Reclaim UCU: restore democracy in UCU

Liz Lawrence reports on the annual congress in Bournemouth, which took place from 29-31 May, on the struggle for democracy in the union


UCU staff, organised in UNITE (UNITE branch LE127), took strike action on the middle day of the congress. Their strike was over equality issues, including racism, health and safety, breach of recognition agreement, breaches of the Disputes Procedure, failure to negotiate on issues such as hybrid working and a pattern of broken industrial relations.

How did things come to such a state? As one UCU member said “it’s not a case of ‘UCU and proud’ – a slogan UCU has put on some placards – but ‘UCU and ashamed’.” Delegates to UCU congress heard a lot from the strikers about their grievances and demonstrated their sympathy and solidarity. Many of us were genuinely saddened at what we heard. It demonstrated a massive gap between how trade union staff should be treated and the reality our staff were experiencing. A trade union should practise its equality policies and commitments in the way it treats its staff.

Most trade unionists would think that a trade union should be a model employer not a very unhappy place to work. The behaviour of the UCU General Secretary and her supporters is doing serious reputational damage to UCU.

Trades unionists with the strikers

Congress delegates joined UNITE strikers at rallies in the morning of 30th May and at a social event in the evening. We heard about institutional racism. When an employer has a situation where Black staff only are not getting through probation, this calls for investigation, not denial that there is a problem. When 40% of union staff are off sick with stress-related illness, this indicates a toxic workplace culture. All union activists know that union work can be stressful, but it does not explain a 40% level of illness.

When a trade union breaches its recognition agreement with UNITE and recognises the GMB as a scab union for senior management grades, this is union-busting. It is shameful for any employer to do this, but for a trade union to do this is utterly deplorable.

The ill-treatment of the union’s staff also impacts upon support for union members, something the UNITE reps explained on the strike day. Many UCU staff felt they were being blocked from carrying out democratic decisions and supporting members as they would wish.

UCU staff who are UNITE members were balloted for strike action and won the ballot with a clear majority for strike action. Their strike action was well supported by UCU congress delegates. It is not easy for trade union staff to take strike action. As trade unionists they are highly committed to their work and appreciate the impact on union members. Taking strike action is a last measure to get the union bureaucracy to listen to their grievances.

During the congress many delegates wore a pink t-shirt with the slogan “Black Staff Matter.” These t-shirts had been produced by lay activists in solidarity with UNITE, with profits going to the UNITE strike fund. The tee shirts also said “Black Members’ Matter.” UCU’s Black Members’ Standing Committee (BMSC) has been boycotting UCU meetings over institutional racism.

Black Staff Matter T-Shirt at UCU Congress
Black Staff Matter T-Shirt at UCU Congress

Impact on UCU and slogans for action

The UNITE strike action meant that the business for UCU’s Further Education and Higher Education sector conferences was not debated. These conferences are the leading bodies to decide the industrial relations policy for each sector. The UNITE branch made it clear to congress delegates that they support rescheduling these conferences when the dispute is resolved.

UNITE strikers who work for UCU put on their banner on their strike day on 30th May 2024

“Against the slow cancellation of trade union democracy.”

Why did they choose this slogan? It is first a claim that the way a trade union treats its employees should be understood as part of union democracy. Trade union staff should enjoy decent pay and employment conditions and fair procedures in their workplace. Anyone who is active in a union recognises that the jobs of full-time union staff can be demanding and stressful at times, but that is all the more reason for a supportive working environment. If trade unions do not treat their own staff fairly, then what credibility does the union have when negotiating with employers?

This is a slogan many UCU activists can understand. Lay activists too have experienced slow cancellations of union democracy. These include inaction in implementing conference decisions, weaponisation of the Rule 13 union complaints process against left-wing activists and the use of referenda and electronic polls to modify or overturn conference decisions or delay industrial action.

UCU responds, as employer

What was the response of UCU as an employer to the strike action by their staff? On the morning of the first day of Congress, before the first session started, they emailed a message to all UCU Congress delegates, giving the employer version of the negotiating history, plus a chart with the salary scales of UCU staff. The use of this employer tactic did not impress UCU activists.

On the third and final day of UCU Congress delegates voted their solidarity with the UNITE group of UCU staff. At the start of the Equality section of Congress business, delegates carried a motion in support of the Black Members’ Standing Committee and Black staff and calling for ‘an external and independent investigation into racism within our union’.

Delegates then voted support for a late motion which more explicitly addressed the issues in the UNITE dispute, calling on the General Secretary to ensure involvement of the BMSC and UNITE in an independent investigation and agree to UNITE’s proposed resolutions of the dispute. These would include respect for the union recognition agreement with UNITE, holding an independent investigation into workplace culture and organisation and withdrawing dismissal-related procedures against Black staff.

What has been the response of UCU as an employer to the strike action by the UNITE union? On Wednesday 5th June, UCU General Secretary Dr Jo Grady issued on YouTube some reflections on the UCU Congress. In this message she announced a staffing review. When an employer announces a staffing review during the middle of an industrial dispute, most trade unionists perceive this as escalation not a move towards a negotiated settlement.

Unity and solidarity

UCU Congress 2024 showed powerful demonstrations of unity and solidarity between UCU workers, organised in UNITE, and lay UCU activists, both committed to reclaiming UCU as a democratic union. This unity must be built on in the coming weeks.

Solidarity with UNITE LE 127 branch!

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Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

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