15 February 2012

The Case for UCU Left

Sally Hunt’s ‘all-member’ email

In her first members’ e-mail, Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary and candidate for re-election, has launched an outright attack on UCU Left. She has charged that UCU Left is ‘a union within a union’.  She has claimed that our presence is bad for union democracy.  She has also called for a vote for ‘independent’ candidates in the current NEC elections. This is a highly unusual move for a sitting General Secretary to make, i.e. to intervene so directly in NEC elections.

Presenting the current electoral choice as between ‘independent candidates’, on the one hand, and an organised faction, on the other, is not accurate. There are two organised groupings within UCU, both of which are recommending votes for a GS candidate and NEC candidates in the current elections.

Who, then, are these ‘independent’ candidates? Many of them are aligned with the UCU Independent Broad Left group. In this group, some are members of the Communist Party; some are members of the Labour Party; and some are not members of any political party

The UCU Left: what we are

We, too, are a diverse group of socialists and left-wingers in UCU. Our supporters include members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Labour Party, other left groups, and non-aligned activists in our caucuses. Our key aim is to build a democratic, activist, campaigning and fighting union.

  • We stand candidates for union elections; candidates are asked to stipulate that they are UCU Left in their election addresses so that the electorate is properly informed.
  • We produce publicity for our candidates, paid for exclusively by UCU members who support the UCU Left.
  • We have a membership structure and elected officers. The officers are elected each year at our AGM
  • We ask members to pay a small membership subscription. This helps to finance the room rent for meetings, publicity materials for meetings and conferences, and travel expenses for members.
  • We have produced a journal – Another Education is Possible [http://www.box.com/s/9c9i4f1vd6ieb1rl7rm3].  The journal is designed to foster debate about how the UCU can best defend the public university, and how we, as a trade union, can link our educational principles to our industrial and professional concerns.

UCU Left supporters include some of the best builders of the union, some of the hardest working branch and regional activists. UCU Left supporters have a strong record in leading disputes, such as the strikes against redundancies at Barnsley, Leeds and Tower Hamlets. UCU Left supporters have worked tirelessly to build the campaigns in defence of pensions, both USS and TPS.

The UCU Left: what we are not

We are not a democratic centralist party: indeed, UCU Left is not a party at all, nor is it affiliated to any party.

Our organisation does not rest on the an insistence that our members and supporters on the NEC, or any other union body, all vote as a bloc, follow a ‘party line’, or submit to ‘whipping’. At times, we meet or otherwise discuss issues in advance of NEC meetings and conferences just as do the members of the Independent Broad Left.

Sometimes our supporters vote differently on questions. For instance, UCU Left members have taken different positions, and, therefore, voted differently, on the following:

  • whether there should be a time limit in the UCU constitution on NEC service;
  • how we best defend national bargaining in HE;
  • how we should elect the equality seats on the NEC, i.e. whether through a vote of the whole union membership or election only by members of the relevant equality group.

Union democracy: caucuses, factions and organised tendencies

The attack on UCU Left is based on the argument that organised tendencies within a union make the union undemocratic. Quite the opposite is the case. The presence of organised tendencies within unions makes them more democratic. The debates and discussions that they provoke make the key issues and their implications clearer. They ensure that the choices confronting us a deliberated on at least two or three times in a formal manner. They remove these issues from the danger of being settled on a matter of whim or the contingencies of the moment.

Caucuses, tendencies and factions in unions may be formed around a single issue or a broader political programme.

In the UCU, the UCU Left defends the right of organisation, within union rule, for any grouping. Any caucus, tendency or faction should have the right to organise within the trade union movement. We defend this right not only for ourselves but also for other groupings within UCU.

We refute, therefore, the charge that caucuses, tendencies and factions de facto make unions undemocratic. On the contrary, they contribute powerfully to union democracy. Given the strong tradition of this kind of organisation in the British labour movement, we refute as tendentious the General Secretary’s pejorative use of the term ‘factions’. Our reasons are elaborated below.

Unofficial caucuses: a history

Suppose a group of members who are environmental activists wanted to meet as a caucus in order to discuss motions drafted to advance union policy on green issues. Why should any reasonable person object to their meeting at their own expense, drafting a Congress motion, then sending it round to branches to canvass support for it?

