A debate is currently underway about how democracy in UCU should work, with some members arguing that more use should be made of e-ballots. This is UCU Left’s view.
Union democracy as principle and necessity
For trade unions democracy is a matter of both principle and necessity. The moral legitimacy of trade unions depends on our capacity to be truly representative of our members. This means all members must have opportunities to vote on matters, to attend meetings, to vote and stand in union elections.
Trade unions exist to represent working people and to improve our conditions of employment. To do this effectively trade unions must be democratic. We need democracy so that we know what members think, what they want the union’s negotiating objectives to be, what action they are prepared to take and what settlements they find acceptable. Without democracy union memberships become disillusioned, unions lose members and policies are adopted which members do not support.
Effectiveness in political campaigning, parliamentary lobbying and industrial action all depend upon union democracy.
We should all agree on the importance of democracy. What do we understand by democracy and how do we achieve it?
The importance of discussion and meetings (before voting)
Unions work best on the basis of participatory democracy. By this we mean that members engage in debate at union meetings (both in-person and online), over email and social media and then vote on the way forward. In the discussion at a branch meeting members can put motions and amendments. We can decide what we vote on. Sometimes in discussion more options will emerge or a compromise position which everyone can support will emerge. This type of debate should be at the heart of our democratic processes. This is very different from a survey conducted from Head Office where there may be only a limited number of options.
We are absolutely for the right of members to vote. We are also strongly for the right of members to have the opportunity to discuss with other members before the vote is taken. This way members are not atomised. We may know what we think, but we also need to know what other members think and why. This improves the quality of our decision-making processes. We don’t want snap votes with no chance for discussion or debate before the vote. This is disempowering of ordinary members.
Some members may object that many members are too busy and ground down with heavy workloads to get to in-person meetings. Also such meetings may not work for members who are casualised and live a long way from university and college premises or who are sheltering on account of health conditions. This is where hybrid meetings are appropriate. However, meetings are held, members need time to participate. We should endeavour to negotiate union facility agreements which not only give reps time off for union work (time on in the case of part-time staff) but also block out time so that all union members can attend a branch meeting at least once a month. Many universities and colleges block out time, when they wish, for other sorts of meetings, so they could do it for union meetings.
Sometimes decisions in countries and in organisations are taken on the basis of a plebiscite, for instance the vote on a new constitution or the decision in 2006 to merge AUT and NATFHE to form UCU. Where plebiscites are run well they are held after full democratic debate and on the basis of informed choice. Plebiscites can, however, be abused by dictators, for instance to ratify annexation of territory of to take away democratic rights. In these cases, the debate is limited, the plebiscite is often called without much prior notice and there is no scope for all opinions to be debated fully. The way the plebiscite is worded can deliberately close down options. Whoever gets to word the plebiscite gets to set the agenda for the debate.
We saw in UCU an attempt by a previous General Secretary to misuse a plebiscite when members were asked whether they favoured cutting the size of the NEC in order to provide more services for members. Why was a cut to democratic structures proposed as the means for financing more services, rather than some other means of financing? Note too that this formulation of the debate shut out the debate between servicing and organising models of trade unions.
Ways of voting and the law
Union members can vote by show of hands at a meeting, electronically or by paper ballot, often conducted via the post.
Under the current anti-union laws in the UK unions are forced to rely on paper post for the conduct of voting in NEC and General Secretary elections and in ballots on industrial action. The anti-unions laws should be repealed so that trade unions can use electronic voting. Reliance on paper post can disenfranchise workers who are working away from home. It can be a form of voter suppression. This may be particularly the case for workers in temporary and precarious employment.
Trade unions should argue that unions should be subject to no greater legal regulation than professional bodies in terms of how their internal affairs are conducted.
Incidentally there is nothing in the anti-union laws at all which gives workers any right to vote on settlements. The anti-union bias of the law, and the fact that it is really nothing to do with democracy, can be seen in the fact that union executives cannot bring members out on strike without a ballot, but can send them back to work without a ballot! Of course, we are not in favour of this. We do believe in the right to vote on settlements.
Consultation or decision-making?
Are we ‘consulting’ members or are members taking the decision? In the workplace we often face phoney consultation exercises, where the employer has already decided on the outcome and consultation is cynically adopted as a means of selling employer decisions to workers. Trade unions want nothing to do with this type of consultation.
We often talk about ‘consultative ballots’ on industrial action as a preliminary to an official ballot under the law. Consultative ballots of this sort can be used to build up a case for action or to wind it down. It depends rather on how the question is worded. One thing that is important is to ensure that all options are on the table and that questions are formulated after debate among members.
When it comes to a vote of members on whether to accept an offer from the employers, this is a decision which can be taken by votes at branch meetings or electronic or paper ballot. This is a case of decision-making not consultation. It should occur when the negotiators are satisfied that the employers have really made their best and final offer.
The management of industrial disputes
For unions to be effective members need to be involved as far as possible in the running of industrial dispute. This starts with involvement in formulating the negotiating objectives. The strength of the Four Fights dispute in Higher Education is that it involves issues of concern to many members, namely pay, pay equality, job security and workloads. Sometimes union leaderships restrict the scope of a dispute too narrowly, leaving out the concerns of substantial groups of members.
The design of industrial action strategy needs to be based on two main considerations: what members are prepared to do and how the proposed sanctions will bring the employer back to the table with an acceptable offer. It is important that the employment situation of all groups of members (full-time and part-time, working in a variety of jobs) is kept in mind when designing the industrial action strategy. Such strategies should be debated in branch meetings and at sector conferences. Strike committees should be formed to manage the day to day running of the action in workplaces.
Leadership and bureaucracy
Both elected lay trade union officers and full-time officials should engage in regular listening to the views of members and should report back regularly from negotiations. It must be understood that any attempts to treat the members as a stage army who can be wheeled in and out of action from a central office does not work. On the contrary industrial militancy and strength has to be build up systematically, through union recruitment and effective workplace organising. Union members will take action when they have confidence that their elected leadership has a clear strategy for winning and believes in the capacity of members to fight for their rights.
Vote Maria and Deepa and other UCU Left candidates for such a leadership.
Branches are encouraged to pass the motion below calling for a Special HE Sector Conference. UCU HQ is not calling a Branch Delegate Meeting before the HEC on 24th February so this will be the best way to ensure democratic control of our disputes during this period of action. Twenty branches are required to pass the motion.
This branch calls under Rule 16.11 for a Special Higher Education Sector Conference to be called to debate and direct the future of our disputes. Notice for this SHESC should be issued as soon as the number of branches requesting it reaches twenty.