Democracy and Strategy in a trade union

rank and file open debate at UCU Congress 2018
Rank and file open debate at UCU Congress 2018

Mark Pendleton, a newly elected member of UCU’s NEC and supporter of the Grady4GS slate has produced a commentary on the structures of the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) and NEC that raises a number of important points worthy of debate.

Whilst it will come as no surprise I disagree with Mark’s analysis, as outlined below, he makes a number of relevant points that should be subject to serious discussion. Before I do so, however, let me say immediately I completely disagree with the personal, vindictive and unnecessary comments made towards those currently standing in the Vice President election in UCU. To suggest four of the five candidates are ‘serious’ and ‘one completely un-serious’ is the kind of comment most of his article decries. I have no idea who he is talking about but perhaps it would be best to have kept his derogatory thoughts to himself.

The reason for debating the analysis Mark puts forward is a recognition that trade unions are not homogenous organisations. They, like all collective political endeavours, combine heterogeneous sets of viewpoints and those within them seek to convince the majority of their particular perspective on questions of importance. Any historical study of movements for social change identify these differences whether it was between the moral force and physical force ideas in the Chartists movement or between the suffragette and suffragist wings of the women’s suffrage movement. Within trade unions, such as UCU, this is given the term ‘factions’ as an identification of the members who share distinct viewpoints and act collectively to debate these viewpoints among a wider membership and challenge the dominant position of the full-time officialdom, or bureaucracy within a trade union. As such factions are essential for the development of strategy and tactics in any organisation.

Mark raises some substantive issues, reflecting on his five months as a member of the NEC:

  • The NEC is dysfunctional, it gets through barely half of its business
  • The NEC is dominated by two factions: the ‘right’ in the union around the Independent Broad Left and the ‘left’ in the union around the UCU Left
  • Together, these two factions prevent the union addressing and discussing the strategic decisions needed to be examined by UCU.
  • Mark, argues against factions, a point I’ll return to shortly, but concludes ultimately a new faction is required to overturn the dominance of the other two.

Whilst, a very brief summary of his argument I hope I have not trampled too uncaringly upon his central thesis.

The first points of Mark’s argument are easily dealt with. For something to be ‘dysfunctional’ it must by definition first ‘function’.  As Covid-19 hit the sector the UCU officials and officers chose to close down the organisation, not simply cancelling Congress but also all of its elected structures. HEC, NEC, the NEC sub-cttees and the regional bodies were all cancelled as the decision making and control of the organisation was concentrated into the hands of a small number of individuals. From March onwards it was several NEC members (including UCU Left NEC members) which agreed this was a completely untenable position for UCU to adopt and the organisation had to restart its functioning if members were to be supported in the drive to on-line teaching.  Where did UCU Left get this view from? Looking across the trade union movement it was obvious that other unions were taking a very different approach to UCU. In particular, the newly formed National Education Union was responding to the crisis by developing a hugely successful organising agenda with tens of thousands of members joining mass meetings and stopping management riding roughshod over terms and conditions in schools. Mark continues to be dismissive of this approach but UCU’s conservatism in response to management’s driving through changes has left members in a weaker not stronger position as the Covid crisis deepens.

The second point Mark makes is that HEC and NEC rarely get through half the agenda. Given each committee now has meetings lasting half the time of a face to face meeting, half the agenda is pretty much what you would expect … isn’t it? One would have thought that if we hold meetings for half the time than normal then holding twice as many might be the obvious solution to this.

Mark’s fundamental argument is not, however, the ‘dysfunctional’ meetings we sit through nor the inability to get as much discussed as we might all like but the lack of ability to develop strategic discussions and to direct the political work of the union. For him the union’s decision making structures are broken. Here, I have to say I have much more sympathy for Mark’s argument but also have to say he surprisingly, for a historian, fails to address more fundamental reasons why this might be a conclusion to draw. Mark’s focus for attack is ‘entitled brats’, disabled individuals’ unwillingness to get used to new technology and the political influence around the IBL, broadly the Communist Party and the right of the Labour Party and, in the case of UCU Left, the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Corbynite, Momentum grouping in the Labour Party. Mark has little to say about the historical role of the trade union bureaucracy in managing industrial conflict and the historical tensions between a bureaucracy and rank and file activists of a union for an explanation of the rise of factions within all trade unions.

Instead, for Mark, political factional allegiances override putting members’ interests first. It is important for Mark to place the ‘blame’ here for the reason that Mark and others in the Grady4GS slate continue to repeat the mantra that they are not a faction and are independent members unaligned with any faction. I would just like to remind Mark that it was he who contacted me to discuss block voting in the HE Vice Chair’s election on behalf of the Grady4GS faction. I must say I look forward to the recording of voting records for UCU meetings, something passed in January 2020 but not yet implemented. We’ll then be able to evaluate the independence of many of the ‘independent’ members of the HEC and NEC.