At times, within the history of the union movement, activists from various equality strands have met as unofficial caucuses to try to make the unions more responsive to their issues. In the UCU, we now have official equality structures for various oppressed groups to meet and articulate their demands, but this came about as a result of pressure from below, from what were once unofficial caucuses, which were in their time derided as divisive. Equality structures are now accepted by many unions as a proper, legitimate and necessary part of the union structure. Once they were not, and had to be fought for.

The same arguments can be advanced about structures to represent the interests of hourly-paid and fixed-term contract staff today. We now accept that all of these groups need distinct representation. At one time this, too, was opposed as divisive or unnecessary.

Most of the classic academic literature on union government and democracy (e.g. Edelstein and Warner, 1975; Lipset, Trow and Coleman, 1956; Martin, 1968) defines union democracy in terms of the rights of organised oppositions to exist and to contest elections.  The presence of oppositions gives members the right to hear debates before voting on issues. It ensures that members hear more than one point of view, and not only that of the General Secretary or whichever grouping has a majority on the National Executive.

Caucuses in the UCU and other unions

In terms of UCU politics, this means that members hear a variety of viewpoints about how best to proceed in terms of disputes on pensions, pay and jobs in FE and HE. This does not confuse members. It makes them aware of the debates, and gives them choices. The  supporters of the UCU Left currently constitute a majority of the FE Committee, and are in the minority on the HE Committee.

The UCU Left is strongly in favour of minority viewpoints from both committees being heard, whichever faction is in the majority and the minority – whether the Independent Broad Left on the FE Committee, or the UCU Left on the HE Committee.  We can only build strong unions through democratic debate, and through involving all members in those debates.

Many trade unions have left caucuses within them. For instance, in the PCS the Left Unity group has done much to build the union, and to develop the campaigns in defence of public services, jobs and pensions. Left groups inside the unions can work together, and build united action from the grassroots upwards across different unions.

Left or ‘rank-and-file’ caucuses may also need to play a role if a gap develops between the agenda being pursued by NEC members or full-time national officials (who may be under pressure from time to time to negotiate an overly rapid settlement of disputes for less than might be achieved for members), on the one hand, and the interests and wishes of the membership, on the other.

This is not to suggest any crude division between paid officials and lay members, or between national and local levels of the union. It is to recognise, however, that different sections of the union, working in different contexts, do come under different social pressures. Where officials advance the interests of the membership, we support them wholeheartedly; where they go against those interests, for instance by seeking to end disputes prematurely or making unnecessary concessions or arguing that the members will not fight, we need independent rank-and-file-based left organisations inside the unions to keep the unions true to their original purpose, representing the interests of the members.

Unity in action

We should emphasise, too, that belonging to one or other grouping on the NEC does not prevent NEC members working together where we can reach common ground. UCU Left NEC members and UCU Independent Broad Left members, and others, have worked together on many NEC committees and working groups. At the NEC meeting of 10th February, NEC members from different groupings worked together to reach a united position on the way forward in the TPS dispute. UCU Left could have used its voting majority to carry our position on the TPS dispute, but instead we chose to seek unity.

Union democracy: plebiscites vs debates

Sally Hunt defines democracy in terms of an atomised membership which votes on issues in referenda without necessarily participating in any discussion in the workplace or the branch. This means that whoever controls the wording of the question, and controls the interpretation of the results of a consultation exercise, can decide what the union does. Whatever else it is, such an arrangement is not democracy.

We need to build the UCU as a democratic union based on an active and engaged membership which hears and participates in the debates, and then votes, through carefully designed democratic structures. The existence of caucuses, tendencies and factions within the trade union movement strengthens membership involvement and union democracy. The existence of UCU Left contributes to building UCU as a strong, democratic, member-led trade union in which persuasive arguments win the day. In the UCU Left, we seek unity, on this basis, and privilege that unity over the exercise of bloc votes.

We assert our right to organise as a caucus, and we robustly support the right of other tendencies in UCU to exist, whether or not we agree with the tenets of their express purpose.

 

References

Edelstein, D. J. and M. Warner (1975) Comparative Union Democracy, George Allen & Unwin

Lipset, S. M., M. Trow and J. Coleman (1956), Union Democracy: The Inside Politics of the International Typographical Union, Free Press

Martin, R. (1968) ‘Union Democracy: An Explanatory Framework’, Sociology Vol. 11, No.2

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