Delegates to the UCU union's annual congress defied the leadership on Wednesday by voting in favour of debating two motions critical of general secretary Sally Hunt.
A motion from the majority on the union's national executive committee (NEC) to withdraw the motions fell by 144 votes to 123.
The vote took place on Wednesday afternoon. It followed an extraordinary first morning of congress that saw Hunt orchestrate two UCU staff walkouts in response to various critical motions. Staff in the Unite union walked out again following the vote to hear the two motions, prompting congress to be suspended yet again.
Annie, a delegate from Sheffield, told Socialist Worker, "I'm really fucking annoyed. Our congress has been hijacked."
A leaflet handed out from Unite claimed that some motions would "breach agreements between Unite and UCU which protect employees' dignity at work and right to due process".
It used the phrase "for the avoidance of doubt"—a phrase repeatedly used by Hunt during the pensions dispute in higher education earlier this year.
It's important that everyone is held accountable. And that any future general secretary knows they will be held to account.Delegate David
Congress was told that Unite has now declared a "trade dispute" over the motions. But David, a delegate from Lambeth College UCU, said the idea that the motions would affect ordinary staff was wrong.
"I don't see that in the motion wording," he told Socialist Worker. "We should have a right to criticise the officials."
Another delegate told Socialist Worker, "I can't believe that most staff would be involved in this. I think they've been whipped into it. Many delegates feel that the declaration of a trade dispute is an attempt to intimidate delegates from making criticisms."
Motion 10 calls on Hunt to resign immediately and motion 11 calls for her to be censured.
Some delegates wouldn't back the motions but are furious at the idea that they might not be allowed to debate them. Others support them.
David said, "I would vote yes. It's important that everyone is held accountable. And that any future general secretary knows they will be held to account."
The motions follow widespread criticism of Hunt for promoting a deal with bosses' Universities UK (UUK) to end a pensions dispute in higher education.
Many workers said Hunt used undemocratic methods to promote the deal, and were also angry that it did not give guarantees on their pensions. A third voted to reject it in a ballot.
Mesar Hameed, a delegate from the University of Bath, told Socialist Worker, "We just want to say that what she did wasn't something that all members agreed with.
"There were people standing on the picket lines crying when they heard about that deal.
"During the consultation, Hunt put out several emails begging people to accept it. It seemed like the union officials were on UUK's side."
Kier Mobbs, also from Bath, agreed. "The membership are saying, 'We want to be heard'," he told Socialist Worker. "She needs to be held accountable."
Mesar said Bath university increased its membership by around 250 during the strike. Other branches also saw huge rises in membership when they could see that the union was fighting.
But Hunt in her speech to congress on Wednesday gave the first reason for the rise in membership as her policy of offering free membership to some groups of workers. Her self-serving speech was mostly flat. The only applause came when she referred to things that delegates could celebrate, such as the student support for the pensions strikes.
She referred to the need for "unity" constantly. But it seems that the onus on being united only applies to those who want to hold her to account, while union officials can break unity by repeatedly hampering debate at congress by disrupting it.
Around 125 people came to an impromptu UCU Left meeting at the UCU union's annual congress in Manchester on Wednesday evening. It reflected the anger among delegates.
The UCU Left, which Socialist Worker supports, had initially planned to meet from 7.30pm. But it called on people to meet immediately after congress ended to discuss the day's events.
Several delegates said Hunt was putting her own reputation above the union.
Roddy from Imperial College London told Socialist Worker, "I'm beginning to think the officials would rather wreck the whole congress than hear any criticism of Sally Hunt."
Mike is branch secretary of Exeter UCU, which proposed a motion calling for Hunt's resignation. He told the meeting, "Everything you think, 'They really won't do that will they?' They then went and did."
He added, "There's a power struggle in this union between the rank and file and the ossified establishment. What we've seen today is incredibly cynical manipulation."
He said the staff walkouts meant delegates had been "locked out" of their own union congress.
Rhian also from Exeter pointed out that they had offered a compromise on motion 10 and to take it in parts - but that this was "roundly rejected".
Marion who works in Bournemouth said she was "the angriest" she'd ever been at a UCU congress. "This is about who runs the union," she said.
Rhiannon from Halesowen College warned that some were so furious they were talking of leaving the union. "We have to tackle the despondency," she said. "We have to stay and fight."
Many delegates stressed the need to change the union but said this wasn't simply about elections and changing those at the top. "We can't just wait for another left leadership," argued Richard from Tower Hamlets College. "We need more struggle."
Sean from University College London added, "We have a live dispute over pay. We need to commit to fighting over it."
He said Hunt had made "a tremendous error" in how she has handled the congress. Many others agreed that Hunt has generated more anger at the lack of democracy in the union.
Higher and further education sector conferences take place on Thursday. The UCU congress is set to meet again on Friday—but it still isn't clear whether it will go ahead. An emergency NEC meeting of the UCU is set to take place at 12.45pm today.
But whatever happens at congress, many UCU members are determined to keep organising—not only to protect their pay, pensions and conditions but also to change their union.
Pensions strikes earlier this year transformed the UCU by bringing in thousands of new members and reinvigorating branches. It showed that it's possible to build active branches where new, young union members take a lead.
The UCU London Region has called a meeting for Saturday 9 June in London for all UCU members to discuss where next after the congress. It will be a key event for everyone who wants to keep up the struggle.