If the Grady4GS faction is indeed a third faction in the leadership of UCU let us look at its political programme. But first we should ask what it should be called – Grady4GS or Grady4GS/USSBriefs or just USSBriefs. I think we should be respectful to one another and use the name those associated with the faction prefer. Please let us know.

Mark outlines a series of potential advantages for this – his proposed faction: a suggested openness to new activists, the opportunity to introduce new ideas and a less hierarchical approach to trade unionism.

Whatever anyone’s criticisms of UCU, its rules encourage the involvement of new activists. All elected members have time limited terms of office and a throughput of newly elected members is essential for the continued operation of the union. All elected members to HEC and NEC are elected for two years with a maximum six years of uninterrupted service on the NEC. The problem of the NEC is not one of preventing new activists getting elected but the patronage that has often operated in UCU since its inception. History matters. Within the old AUT (Association of University Teachers), and continuing into the UCU, officials and officers utilised patronage to facilitate individual’s advancement within the union. Members who had no links to their local union branch, or who were looking for an alternative career path than that on offer in Higher and Further Education often gravitated to working within the union. It is still the case today that members on the NEC have proudly stated they had no role in their local branch or never held any position in the union prior to getting elected to NEC. It has also been the case that some members of NEC were not even working in the sectors we represent but have still stood for election, participated in debates and voted on the outcome of negotiations for members without any accountability. This was at its most stark in the first of the USS disputes when UCU negotiators were abandoning the final salary scheme whilst they themselves took their final salary pension. The left in the union has had to organise itself as a faction in order to increase the accountability and representativeness of the members elected onto the UCU structures since its inception. The Grady4GS faction as it operates currently is certainly a retrograde movement towards a patronage-based approach to developing an elected leadership in UCU.

What about developing strategies for successful industrial action? It was the left in the union, organising collectively, that led to the challenge to the tokenistic and minimalistic approach to industrial action in the past, as Mark acknowledges. The left in the union supported the establishment of a Commission on Effective Industrial Action (CEIA) under Sally Hunt and wrote and moved a motion to democratise election onto it. CEIA recommendations were debated and passed at UCU Congress and provided the blueprint for the successful 2018 USS dispute. No one has a monopoly on new strategies but these need to develop within a debate among the membership not simply a narrow elected committee. To suggest there isn’t a strategy within UCU is to ignore the union’s history and the development of industrial relations in Higher or Further Education. If the Grady4GS faction have alternative proposals make them open and debate them among the membership. To date the Grady4GS strategy has been to dismiss strike action and abandon the Four Fights campaign … for what? No strategy will be successful unless the members are party to the discussion and decisions over that strategy.

The third identifiable element within the Grady4GS faction’s approach is the rejection of hierarchical organisation. However, the faction currently is doing the opposite of what it suggests. As a faction which denies its own existence there can be no open debates about strategy or accountability within the faction. We have seen this with the one way communications from the centre and the refusal to take questions directly from members at meetings. Who is actually making the decisions in this faction? Mark actually admits this within his statement that he is not a member of the campaign team for the Vice President Grady4GS candidate. Was he asked? If not who excluded him? Or did he decline? In this respect the Grady4GS faction operates in a manner identical to that of the IBL. Who is and who is not involved in these factions is only known to those within the selected group. There is no openness and entry is closely controlled by those at the top of the hierarchy.

The rise of the Grady4GS faction is fundamentally a reflection of the wider political currents within UCU itself and society as a whole. There is an older small ‘c’ conservative political viewpoint within the membership which provides the IBL with their support and it is the IBL who have traditionally acted to promote the UCU bureaucracy’s viewpoint within the membership. Thus the proposals for 2 hours strikes and striking at weekends did not come from the IBL but instead from among UCU officials. There is also a more militant activist layer who want a much more militant approach to industrial relations in the union which largely looks to UCU Left for its voice and finally there is a new right within the labour movement that is also reflected in the membership of UCU. This new right is characterised by opposition to the more militant movements that have emerged in recent years and within the Labour Party this is associated with the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer.

Carlo Morelli

NEC member, UCU Scotland President and UCU Left member

2 Replies to “Democracy and Strategy in a trade union”

  1. A new non-aligned NEC member presents a thoughtful critique. In response, he gets slapped called a rightist and a factionalist in a long partisan diatribe. If that’s your idea of academic debate and open democracy you don’t belong in a university union. You could not have better illustrated the case for reform of UCUs bloated structures.

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