Toward a rank‑and‑file caucus in UCU

Dan Davison makes the argument for a rank-and-file strategy given the state of the higher education strikes in the United Kingdom and the debates within the University and College Union.


Note from the editors

This useful article by Dan Davison for Tempest of problems of organisation and strategy in UCU was written before things got substantially worse – with a fait accompli undemocratic ‘pause’ in action imposed by the Grady leadership now threatening to demobilise the union – bearing out the analysis and making it all the more relevant now.

Source >> Tempest

On February 1, the University and College Union (UCU), the national union for academic and academic-related staff in the U.K., began eighteen days of strike action. These strike days are spread across February and March in an escalating pattern. Additionally, there will be a vote to extend the union’s strike mandate into the summer term, as well as a marking (grading) and assessment boycott in April.

UCU’s campaign (“ucuRISING”) is the latest round in two national industrial disputes. The first is a long-running dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for what are known as “pre-92” universities. These are institutions that already had university status before the changes to higher education funding and administration under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which abolished the old distinction between universities and polytechnic institutes.

In April 2022, the employers’ consortium Universities UK (UUK) forced through a package of cuts to the USS. These cuts were based on a flawed valuation of the scheme undertaken at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the midst of a global economic downturn, and represent a 35 percent cut of annual guaranteed pension for a typical member. For scheme members at the start of their careers, the cut can exceed 50 percent.

The second dispute is with another employers’ consortium, the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), and concerns pay inequality, job insecurity, rising workloads, and pay deflation. Unlike the USS dispute, this dispute involves both “pre-92” and “post-92” institutions. Over the last decade, staff pay has fallen 25 percent behind inflation and, while UCEA recently made an improved pay offer, UCU members have overwhelmingly rejected it because it still falls significantly short of inflation.

[T]he political dynamics in UCU have echoes in other unions across many different sectors and countries…it is worth considering what these recent events tell us about the nature of union bureaucracies and the connection between a union’s internal democracy and its industrial effectiveness.

It is up to us at UCU to throw ourselves into this new wave of industrial action and give it the greatest possible impact. With many other unionized workers in the U.K., including school staff, civil servants, nurses, and ambulance service staff also taking national strike action this month, we must maximize our opportunities to coordinate and build solidarity links with fellow workers in struggle. Nevertheless, the way UCU’s industrial strategy for this term was decided raises serious concerns from the perspective of union democracy. In brief, UCU’s General Secretary Jo Grady used her monopoly on the union’s communication channels, including its official social media accounts, to undermine UCU’s democratic structures and to push the union closer to her preferred industrial strategy, all in the name of “accountability.”

Unfortunately, the political dynamics in UCU have echoes in other unions across many different sectors and countries. As such, it is worth considering what these recent events tell us about the nature of union bureaucracies and the connection between a union’s internal democracy and its industrial effectiveness. In short, the case of UCU illustrates why worker-activists need a rank-and-file caucus that can win “internal” fights for union democracy, thereby strengthening the union in “external” fights against the bosses.

The shadow of 2018

Before making the positive case for a rank-and-file caucus, it is worth providing some context for UCU’s current leadership and direction. Grady was elected as General Secretary in 2018. As I have detailed elsewhere, one of the major issues hanging over that election was how Grady’s predecessor Sally Hunt handled UCU’s 2018 strike over the USS. Hunt ended that strike by putting a deal to the membership that offered few concrete guarantees. While a 64 percent majority of UCU members accepted the deal, many were outraged at how Hunt used the union’s internal communications to mislead the membership about the available options and sell out the strike. Even more troublingly, Hunt shut down the 2018 UCU Congress proceedings three times in response to motions critical of her leadership.

The 2018 strike and UCU Congress kicked off a rank-and-file revolt in the union, motivating members to form new activist networks committed to making UCU more militant and democratic. As a co-founder of USS Briefs, a popular series of online papers by university staff and students on the USS strike and other issues in higher education, and as a worker-activist rather than a full-time union staffer, Grady successfully positioned herself in the 2018 General Secretary election as an independent left-wing candidate who could represent this rank-and-file insurgency within UCU. In her manifesto, she pledged to support the recommendations of the Democracy Commission set up in 2018 to review UCU’s democratic structures.

People march down a street holding various signs. The largest sign says ‘University and College Union - London Region, EDUCATION FOR ALL, Support the pension and pay strikes - Scrap student fees’ and is pink and purple, the colors of UCU. Another sign says ‘HANDS OFF OUR PENSION’ in bright red and orange colors, with painted handprints. Two cops walk among the protestors.
University and College Union hold a strike union demo on March 14, 2018 in the battle over the USS, the universities’ main pension scheme. How the UCU General Secretary facilitated the 2018 UCU strike merits scrutiny. Photo credit: Socialist Appeal.

