10 March 2016

UCU National Elections: A warning to us all?

UCU’s national election results are now public. The results indicate some worrying trends that all activists in the union, irrespective of your political viewpoint should be concerned about.

Of course congratulations should be given to all those who stood, irrespective of whether or not they won or lost. Having contested elections is an important route by which members can exercise their democratic right to a member-led union. The fact that 5 seats were uncontested is a weakness of our democratic processes which we should be seeking to address. Of still greater worry is the low turnout in the election. The turnout was just 8%, ranging from 7% in the UK FE seats to 11.9% in Northern Ireland HE seats. Our national elections have seen a consistent decline in participation.

UCU is facing a democratic deficit whereby the union’s membership is increasingly disengaged from their national union, yet it is a democratic deficit that is both nuanced and subject to change. Thus, while the response to the national union for an election is low, member’s response to engagement with questions which are of significance to the members themselves receives a high level of engagement. The union’s ‘rate for the job’ website allowing members in HE to compare their current pay with what they should expect to be paid has been used by around a third of the membership in just the few weeks since its launch. Similarly, at a local level, UCU branches regularly achieve ballot results which far exceed the threshold being set by the Tories anti-union laws.

So we have a picture of members showing high levels of local support for their own union reps and branch officers and a good response when the union presents itself as a campaigning, leading organisation at a national level but a disengagement when the union is seen to look after its own interests that encourages passivity.

Members need a campaigning union and as activists we all need to play a part in building support for our democratic structures. Some rule changes are helpful in this respect. A small number of individuals stood for election but were barred from standing because they could not demonstrate they work in the sector. To hold an NEC position in the union, to represent union members while not being in the sector is simply unacceptable. A second area where we need to act on is to encourage voting and publicise the elections. Few branches or regions hold hustings. Other branches mistakenly do not circulate candidate’s election material believing they are acting in line with union rules. Union rules encourage branches to circulate candidate’s election material but request them not to do so in a partisan way.

However, there is a wider question to address as well. It is not simply UCU which faces these problems. Low turnouts are a feature of many other unions too. The common theme is the limited degree to which trade unions have been prepared to back members and fight for action. Where action has been the centre of union’s activity it has found large levels of support among members and proved to be a powerful recruitment tool for unions themselves. Thus, there have been some important campaigns which have galvanised member’s support in the past year. The National Gallery workers in London succeeded in reinstating PCS rep Candy Udwin, similarly action at SOAS saw UNISON rep Sandy Nicol reinstated. In Dundee hospital porters in UNITE won a major pay victory and of course in our own union the strike by UCU members at Lambeth College demonstrated we are not immune to these developments.

UCU Left campaigns for a democratic, member-led union. One in which the national leadership bodies act in the collective interest of the membership and is accountable to the membership for its decisions. We also recognise that our democracy is furthered when we, as a union, back members fighting cuts, job losses and fighting for better pay and conditions.

 

Carlo Morelli

Dundee UCU and NEC

 

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