Last week, the Trustee Board of UCL’s student union UCLU overturned a policy, previously passed by the elected Union Council, in favour of joining the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. They ruled that the union could not take the campaigning actions voted for, saying that to do so would go beyond UCLU’s legal remit. This ruling extended even to mere political expression – the Board overturned clauses mandating the union to do such simple things as raise awareness of the repression of Palestinians.
Supporters of Workers’ Liberty and other leftists had opposed BDS when it was proposed, raising the argument that BDS was the wrong way to support Palestinian liberation. We backed a counter-proposal that instead UCLU should organise demonstrations against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and against UK arms sales to Israel, and should offer solidarity to organisations like WAC-Ma’an, a radical trade union organising both Arab and Jewish workers together to fight against the occupation as well as for their rights at work. And we proposed that the whole debate should have been moved to a General Assembly – a meeting where all union members could be involved and vote – in order to broaden the debate. We were voted down by the Union Council reps on both counts.
Nevertheless, we completely oppose the policy being overturned in this way. We want to win this argument politically and democratically, by persuading fellow union members, not through bureaucratic measures imposed from above.
The laws restricting student union activity, imposed by governments keen to head off organised opposition to their policies, are an affront to freedom of organisation. And student union Trustee Boards are anti-democratic bodies (like many, UCLU’s includes several unelected non-students as voting members), which over-zealously implement excessively conservative interpretations of these laws. In this case, UCLU's Board has decided that even raising awareness among its members of the Palestinian issue would be going too far. Given that other student unions have implemented BDS policies, this seems like an over-cautious response even given the restrictive laws.
Such a precedent is likely to be used to block union activity on other topics too. So it should concern everyone who wants to see democratic, actively campaigning unions, whatever your stance on BDS. It is for a union’s members to decide what issues are in its remit – not the state, not university managers, and not bureaucratic Trustee Boards. Workers’ Liberty is campaigning for the right to organise, speak and act freely on campuses, and the freedom of students to take action as they wish through their unions is part of that.
Much of the student union movement’s establishment and bureaucracy – including Trustee Boards and the unelected “experts” and professionalised sabbatical officers that sit on them – has internalised the anti-political, service-provider model of student unions pushed on them from above, and has taken up the role of ensuring student unions aggressively self-censor. They play a similar role to the conservative trade union bureaucrats who internalised the spirit, as well as the letter, of right-wing anti-trade-union laws and go “beyond the call of duty” to suppress industrial action and militant campaigning. To build a political, combative student movement capable of fighting for its members’ needs and interests, we will need to confront this bureaucratic tendency.