Socialist Worker

Democracy in the UCU

by Sean Vernell, UCU national executive (pc)
Issue No. 2256

At this year’s UCU union congress Sally Hunt, the general secretary, launched her bid for re-election.

While she made a hard attack on the government she also took a swipe at the left and its influence. She argued that the national executive—which has a big left presence—is too large and that those elected to it do not reflect the views of ordinary members.

The left has often been accused of having “secret agendas” reflecting their own political parties rather than the views of union members.

Harold Wilson attacked shop stewards in the 1960s as “politically motivated men”.

Yet many in the union argue that at times Sally Hunt and her supporters have pushed for strategies that have gone against or opposed decisions made by the democratic bodies of the union such as the executive and delegate based conferences.

A series of e-surveys have been launched which have effectively bypassed decisions made by the union’s leading bodies. Some argue that this approach is simply more democratic, involving the mass of union members in the decision making process.

There is nothing wrong with surveys, emails and other forms of electronic media to get a message across. In fact they can be great organising tools.

The problem with this approach lies with using this method as a way of undoing or undermining democratic decisions made at a conference or at the national executive.

Real differences have emerged between those in the union who want to mount a campaign of mass resistance and those who believe that this is not possible, even if desirable, due to the perceived passivity of the membership.

Some in the union clearly believe individual casework and litigation—a servicing model—is the way forward.

Those on the left look to collective organising and industrial action—an organising model.These two different approaches lead to different approaches to democracy within the union. The servicing approach sees members as passive recipients who need individual support.

An endless trail of surveys and focus groups are organised to ascertain individual members’ wants and needs.

This is a disastrous approach. Casework breeds more casework until local branch officers are overwhelmed.

Members of a union get confidence from being a part of a collective.

Being in a union meeting where members are debating what action to adopt makes it much easier to have the confidence to take action.

This is more difficult when you are an isolated individual at the other end of an email facing a bullying manager and the daily pressures of work.

The Tories understand this. This is why Thatcher’s government introduced the anti-union laws in 1980s.

These made it illegal to take action without a postal ballot of members. Before this workers could hold union meetings at work, in car parks and canteens, to vote on whether to take action or not and be able to respond immediately to management threats.

Rather than being undemocratic and unresponsive to members, UCU has one of the most democratic union structures in comparison with those of some other unions.

The influence of the left has meant that a strategy of resistance has been pursued.

This has given activists confidence to put the union at the heart of opposition to the attacks on education and the welfare state. Such an approach has seen the union grow.

It is this democratic fighting tradition that the left within the unions stands for.


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Tue 14 Jun 2011, 18:17 BST
Issue No. 2256
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