In other words, there were high hopes that Grady would help turn UCU into a more combative and democratically accountable union and stand up for the union’s rank-and-file. I myself provided a public endorsement for her election campaign on this basis. These initial hopes put her subsequent record as General Secretary in a deeply tragic light. Since 2018, UCU has tended to take “staggered” rounds of strike action, starting off with a few strike days and very gradually increasing their number: an approach that has won virtually nothing for UCU members over the last four or five years.

The 2019 Special Congress held to consider the Democracy Commission’s wide-ranging proposals fell victim to factional manoeuvres and filibustering by the right wing of the union, propped up by activists close to the General Secretary. The motions that failed to pass included one that would have established a branch-based dispute committee for multi-institution disputes, with delegated representatives from each branch involved in the dispute. This would have given UCU’s local branches much more control over industrial strategy.

A motion to shorten the General Secretary’s term length to three years was also defeated, with some members bizarrely equating this reduction of an elected representative’s time in office with casualization. As a result of the filibustering, just over half of the Congress business was heard, which is concerning because the remaining motions were those relating to UCU’s democratic structures, including its National Congress and special conferences. An emergency motion tabled by rank-and-file activists to secure a recall of the Special Congress, and ensure that the remaining motions on the agenda would be heard at a later date, was shut down by the Chair of Congress.

This brings us to recent events. On December 13, 2022, Grady delivered an online speech via UCU’s official Twitter account that invoked the need for debate among UCU members. She framed the speech as a UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) report made in the interest of democratic accountability and unity, describing herself with false humility as “just one voice.” In reality, Grady was making a substantive intervention in a debate over UCU’s industrial strategy, publicly casting doubt on the decision of UCU’s democratically elected Higher Education Committee (HEC) in favour of a marking and assessment boycott in January and indefinite strike action in February.

[T]he UCU’s leadership’s bureaucratic manoeuvring has undermined the union’s democratic procedures and, in the process, risked derailing our industrial action campaign.

Grady also falsely claimed that she had been prevented from giving in-person reports to the NEC. Simply put, the General Secretary and her allies lost the vote on industrial strategy within the union’s existing democratic structures and tried to sneak their alternative strategy of ten days of “escalating” (really staggered) strike action through the back door by using the union’s communication platforms to make a demagogic appeal to the membership.

The underlying logic of this approach to union politics resembles that of the populist strongman who presents himself as in direct communication with “the people” and legitimizes his autocratic decisions with plebiscitary approval. In this case, General Secretary Grady presents herself as in direct communication with the membership via social media to give a faux-democratic veneer to her attempts to bypass the union’s formal structures of decision-making.

On January 9, a “member Q&A” was held on UCU’s Twitter space, ostensibly to “hear a range of views about the next phase of action.” Over the course of the eighty-minute online “debate,” the General Secretary had a right to reply, but not the members, giving her a grossly disproportionate amount of speaking time. Around half of the speakers called from the floor were members of the “UCU Commons” faction. Although UCU Commons members have publicly denied links to the General Secretary, it is the faction most closely associated with her, with many of its founders overlapping with the “#Grady4GS” grouping that campaigned for Grady’s election.

Subsequently, the UCU Twitter account posted clips from the debate that were favourable to the General Secretary’s position. On January 10, there was a UCU Branch Delegates Meeting (BDM) on industrial strategy. As the name suggests, these national meetings consist of delegates from UCU’s branches, but their decisions are not formally binding. The BDM voted 57 percent in favour of “escalating” strike action and 31 percent in favour of indefinite, continuous strike action, as well as 56 percent in favour of a marking and assessment boycott in April, and 26 percent in favour of one in January. However, the alternative option of indefinite, discontinuous strike action was not put to the BDM, which forced some delegates to abstain since that was the choice of strategy for which their branches had democratically mandated them to vote.

Admittedly, the eighteen days of strike action that the HEC decided on for this term are a substantial improvement over the ten days that the General Secretary proposed, meaning she did not entirely get her way. Still, the UCU’s leadership’s bureaucratic manoeuvring has undermined the union’s democratic procedures and, in the process, risked derailing our industrial action campaign. Although the details of the UCU example are unique to this union, as indicated previously, they reflect lamentably common problems with union leaderships. This raises major questions as to how workers in struggle can address such problems within their unions and push their unions to victory in industrial disputes.

