I attended the UCU annual congress for the first time in Brighton this year. I met some great people and learned a lot. I also gave some advice to other UCU activists who have inherited management from Newcastle College. I also discovered, as is the case in many groups of supposedly like-minded individuals, that there are factions.
We have all seen the Monty Python sketch about the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. The sketch is well known and enduring mainly because it is based in truth. There are splits on both Left and Right: The Tories are split over Europe and have been for years. Worryingly, they are also split over how hard to hit the poor. For some ‘compassionate’ Conservatives pushing them into poverty is enough, others are calling for destitution.
There are many Anti-fascists and Anti-austerity groups who are growing in response to the rise of the far Right. The more traditional parties on the Left include the Communist party, the Revolutionary Communist party, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). All are well organised and sell many papers at Trade Union events and rallies. (I have a real soft spot for left wing paper sellers and I am unable to refuse a copy so I end up with a copy of every one).
There are still questions about the SWP and their decision to handle a sexual assault by holding an internal inquiry. This has been condemned from all sides and it is a shame that an organisation that fights against injustice can hide from justice in such a cowardly manner.
I had heard form more experienced UCU Comrades that a split existed in UCU and that ‘UCU Left’ was an organisation within UCU that existed to further the aims of the SWP. I had my doubts about whether this was the case, mainly because Trade Unions are mass membership organisations that exist to act collectively in the interests of their members. I cannot see how any Trade Union activist would have either the time or inclination to further the needs of anyone other than the members of the branch which they serve.
For some time UCU Left were the only organised group within UCU. Decision makers on the NEC or in congress either supported them or chose to be independent of them. Being the only faction in town meant that when they gave voting advice or voted as a block on the NEC then motions would be carried. More recently a group called ‘Independent Broad Left’ has been organising to try and work in the interests of the majority of members rather what they see as than a narrow political agenda led by the SWP.
In my week in Congress I have learned that both factions misunderstand each other:
- Not every UCU Left activist is a member of the SWP
- The people who oppose UCU Left are not neo-liberals or Tories
- We are all in one Union. If members of these ‘factions’ got together for a pint they would probably agree on a lot.
In UCU as in all politics votes are whipped, if one side has a whipping operation then other side needs one too, but there should be no need for whipped votes when members are delegated from a region or branch. Voting instructions should not come from UCU Left or UCU Independent Broad Left but from the members in the branches who sent the delegates.
Trade Unions are under attack from the Government, many branches are under attack from Management. The Association of Colleges are launching a co-ordinated attack on Pay and Conditions. None of these attacks will land fatal blows. One thing that is disastrous for any mass membership organisation is if the decision makers confuse leadership with dictatorship. Any organisation with an out of touch leadership is on the path to ruin. A member-led organisation is a difficult to achieve and even more difficult to control. But allowing the membership to take the lead and inform policy must be the aim of all trade unions.
Further and Higher education has the 2nd highest rate of part time and casualised workers in the UK behind the hospitality industry. We are seeing lecturing staff forced into insecure part time work as employers demand ever increasing 'flexiblity' which actually means more uncertainty for students and fewer employment rights for staff. FE pay is moving further away from teachers pay. We are best placed to face the challanges ahead if we stand together.