We need a rank and file movement in the UCU, not a political "front"

Submitted by Pete on 25 June, 2006 - 2:31

This is a longer version of a leaflet given out at the UCU left conference in London on June 24th 2006.
The chaos at the head of the UCU over the last two weeks shows that a rank and file movement is essential in the UCU. The old maxim says that ‘when the leaders won't lead then the rank and file must’. And we have just seen how our leadership is paralysed by division and irresolution.

A campaign to win a 'No' vote needs a campaign for a special sector conference

Although there is no recommendation for acceptance of the deal from the TAC, the membership are being offered no strategy to continue the dispute
The membership can have little confidence that there is the required unity or determination at leadership level to continue the dispute to success.
A national sector conference is essential:

  1. to decide on possibilities of effective action
  2. to hold the officials accountable for their actions
  3. to stop demoralisation setting in as a result of division in the leadership
  4. to stop any university trying to exploit the deal or any subsequent demoralisation by declaring redundancies or exploiting the 11-month exemption of the proposed deal

We shouldn't presume that members will vote 'No' when they are offered neither the outline of a continuing campaign nor even a way forward around the paralysis of our leadership.
We shouldn’t presume either that a 'No' vote will inevitably lead to a national sector conference. When there have been calls for resignations of sections of the leadership as there have been widely in branches, won't those same people do everything they possibly can NOT to hold a special conference and instead go for some controlled consultation exercise?
We must make sure that before the summer is out that there are calls for an emergency sector conference from as many branches as possible. If we don't get the proportions required in the component unions, 20% as in NATFHE, there is a danger that the 'No' vote may only lead to further chaos and not to a rejuvenated campaign. But if we can get that number although it will no longer have constitutional power, the pressure on the leadership will be irresistible.
The UCU left should make a clear call for such a special, branch-based HE sector conference as part of its agitation for a 'No' vote.

We need a rank and file movement not a sect

Over the next year, when the leadership of the new UCU is less accountable than in either union before, rank and file organisation is doubly essential.
The statement calling for this conference says that 'our problems are part of the worldwide neo-liberal attack… evident in (amongst other things) …the increasing drive for war in Iraq, threats to Iran etc. and this requires a united response from activists'.
At today's conference nearly half the workshops will not be discussions about the issues which arise from our daily common experience in the workplace, as UCU members; issues which can and should unite the left in the UCU, but rallies to assemble support for a particular political viewpoint on the left on issues such as Iran and Iraq.
Demands for unity behind a particular political view stand in danger of obstructing real rank and file unity. The SWP, whose political dominance at today's event is clear from the speaker list, has a political view on Iran and the war on Iraq that can only divide the left.
Can we be expected to be united behind the SWP's opposition to all but the friendliest criticism of the Iranian regime which over the last months has imprisoned and terrorised bus workers setting up a trade union?
Should we be united and quiet as Islamist police beat up hundreds of women protesting last week at the increasing arrests and punishment of them for not wearing Islamic dress?
Are we happy with the SWP’s interpretation of the struggle against fascism as centred round allying with Islamists like the gay-hating Sir Iqbal Sacranie?. (The SWP-led Unite cancelled him at its press conferences, but nevertheless use him in the Unite against Fascism advertising literature).
We do not advocate "pure-and-simple" trade-unionism. We are very much in favour of trade unionists discussing international issues. Solidarity with the Palestinians is an important task for socialists and trade unionists. There again, there are major differences between those like the SWP, who believe that Israel has to be destroyed, and the majority of socialists and democrats who, like us in the AWL, believe that a two-states settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, consistently democratic, recognising the right to self-determination of both nations, is the only possibility for progress.
The issues should be debated, yes. Heatedly, probably. But it is stupid to make such policies the defining element of a left or 'rank and file' movement in the union.

What sort of rank and file movement do we need?

A rank and file movement in a trade union or sector is nothing if it doesn't start from the immediate class-struggle issues in that union or sector.

It has to develop a network of activists that can act with clarity, unity and speed on the issues which move and mobilise large numbers of workers in the workplaces.
We are in the middle of a pay ballot in the HE sector, where the majority of our members work and which will significantly affect the shape of the union in its first years of existence. The HE dispute will clearly be the major reason for members new to left politics to attend today. It is ridiculous that the dispute is shunted off into one workshop towards the end of the conference.
A rank and file movement should prioritise such issues and work to create an effective campaign around a collective view democratically thrashed out by its supporters.

Fighting for accountability

We need our union conferences not only to have democratic sovereignty over the union, but also to have the respect of the membership and be able to transform conference policies into action.
We need to ensure that the UCU has the widest branch-based conferences, but also effective accountability of its officers between elections.
If regional structures are to be brought in, they should work to support and encourage the development of branches and their activists, and not to block the involvement of branches, which are the bedrock of the union's organisation.

