Why We Are Calling For a Democracy Review

On the 16th April 2018 at a well-attended Emergency General Meeting of Sheffield UCU, we overwhelmingly passed the motion below calling for a democracy review of UCU. We then submitted it as a late motion to Congress, UCU’s annual meeting to determine national policy, which is being held this year between 30th May and 1st June.  We also shared it with the participants at UCU Transformed, an activists’ day school hosted by London Region UCU on 28th April, which was attended by 150 UCU members from more than 20 branches.

Democracy Review Motion

Congress notes:

  • concerns from many branches and members about the processes behind the consultative ballot on the USS offer of 23rd March
  • the lack of inter-election mechanisms by which to recall or hold elected union representatives to account
  • most senior full time officials of the union are appointed rather than elected

Congress resolves:

  • to undertake a review before Congress 2019 of UCU’s democratic structures via a democracy commission, including but not limited to discussion of the appropriate number of full time elected officials and how elected representatives are to be held to account
  • that the commission should be elected by and from branches, regional committees, devolved nations and advisory committees of the union
  • to empower the commission to recommend changes to UCU’s democratic structures at a one-day special Congress, for discussion and voting on by branch delegates

We passed this motion, after some discussion, because we wanted to try to address the myriad issues raised by the USS dispute in a constructive way. Bath UCU passed the same motion and Bournemouth UCU one very similar. Many branches and many members of the union have expressed concern about the way in which the decision was made to ballot members about the UUK proposal of 23rd March. This included the fact that branch consultation was rushed through without proper time for discussion and debate, the lack of information around the offer, and the way in which the General Secretary’s office was used to encourage a vote to accept, despite no official recommendation being voted on by the Higher Education Committee.

There have been a range of responses to these concerns. More than 20 branches, including Sheffield, have called for a special Higher Education sector conference; there have been complaints about the General Secretary and some motions of no confidence in the General Secretary passed. As a branch, we believe that there are many questions that need answering about how the USS dispute has been handled, but we also believe that the questions of transparency, lack of information, and accountability raised in recent weeks have characterised previous national industrial disputes as well.

We believe that the best way to address these problems is to involve members and branches of the union in a conversation about how our union should work, and to seriously discuss whether our current national leadership structures are best suited to a campaigning, democratic and member-led union. We want to invite all branches to support this initiative, and be part of the discussion. This is not intended as a criticism of UCU as a union but a constructive assessment of where we are collectively. UCU is just 12 years old – the result of a merger between AUT and NATFHE – and is the biggest higher and further education union in the world. This is a fantastic achievement and is not in our eyes undermined at all by a frank conversation as to how the structures of the union function and how they can be improved.

UCU last underwent a democracy review in 2013, and you can read the report of that review here. However, this was a narrow process involving 10 Congress delegates, and not a wide ranging discussion within the union. We believe that since this review was undertaken, UCU has undergone several important shifts, not least throughout the USS and FE pay disputes currently ongoing. The political context nationally has also changed. We therefore believe that it is both timely and necessary to look again at how we work as a union, and that is why we passed the motion calling for a Democracy Review.

Unfortunately, this motion has been deemed not admissible to Congress by the Congress Business Committee (CBC). We have been told that the motion was ruled out of order because:

“it would involve Congress in decisions about the terms of appointment of the union’s officials, which is outside the scope of Congress under the rules of the union. Rule 29 makes it clear that this is the province of NEC as the employer of the union’s staff. Congress cannot pass motions inconsistent with the union’s rules.”

We are dismayed by this and dispute that it is a valid reason to rule out the motion. Rule 29, titled “Other Employees” does indeed state that:

29.1 Employees other than the General Secretary shall be engaged by the General Secretary under procedures agreed by the National Executive Committee.

29.2 Employees shall be engaged under conditions of employment agreed by the National Executive Committee.

What we are calling for is a review of our democratic structures, which should for us include a discussion on the appropriate term limits of elected full time officials, and also the appropriate number of elected full time officials. We have no interest in discussing or challenging the conditions of employment of “other employees”, which is what Rule 29 relates to, and we do not see this rule as relevant to a discussion about the term limits of elected representatives of the union.

We have also been told that it was the view of CBC that the motion “might be taken to include implied criticisms of staff, which is not allowed under Congress Standing Order 49ii.” Again, we want to make clear that we are not criticising employees of the union, who work hard for UCU and have no democratic authority themselves but can only implement the decisions of Congress, the NEC and the General Secretary. Our issue and the issue for all members as we see it is that we lack a cohesive collective leadership.

We believe that key issues we’re currently facing stem from the fact that UCU’s National Executive Committee is under-resourced, with elected representatives unable to access sufficient facility time to function as a leadership body of the union, and that this, combined with the fact that the only full-time elected official of the union is the General Secretary, means that an inordinate and perhaps unmanageable amount of power is concentrated in the hands of one person. We note that other similarly sized unions in Britain, like the PCS and the RMT, have two and four elected full time officials respectively, and smaller but better resourced and more visible National Executive Committees.

However, we understand that while looking again at the structure and function of our union leadership represents a good starting point to us, that other branches and bodies of the union may disagree. We don’t want to force our solutions on the union, but we do want to begin a discussion throughout the union’s structures on how we can most effectively continue the struggle to build a campaigning, democratic and member-led UCU. We ask that all UCU members discuss this idea, and that Congress delegates seriously consider supporting our challenge to CBC at Congress. We have achieved fantastic things together as a union over the last 12 years. We have a challenge ahead of us, but also an opportunity to develop the most cohesive, responsive, accountable and most importantly collective leadership for our union. Please support our challenge to CBC and our motion for a Democracy Review within UCU.

Jess Meacham (Sheffield UCU Education Officer)

Sam Morecroft (Sheffield UCU Anticasualisation Officer)

On behalf of Sheffield UCU