Building the rank-and-file

The question of how we can “strike to win” is inseparable from the issues pertaining to UCU’s internal life and democratic structures. This is because of the internal contradictions of the union and the nature of the union bureaucracy, meaning the bodies and individuals who hold decision-making power at the top of the union, as well as its unelected staff. As the U.S. socialist Hal Draper recognized, from a class struggle perspective, the union bureaucracy has a dual role.

On the one hand, it is the organizational leadership of the working class; on the other hand, it is the means by which the ruling class exerts influence upon the working class. It, therefore, finds itself mediating conflicts between labour and capital—between us and our ever more market-driven employers—experiencing tremendous pressure to “keep the peace” by settling for an unsatisfactory compromise. Moreover, members of the bureaucracy are incentivized not to act in a way that might jeopardize their own career prospects as union leaders and staffers. Even under a relatively left-wing union leadership, the UCU bureaucracy experiences the same pressures and contradictions.

To counteract these forces and more effectively take on the employers, we need a proper rank-and-file caucus; that is, a constituted grouping within the union’s “base” (i.e., the workers who make up its membership) that campaigns vigorously for internal union democracy as well as better working conditions.

While many activists in the existing “UCU Left” faction have played excellent roles in local disputes, mobilizing and organizing at the rank-and-file level, historically the grouping has focused too heavily on electoral politics in the union. The other historically significant faction within UCU, the “Independent Broad Left” (IBL), which is dominated by the right wing of the union as well as members of the Communist Party of Britain, admits that it only exists because UCU Left does, and so similarly focuses on internal elections—albeit in a far less transparently organized way than UCU Left. As for UCU Commons, to join the faction one has to apply through an opaque process, preferably with an existing Commons member to “vouch” for your suitability, after which applications will be considered over a “few weeks,” without any publicly available criteria as to how applications are assessed. Fundamentally, it is impossible to build openness and transparency within UCU on such a basis. A new approach is needed: a rank-and-file strategy, which recognizes from the outset that there are serious tensions between the union’s base and its officialdom.

An active rank-and-file caucus could have pushed for a wider transformation of the union, left us better positioned to resolve the major disagreements over how to proceed during previous strikes, and made UCU more energetic over the last few years by campaigning and organizing nationally around the pressing issues facing the sector.

“Internal” fights for union democracy lead to “external” victories in industrial disputes. Take the successful 1997 United Parcel Service (UPS) workers’ strike, organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which effectively shut down UPS’ entire operations for sixteen days, costing the company hundreds of millions in U.S. dollars. Key to the Teamsters’ victory in the UPS strike was a long-standing rank-and-file caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). The strike immediately followed TDU’s successful effort to support the candidacy of Ron Carey for Teamster General President in 1991 and 1996 against the old guard of the union bureaucracy.

Throughout this period, TDU continued to organize within the union’s base for democratic reforms. In short, TDU’s major influence in Carey’s presidential election, as well as its broader campaigns to make the union democratically accountable to its membership, made the Teamsters adopt a more intense and militant approach that ultimately won the UPS dispute. Even allowing for the differences between these sectors, and between the U.S. and U.K. labour movements, the experience of TDU and the UPS strike provides valuable lessons for labour activists seeking to build a democratic union, such as those in UCU.

Likewise, a good rank-and-file caucus realizes that fighting builds union membership. UCU’s current leadership seems to have this the wrong way around. Inspired by the popular writings of Jane McAlevey, it attempts to build super-majorities as a precursor to carrying out and winning strikes, stressing the need to increase union density. During the get the vote out (GTVO) campaign for our national strike ballot this academic year, the UCU leadership’s communication strategy strongly implied to members that we would secure victory provided we had a turnout of well over 50 percent (the threshold for a valid industrial action ballot in the U.K. under the Trade Union Act 2016), with the General Secretary stating, “If we scrape over the line, employers will be emboldened.”

Ian Allinson argues that the UCU leadership is simply misrepresenting McAlevey’s ideas for their own bureaucratic ends. While there is certainly an element of selective reading in the leadership’s embrace of McAlevey, as Kim Moody points out in his illuminating critique of McAlevey’s “model”, McAlevey tends to emphasize the initiative of the professional organizer rather than that of the rank-and-file union member. Missing in this picture is how building the union among those willing to join and take action even with a minority of the membership is itself a way of recruiting a majority.

One sees this not only from classic examples like the 1936-37 General Motors’ sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan but also from recent examples like the “Red State” school teachers’ strikes in 2018-19. These are vivid illustrations of shop-floor activists successfully employing a rank-and-file strategy from an initially low membership base in the workplace. Learning from such examples, UCU activists can use this new round of strike action to expand the union’s active membership and win both disputes.

