A national union conference was thrown into chaos on Wednesday after manoeuvres by the union leadership.
UCU union president Joanna de Groot suspended the union's annual congress in Manchester following a walkout by UCU staff in the Unite union. The union's general secretary, Sally Hunt, also walked out when the Unite staff left.
This followed a delegate vote to restore a motion to the agenda that called for a democracy review in the union. It also said that there should be discussion of "the appropriate number of full time elected officials and how elected representatives are to be held to account".
The motion, along with others critical of the union leadership, follows widespread criticism of Hunt's promoting of a deal to end a pensions dispute in higher education. Many UCU members were furious that Hunt promoted the deal using false information and without a democratically agreed mandate to do so.
Whatever the tactical rights and wrongs of the motions, events at UCU congress clearly shows that they are accurate in describing continuous undemocratic action by Hunt.
Delegate and UCU Left supporter Sean Vernell called on delegates not to leave the conference floor once de Groot suspended the congress. Over half the delegates remained to discuss the situation and express their anger at how union leaders were using staff concerns to stifle democratic debate.
Sean told Socialist Worker, "We cannot ignore the democratic deficit in the union. We can't have full time officials and members of a different union claiming, on spurious grounds, that motions callingcall for a resignation or censure of a general secretary are an attack on their rights.
"If trade unionists accept this argument, then there is no accountability for a general secretary of any union."
Rhiannon Lockley is from the union's national executive committee and Halesowen College. She told Socialist Worker, "There is a deliberate conflation between the rights of Unite members - who are voiceless - and the rights of the general secretary, who is not.
"There is a need for our democratically elected leader to be held to account."
One motion calls for Hunt to resign immediately—another calls for her to be censured. Neither have been heard so far because congress has been suspended.
Rhiannon added that NEC members had been told the day before congress began that Hunt was an employee with a right to "due process". "That depoliticises it," she explained. "This is not a disciplinary issue—it's a political issue."
Sakvinder Juss from King's College London is a first time delegate to UCU congress. "It's a shambles," he told Socialist Worker. "It's one thing to walk about because criticism has gone beyond civility. It's another to say as soon as criticism is brought, we will walk out."
Sakvinder said union leaders shouldn't have the freedom to simply act as they choose. "They exercise power on the trust of members," he said. "If they try to impose decisions, that's anti-democratic."
Those delegates who remained in the conference hall drafted a statement to try and resolve the row. When de Groot briefly returned to the room, further education committee member Elane Heffernan read it to delegates.
The statement expressed solidarity with Unite members and stressed that motions were not targeting ordinary workers. It added, "We also wish to be heard in our criticisms of elected officials and our right to discuss the processes of our union. We feel it is undemocratic to simply end events whenever there is disagreement."
Yet de Groot later reported that Unite members retained "serious concerns" about a number of motions and that if they were debated "they reserve their position to withdraw" yet again. These , included 10 and 11.
Motion 10 talks of a "democratic deficit" in the union and a "continuous pattern of unilateral, undemocratic action by the national leadership". It calls on Hunt to resign "with immediate effect".
Motion 11 calls on congress to "censure" Hunt for giving out inaccurate information about branch positions at a meeting that discussed a pensions deal. Hunt had claimed that a majority of branches wanted an immediate ballot on the deal, but failed to take a vote.
Some in the union protested outside the hall with placards denouncing "bullying". Yet it is Hunt and her supporters that are trying to hold delegates to ransom and bully delegates into withdrawing critical motions 10 and 11.
Several delegates said Hunt was “using staff concerns for her own ends”.
Whatever the tactical rights and wrongs of the motions, events at UCU congress clearly shows that they are accurate in describing continuous undemocratic action by Hunt. Many delegates are eager to find ways to change the union so that ordinary members can have more of a say.
Sean said that while union leaders must be held to account, the issue isn't simply one of changing the top of the union. "Look at those strike committees, teach outs and mass pickets we saw spring up during the pensions strike," he said.
"These are the real democratic structures, but they were new and so weren't developed enough. So Hunt won the vote on the pensions deal. We need to build on these democratic networks and for that we also need struggle."