Delegates to the UCU conference resoundingly rejected attempts by their general secretary Sally Hunt to change the union’s structures. They said the changes would have undermined democracy and risked derailing struggle by encouraging passivity.
Hunt said that she wanted to cut the size of the union’s national executive committee (NEC), to put all “final” offers to a membership ballot and to elect national negotiators.
Many delegates felt that the plans reflected a pessimism about the potential for workers to fight back and a view of unions as servicing bodies.
Sean Vernell, a member of the union’s national executive committee, said, “There are two visions of trade unions. One is of a collective that can organise resistance. Another is of something that exists to service individuals.
“E-surveys and opinion polls are no substitute for organising structures that can build resistance and confidence.”
Another delegate described how she changed her mind during the debates. “I came in feeling happy with what Sally Hunt was proposing,” she said. “But after the debate I wasn’t so happy and I voted against the changes.”
Hunt used the results of an e-survey to claim that members supported her. But as John Clay from Derby College put it, “Today shows why it’s important to hear debates on issues before deciding what we think about them.”
Hunt went all out to force delegates to back her plans. In her address to conference she claimed she had a mandate for the changes because most of those who responded to an e-survey backed them.
There was total silence during much of Hunt’s speech.
Delegates said the idea that key rule changes could be made on the basis of an
e-survey where, in some institutions just one member voted, was ludicrous.
They refused to be forced into backing the proposals. To applause from delegates Gavin Reid from Leeds said, “The size of our NEC seems more important to some than the fight over pensions”.
He added, “By attacking the activists in this union we weaken the whole union and we only play into the hands of the Tories.”
Delegates rejected a motion calling for full time officials to be elected. Speaking to Socialist Worker after the debate, delegates said that the role of officials should be technical, not political. They said that it should be members who have power in the union and not full time officials.
They overwhelmingly passed a motion to defend democracy within the UCU. The motion stressed the importance of branch and regional structures and the union's conferences.
It noted that, “Surveys may be useful campaigning and mobilising tools but are no substitute for active debate”.
They also rejected plans to put “final offers” to members because it was unclear who would define the offer as final. Liz Lawrence from the union’s NEC said the change could lead to “the union representing the employer to workers, not workers to the employer”.
Another delegate said she didn’t want to be constantly balloted because it “slows down” struggle.
Delegates also backed an amendment to elect a commission from the congress to look at union democracy and to report to congress next year.
The mood to fight Hunt's proposals was clear even before conference began.
Delegates voiced their concerns about her plans at a 150-strong meeting on Thursday evening, called by various regions of the union. Caroline Gray, a member of the union's NEC, said the proposals mattered because they were about “what we mean by trade unions”.
“A handful of people voting by email on rules changes is not the way we should do things in a union,” she added. “That’s very individualistic. But we’re not a bunch of individuals – we’re a collective.”
Guy Stoate, also from the union’s executive committee, said that the union’s present structures had delivered several successful strikes. “I’ve never been in a staff room and heard people say, ‘the problem with the UCU is that there are too many NEC members’,” he said.
“These debates are a distraction when we’re having the fight of our lives to defend our conditions.”