SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 159 - June 2012

Six years of the UCU

Since its formation in 2006, the UCU has shown that it is a fighting trade union with prominent left-wing activists in its leadership. After the 30 November strike and the significant electoral losses suffered by its left wing in 2012, however, it is necessary to assess the current state of the union and the challenges its members face. A member of the UCU Wales Council writes in a personal capacity.

THE UNIVERSITY AND College Union (UCU) was born in action: the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which represented workers in the old universities, and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), representing workers in colleges and new universities, finalised their merger while taking industrial action side by side over university pay in 2006. Today, with about 120,000 members, UCU is the biggest post-16 education union in the world and the education union most likely to take national action, as well as leading on linking in with students over attacks on education.

UCU’s national executive committee (NEC) of 75 members is large for a union its size and many socialist activists serve on it. UCU stands alongside RMT (rail and transport) and PCS (civil servants) as unions with a reputation for taking a lead on fighting cuts.

Key to understanding UCU is the nature of its merger and membership: while bureaucratic layers joined together relatively seamlessly, the membership remains an amalgamation of individual, sometimes isolated branches.

The 2006 pay strike was well supported and combined strike action with a marking ban. The action was stopped in its tracks by the union general secretary, Sally Hunt, and UCU full-timers as the prospect of a marking ban during exams loomed. While the resulting deal protected university pay from inflation for three years, more could have been achieved.

UCU branches increasingly took local action as Labour’s agenda of cuts and privatisation in education took effect throughout the late 2000s. Branches like Leeds University, Newcastle College and London Metropolitan University all took local action against a wide range of issues like course cutbacks, redundancies, and working conditions – particularly bullying, a top health and safety issue in academia.

The officialdom in UCU has consistently had to be pressurised from below in order to provide support. In Wales alone, four branch secretaries faced disciplinary action by employers for trade union activities in the past three years. UCU national officials declined to provide support for two of them, both of whom were sacked. In contrast, members at Coleg Morgannwg took immediate (and illegal) strike action on learning of disciplinary action against a third secretary, and UCU Wales’s regional office followed along by supporting them. The forth victimised member, meanwhile, mobilised UCU’s activist layer in Wales and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN). Both kept their jobs.

As students prepared for action against the Con-Dem coalition government’s plans to triple tuition fees and slash public funding to education, UCU and the National Union of Students collaborated in opposition, culminating in the demonstration by 52,000 students and lecturers on 10 November 2010. After the march ended in the occupation of 30 Millbank by a small number of protestors, Sally Hunt’s reaction was to condemn the occupiers. To his credit, UCU president Alan Whitaker swiftly and publicly contradicted Hunt, extending understanding to the students who had taken action.

A many-layered union

IN TERMS OF membership a large sector of UCU is the pre-1992 universities, that is, universities whose charters were granted before the promotion of polytechnics to university status. These workplaces have retained much of the culture of the AUT, which was the pre-merger union. One pre-92 member, a Liberal Democrat, described their picture of the UCU as "halfway between a trade union and a professional organisation like the BMA". Across the UCU, while pre-92 branches may be quite militant on local issues, such as compulsory redundancies, some pre-92 branches engage only minimally with UCU’s broader structures.

Historically, university lecturers secured relatively favourable conditions. The pension scheme enjoyed by pre-92 staff was until recently among the most generous in Britain. Like many other professional workers, however, university lecturers have undergone quite significant proletarianisation in recent decades, particularly through the huge expansion of university intake during the 2000s. University workers have experienced a commensurate elevation in class consciousness.

Generally, pre-1992 institutions have returned worse results in industrial action ballots than other institutions covered by UCU. Pre-92 members quickly rallied to the cause of defending pensions, however, taking three strike days in 2011 as part of an extended programme including work-to-rule. This programme was stopped by the UCU bureaucracy in January 2012: a special conference to consider the future of the dispute agreed to suspend action if the employers’ negotiators made a number of specific and definite concessions, among which was the requirement that the new USS settlement not be worse than the teachers’ pension scheme (TPS) settlement. But UCU head office ignored the conditions imposed by the conference and stopped action unilaterally in February 2012; as of now letters from branches to UCU headquarters asking why the action was suspended against the express wishes of the membership remain unanswered.

In post-1992 universities workers have faced worse conditions than those in old universities: far less funding for research, worse staff-to-student ratios, less job security and membership of the TPS which, until the imposition of changes in 2011, was less favourable than that in the pre-92 institutions.

A college precariat

DESPITE FORMALLY recognising the issue, a particular blind spot of UCU in all sectors is casualisation. While UCU has frequently activated its policy of calling a strike ballot in any institution that imposes a single compulsory redundancy, most job cuts in post-16 education are not compulsory but casual redundancies, where fixed-term contracts simply expire. Many UCU members also work on ‘variable-hours’ or ‘bank’ contracts, never knowing for certain whether they will have paid work during the next term. Activists in UCU have established an Anti-Casualisation Committee but its work is poorly publicised.

While tens of thousands of UCU members who are on short-term or part-time contracts want more work, full-time workers are overworked: the average lecturer works 55 hours, of which 25 are spent on administrative rather than academic duties; 81% of university workers find their job stressful, according to a recent survey. Consequently, work-to-rule has proven a popular tactic in UCU’s industrial disputes, albeit one difficult to implement: academic staff, like school teachers, dislike depriving their students of education.

