Collective decision-making is the very basis of collective action and collective bargaining

A response to an article by John Kelly and Adam Ozanne in Times Higher Education

At a time when academics and union members face a witch hunt when speaking up for Palestinian rights, it is regrettable that the same tactics are being used to denounce those of us in the union who campaign for a more active trade union in UCU. The article by Kelly and Ozanne plays on the tired old charge that whereas most workers simply join trade unions because they work in the relevant employment sector, assorted ‘militants’ – communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, syndicalists and other leftists – ‘infiltrate’ trade unions. This ‘reds under the beds’ argument was used against members of various Communist parties in the 1970s. It is as baseless now as it was then.

UCU Left members, like other UCU members, are members of UCU because we work in post-16 education. UCU Left members who hold elected office on NEC and as national negotiators are in qualifying employment, as defined by the rules of the union. Moreover – and this cannot be said by other groupings in the union – all UCU Left candidates are leading members in their own branches.

UCU Left includes members of the Green Party, the Labour Party, independent left-wingers and members of the SWP.  They all have equal voting rights in UCU Left.  What unites UCU Left is a commitment to fighting for the collective interests of members, upholding and strengthening UCU’s democratic processes, and an understanding that unions must be able to use industrial action when necessary to achieve our bargaining objectives.  We are united against those who believe that resistance is futile, that members will never be willing to take action, and that we have to accept any offer, however poor it is, rather than take industrial action for a better settlement.

The main argument of Kelly and Ozanne’s article appears to be that UCU Left members do not understand collective bargaining.  Actually, we do.  We know from long experience that reasoned argument, supporting statistics and imaginative publicity stunts are rarely sufficient to extract an acceptable offer from employers. 

The members we stand for election to NEC and as National Negotiators are long-standing union reps and activists with track records in local negotiating and organising.  That’s why we support them as candidates and why members elect them.

UCU has won a return to our pensions in USS that no other union has achieved. This ‘No Detriment’ settlement was won after 5 years of industrial action combined with negotiation, in the face of resistance by those in UCU who sought to abandon the fight for pensions. The case for No Detriment was made repeatedly and consistently by UCU Left members and gained widespread support within UCU. We won through persistent argument, firmness at the bargaining table and by taking the necessary industrial action.

We dispute the claim that we are ‘strike-happy’. Of course, we celebrate the fact that members learn their collective strength on the picket line. We will need that strength and self-confidence for future battles. But when we can win a decent deal for members without balloting for or using industrial action, we do so.  The problem is that strike action is increasingly necessary, employers are often intransigent, and such quick deals are few and far between.  

Any experienced trade unionist knows there is a world of difference between negotiating with a live ballot and without one.  With a live ballot mandate, the employers engage in meaningful negotiations; without, they often ignore unions. This is a truth the world over. In January in Vancouver, graduate students at Washington State University won an offer of a 39% pay raise just five hours into a strike after 11 months of what their union described as ‘futile’ bargaining.

When negotiators report back to members that a better deal can only be achieved by industrial action, this is not adventurism or ‘elitism’: it’s just telling members what the situation is. 

Our sector is facing the potential of a serious financial ‘crunch’, with VC’s openly discussing projections of a sharp fall in international student recruitment. The market system of fees and loans, increasingly subsidised by international student income, is turning from boom to bust. 

What will Ozanne and Kelly advise our union to do about this? Do they advocate negotiating away members’ jobs, contracts, conditions and disciplines without attempting to build the best possible – and most militant – defence of them? 

We are committed to building a democratic, fighting union, because we know that purposeful democracy is the best way to build a strong union and thereby for UCU members to win the pay and employment conditions they deserve. 

As union officers, UCU Left members don’t just represent members individually but continually argue for member involvement in meetings, where debates can be had, disagreements aired, and a conclusion reached and carried out. 

Collective decision-making is the very basis of collective action and collective bargaining. We make decisions together, and we carry them out together. 

UCU Left says we should have this level of membership control of our strikes and marking boycotts. That is what Ozanne and Kelly really fear: not reds under the beds, but members calling the shots.

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