People wearing red t-shirts that say ‘Arizona Educators United’ march down a street with various signs and a banner that says ‘#REDforED.’ One sign says ‘Education Cuts NEVER Heal’ with band-aids and another says ‘Quality Ed Deserves Quality Pay.’
Arizona teachers’ strike and rally on April 26, 2018. One of the ‘Red State’ teachers strikes that exemplified rank-and-file strategy that the author calls for. Photo by Gage Skidmore for Arizona Education Association

During UCU’s first major set of national strikes over USS in 2018, a rank-and-file caucus looked set to emerge in the form of “UCU Rank and File”, further galvanized by the actions of the union’s bureaucracy at the 2018 Congress. While this network held a few in-person organizing meetings, it never spilled beyond these and a national mailing list into branch activism. Almost five years on, little remains of this organization. In 2020, UCU Solidarity Movement was set up as an activist network, which has been more successful insofar as it still shares resources and holds regular online meetings. That same year, the #CoronaContract campaign was launched to secure employment for casualized staff during the pandemic. This grouping vigorously opposed the General Secretary’s proposed industrial strategy in November 2020 and has continued to provide a critical, grassroots voice in the UCU.

None of these examples has yet consolidated into a fully functional rank-and-file caucus. Such a rank-and-file caucus would coordinate motions and on-the-ground activity; have a steering committee accountable to its members; possess democratic structures for deciding its positions; and stand its own candidates for an election where it deems it right to do so, or support other candidates who are not necessarily fully signed up to it, but would be advantageous on, e.g., the union’s NEC. It would have open membership, though branches and perhaps existing campaign groups like #CoronaContract would be able to affiliate to it. Crucially, such a democratic organization would regularly campaign on democratizing UCU itself. Having recently achieved its largest-ever national strike mandate, there is clearly an appetite among UCU’s 130,000 members for action to win decent pensions and improved pay, and better working conditions. A militant rank-and-file caucus could be the answer those members need.

One sees this from the experience of previous strike waves over the same issues as the current one. In early 2020, there were signs of progress in the negotiations. For example, UCEA had started talking to UCU’s representatives about casualization when they had never been prepared to discuss it previously. However, this was not always successfully communicated to branch members taking action. The failure to communicate between the negotiating room and the picket line led to demobilization in some—though not all—branches, and this was exacerbated with the onset of the pandemic, which provided employers with reasons to delay and obstruct negotiations.

There was considerable strife within the union over the way forward, but with little internal democracy to resolve this satisfactorily. An active rank-and-file caucus could have pushed for a wider transformation of the union, left us better positioned to resolve the major disagreements over how to proceed during previous strikes, and made UCU more energetic over the last few years by campaigning and organizing nationally around the pressing issues facing the sector. The UCU bureaucracy’s maneuvers in relation to industrial strategy this term starkly illustrate why it is more vital than ever to establish such a caucus.

Here a further example from the U.S. might be instructive. In its inspirational 2012 strike, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) pushed back against a conservative agenda for restructuring education, preventing the institution of merit pay, and softening a proposed teacher evaluation system. Key to this success was the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a rank-and-file caucus that made transforming CTU its primary purpose, built a campaign around the pressing issue of school closures, and brought the campaign into CTU. CORE pushed the union leadership into action, utilizing CTU’s House of Delegates meetings and other structures to expand its activist base and organize. Crucially, CORE preserved its independence as a rank-and-file caucus. When CORE members were elected to full-time union positions in 2010, they stepped aside from CORE’s leadership. This included Karen Lewis, who was elected CTU President. In 2011, Lewis gave CTU’s endorsement of a bill that would have, among other things, required 75 percent of union members to vote for a strike for it to be lawful.

Instead of uncritically supporting the union leadership it had campaigned hard to elect, CORE activists instigated a discussion of the bill’s details and implications – first in the caucus, then in the wider union – and successfully brought a motion to the union’s House of Delegates to overturn CTU’s endorsement of the bill and reopen negotiations on it. The similarities and contrasts with UCU are striking. A rank-and-file revolt brought Grady and Lewis to the leadership of their respective unions, but unlike the UCU rank-and-file, the CTU rank-and-file had an independent, democratic caucus that could act to correct the new leadership’s missteps and steer the union to victory in a major industrial dispute.
In summary, strikes are recommencing. Previous strike waves were obstructed, partly because of poor union democracy. We know from the experience of other unions that fights for union democracy can directly lead to victories on pay and working conditions, and that vigorously taking the fight to the employers themselves builds majorities in the workplace. To build the union and win these strikes, we need a rank-and-file caucus.

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Dan Davison is a British and Venezuelan sociologist and activist in the Labour Party and the University and College Union (UCU).

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