Behind the scenes the situation is no better for academically-related and administrative workers. Every academic job lost in a university is usually matched by the loss of one academically-related job; many universities target information services, with outsourcing to the private sector on the rise. Once again, the ‘professional organisation’ legacy, particularly associated with the AUT, cripples UCU’s ability to best organise these employees, and many perceive UCU as disdaining support workers. During the 2011-12 national action, requests by support staff about how they could take part in the work-to-rule went unanswered by UCU headquarters. UCU risks losing membership through such superciliousness.

UCU similarly hinders itself on pay issues. Higher education (HE) staff have received a real-terms 10% pay cut since 2009 and face a wide gender pay gap. While a ballot in 2011 on pay and the pay gap was successful and UCU HE members held a one-day strike, action was abandoned after the narrow failure of an online-only consultation on the dispute. UCU’s national leadership made no serious effort to build for a ‘yes’ vote in the consultation and ignored the disproportionate impact on women members.

Such internal blows to morale are not unique to HE. UCU members in further education (FE), while making up no more than 15% of all post-16 education workers, are frequently the most militant and politically developed and tend to include industrial educators: trade unionists who train other trade unionists.

While UCU won a national pay framework for HE staff, FE has not received equal support. Colleges in England often opt out of national pay bargaining so a majority of college staff have not achieved pay parity with schoolteachers. Welsh FE lecturers have benefitted from higher pay ever since campaigning by UCU FE members in Wales won parity between college lecturers and schoolteachers, showing that pay equality is possible.

Throughout the TPS dispute, FE and post-1992 members have consistently called for further, escalated and coordinated action on pensions. TPS members’ wishes have been frustrated by the general secretary, who equivocated and opposed effective strike action on pensions in the run-up to the coordinated 30 June 2011 strike. After 30 November, as dozens of branches put out calls for another strike day, Hunt contacted all TPS members by e-mail and asked them to accept the Heads of Agreement letter from the government, circumventing the union’s democratic structures and breaking solidarity with other public-sector unions.

Hunt was soon overridden by UCU’s national executive. Moreover, Hunt’s position provoked anger in rank-and-file activists. Bridgend College UCU went as far as to publicly condemn Hunt for ‘misleading’ the membership and ‘undermining’ the national executive. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Hunt’s right-wing stance was replaced by the NEC’s alienating ‘naming the date’ for action, March 1, without discussion with other unions.

The organised left

IT IS IN the context of these disputes that UCU’s second general secretary election took place, with voting going on throughout February 2012. Sally Hunt stood for another term. Her opponent was NEC member, London Metropolitan University lecturer and Socialist Workers Party member, Mark Campbell. The result was that Hunt won by 73% to 27%. Hunt had nearly lost the 2007 election (52% to 48%) to respected former NATFHE national official Roger Kline, who had the support of UCU Left and socialist activists.

Voting turnout actually decreased between the 2007 and 2012 elections. While an overwhelming majority of members may have been enraged at the UCU head office’s betrayal of the pensions fight, that demoralised majority did not vote. Hunt’s defeat of Campbell was accompanied by big losses for UCU Left, the biggest left organisation within UCU on the NEC.

A number of factors beyond the control of the left contributed to this defeat. Hunt had effectively been campaigning for re-election as early as the 2011 national congress, and throughout 2011 used her position as secretary to ensure her name was on every communication members received – even taking the extraordinarily undemocratic step of telling members to skip communicating with the NEC and bring issues ‘directly to her’. 2011 also saw the launch of the ‘Independent Broad Left’ involving primarily Labour and Communist Party members which endorsed Hunt and campaigned against the UCU Left.

But there were subjective weaknesses as well. Unlike Left Unity in the PCS, UCU Left does not extend deep into UCU’s rank and file. While a handful of branches are run by UCU Left, entire regions of UCU exist with only a few UCU Left members. The group is strongest in London region, which is also where all its meetings take place. This London-centric bias makes it hard for the majority of activists to take part in UCU Left caucuses. The composition of UCU Left’s elected committee is obscure and its decisions unaccountable. Its publications rarely circulate beyond UCU Left and so serve as ‘notes for action’ for a thin, already-attuned activist list, rather than as agitational material to activate rank-and-file members.

The 18th Brumaire of Sally Hunt

SALLY HUNT’S rule-by-consultation continues. Most recently, head office initiated a non-binding referendum on whether the NEC should be slashed in size, ostensibly to save money. This referendum, which passed, was called in clear defiance of UCU’s rules and undercut the NEC and individual branches. Members were simply given a yes-or-no choice with no warning or discussion.

In his retirement speech in March 2012, independent left NEC member, Craig Lewis, said: "It’s all very well to say democracy is about consulting members in ballots. What we want is the kind of union where our members are confident to take part in the internal democratic debates that go on. That’s how you build collective action".

The ongoing rule-by-consultation represents a clear and serious threat to UCU’s survival as a democratic union and should be resisted at every turn by the full use of the union’s democratic structures. The NEC must be retained at its full size and the UCU officialdom should be held to account for every flouting of the union’s rules.

In the next NEC elections, members should elect candidates actively building a robust rank-and-file network, across all branches and sectors, and linking in with other unions. The NSSN is a vehicle for building this network.

UCU, despite its mistakes, has shown it has the potential to stand alongside the PCS and RMT and lead the fight against cutbacks to the public sector. UCU activists must teach their fellow members by example that all of us, whether archaeology professors, computing support technicians, or ESOL tutors, are bound together by our class. We help produce the intellectual wealth of society. We must assist in putting that wealth to the best use for the benefit of all.


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