signs reading ‘no to bullying’, claims that discussing these motions endangered people’s livelihoods and families, and emotive claims that people feared for their physical safety or the triggering of flashbacks to traumatic episodes.

But IBL’s preferred approach is one of hiding politics behind processes. Their intention, put to congress again and again, was to have the motions of no confidence and censure withdrawn. This was despite the congress business committee (which compiles the agenda) ruling the motions permissible for discussion, the delegations bringing the motions not being approached until they arrived at congress, and four votes by congress delegates affirming the motions were appropriate for debate.

It seemed IBL had arrived at the conference prepared for its usual bunfight with UCU Left. While UCU Left began as a vehicle for the Socialist Workers Party, since the SWP’s 2013 crisis its influence has declined and nowadays it is a more diverse umbrella grouping incorporating socialists of a range of affiliations. But what IBL miscalculated is that UCU Left were not behind either motion, and had not appeared even to be advocating for them. Instead, when it became apparent various unsuccessful appeals to rules and votes forced upon congress were being used to prevent the motions from being debated, more and more delegates became enraged at being told what they could and couldn’t debate within their supreme forum.

While at the beginning of the conference the no confidence motion would likely have fallen quite comfortably and the motion of censure may have narrowly passed, by the final day positions had hardened and many of those originally on the fence had begun to rally on the side of the principle of hearing the motions. While the general secretary, when asked, chose not to voice an opinion on the issue, those on the top table – many of whom were by now visibly rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at speaking delegates – dug in behind their position that criticism of the general secretary is not congress business.

This position was supported by a statement from the joint negotiating committee formed between the Unite branch and the UCU’s national executive committee (NEC) after the second walkout, when Unite declared a trade dispute with UCU. The statement, endorsed by a narrow majority of the NEC (generally those either in or leaning with the IBL), wished to make clear that the general secretary’s employer was not congress but rather the NEC, and therefore congress has no power to force her resignation.

When a delegate who is a lawyer pointed out that if Hunt’s employer is indeed the NEC rather than congress, then congress’s vote would merely be expressing a ‘symbolic’ political view with no legal status or consequence for her terms of employment, the presidential team had no relevant response. Shortly after the president suspended congress for the final time and did not return.

A union transformed.

The presidential team’s opposition to the debate of motions scrutinising the actions of the general secretary was exposed as political rather than technical. Hunt and her supporters in UCU thought they could come to congress and pressure first the movers of the motions, or alternatively congress, into withdrawing them. A range of tactics were used, from raising employment concerns, pretending the movers were attacking UCU staff in general, the emotive use of the terminology of industrial action, and ultimately plain disruption – the presidential team opting to suspend congress at the first opportunity rather than after exhausting other possibilities such as appointing new tellers.

The political motivations were thinly concealed – Communist party/IBL members briefed the Morning Star about the “tactical insanity” of the motions. But they misjudged the situation, as did the general secretary. While they clearly thought the motions were part of a UCU Left strategy to destabilise the leadership, they were actually the result of an expanded rank and file within the UCU, newly active following the vibrancy of the strikes earlier in the year. It is possibly the case UCU Left is even somewhat suspicious of the emerging rank and file movement, given it has enjoyed something of a monopoly on the left of the union until this year, but in moving the debate from one of confidence (which Hunt was very likely to win) to one of what is and isn’t up for discussion, Hunt and the IBL have managed to unite whole sections of the union which were not previously in contact with each other.

Following the close of congress, a large number of delegates stayed in the hall to compose and sign a statement under the banner of Our UCU. Its 148 initial signatories assert the belief that “union members have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account”, arguing “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 further urges UCU members to initiate conversations in their branches about democracy in the union.

The theme of the general secretary’s (only) address to this congress was UCU’s “turnaround year”. She used the phrase no less than ten times, and how accurate it has proved. With masses of new members engaged and accustomed to taking part in union discussions on pickets and in vibrant meetings, the strikes have let the cat out of the bag on people’s expectations of what a member-led union could look like. But despite talking the good talk, those at the top of the UCU appear fearful of what a member-led union necessarily entails: the leadership following.

Shutting down this debate has only backfired. On the first morning of this year’s congress, there was next to no chance a motion of no confidence would have passed. When it is tabled at the planned recall congress, who can say. In forcing this situation Hunt, de Groot and the rest have paralysed the union to the detriment of the USS dispute, ongoing FE campaigns, and the union’s public image. I would be surprised if members let them off lightly; it looks as though a flurry of local no confidence motions are on the cards already, and participation in the upcoming democracy review is likely to be keen.

But what this debacle has really revealed is a battle between two models of trade unionism. On the one hand, ‘trickle-down’ trade unionism – where members devolve their power to representatives who act like trustees, posing for photo opportunities while hollowing out democracy through bureaucratic manoeuvres and impromptu consultative e-ballots without the opportunity for discussion. On the other, a rank and file movement which seeks to involve members in debates, keep representatives accountable, encourage rather than stifle the most difficult political discussions, and which demonstrates an active commitment to member-led democracy in the hope of achieving unity even when we disagree.

That’s the real turnaround this year, and it’s called #OurUCU.

The author was in attendance as a delegate and is not a member of any faction.

Craig Gent is Novara Media’s north of England editor and the author of Cyberboss (2024, Verso Books).

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