Promoting working class solidarity in fighting for free education

In HE, the UCEA's aim is to destroy meaningful national pay bargaining. That would be the precursor for local bargaining and the creation of a multi-tiered HE service: rich universities, with high tuition fees, for students from wealthy backgrounds and destined for high paid employment, will pay relatively good wages; and for the rest there will be poorly-funded education, with lecturers on low wages.
In FE the chaos brought about by incorporation has brought competition, bureaucracy and chaos.
We need to develop policies and fight for democratic control of education and funding that will end division, destructive competition and inequality in educational institutions in every sector.
We need to link politically with others - in the National Union of Students, within the trade union movement and working class communities - fighting against the privatisation of education through trust schools, religious schools, business-run academies and tuition fees.

Promoting working-class solidarity in education and on the national and international level

On international issues our key aim should be working-class solidarity.
We should aim to build links with other workers' organisations to fight against war and the capitalist form of globalisation.
We should continue the tradition of opposing the warmongering of our Government, and build on NATFHE's tradition of solidarity with unions in Iraq. (NATFHE moved the successful motion at the 2004 TUC for solidarity with the Iraqi workers' movement). Our international policy should be one of positively building solidarity with working-class organisations rather than simply saying no wherever the foreign policy of our own Government says yes.

Creating the structures for debate and organisation that can compensate for the inadequacies of official structures

On every issue, we should fight to make our union do what needs to be done. But wherever the official union leadership falls down, a rank and file movement should attempt to make good the lack. Democracy is central.
The UCU Left should set out to build a rank and file movement which prioritises developing wide unity on the issues which immediately mobilise our members in the workplaces and in the union.

It should not take the route of becoming a political sect, or more accurately the carrier of a political sect.

The SWP is anxious to build its RESPECT alliance with George Galloway and develop trade union bases for RESPECT. If at today’s conference and in the proposed planning period over the next six months, the UCU Left is shaped by that priority above those of class struggle, then it will sterilise itself, and a real and rank and file movement will have to be built elsewhere.
A rank-and-file movement must be built primarily on unity around the immediate issues of workplace struggle, not on a political platform on international issues. Not even on a correct political platform on international issues. It would be doubly bad for the UCU Left to commit itself to the "boycott Israel" policy pushed by some elements of the left at NATFHE conference, because that it is a badly policy, a counterproductive diversion from real solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Why Boycotting Israeli Academia Will Not Help The Palestinians

The brutality of the crimes committed by the Israeli state - such as the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, the realization of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's 'iron wall', the promoted proliferation of the religious-right settlers in the occupied territories, and the carving up of land and designation of checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza - demands the fullest condemnation. . Nothing but a two nations, two states settlement - giving the Palestinians the right to a real independent state of their own without launching into the hopeless and reactionary project of denying the Israeli Jews' right to national self-determination - can bring justice and open up a prospect of trade union alliance and workers' unity.
An academic boycott of Israel would immediately set up an obstacle in the way of international solidarity action with both Palestinian and Israeli leftist academics. Look at the examples: Mona Baker's sacking of Israeli members of her journal's editorial boards - though one of those was a peace activist, a one-time leader of the Israeli branch of Amnesty International. David Slater's returned an unopened manuscript for the Political Geography journal - because, to paraphrase, he was unsure of how critical the Israeli authors had been of Israel. The boycotters have ended up targeting leftist academics active in their opposition to the Israeli state's occupation of Palestinian land and oppression of the Palestinians.
To say that the sentiment behind an academic boycott lays the blame solely on the Israeli state, not on individual Israeli Jews, simply does not pan out in practice. The boycott in fact becomes a reaction on the part of some leftist academics in Britain which threatens to isolate a critical number of already isolated leftist academics who are themselves being targeted by the right-wing state in Israel. As Neve Gordon and Baruch Kimmerling point out, the recent policy drive by Likud's Limor Livnat to 'reconstruct' and 're-educate' the Israeli academy is an attempt at red-baiting with the ultimate aim of destroying the last realm of open critical debate in Israeli society.
As Neve Gordon has commented, almost 350 professors in Israel signed a solidarity petition with those refusing to serve in the occupied territories (and as a consequence some ended up in jail). It is difficult to find a recent equivalent of civil disobedience on the part of British and American academics in response to the long history of crimes committed by their own governments. Yet I doubt whether there will be any point at which the death toll in Iraq stirs calls by those within UCU, who are already in favour of boycotts as an effective political manoeuvre, for an academic boycott of Britain and/or the United States!
But the most recent boycott proposals say that Israeli academics should be exempt if they produce satisfactory condemnations of the Israeli government? That is no answer. It is to say that Israeli academics - and not those of any other state responsible for crimes - must pass a test in "right-thinking" before they can participate in international academic discussions on, say, mathematics. And if the boycott acquired any momentum - as it has in Arab states, since 1948 - then we can be sure that non-Israeli Jewish academics too would soon find themselves targeted: "First satisfy us that you are anti-Zionist enough, and only then will we listen to you". It is the logic that got many student Jewish societies banned in British universities in the 1980s because they would not "condemn Zionism".

How Zionism is defined in this debate.

Serious analysis like Noam Chomsky's exploration of the history of Zionism as a struggle between two poles, socialist and universalist versus nationalist and exclusivist (with the latter gaining hegemony as a consequence of the Holocaust), gets replaced by demonological caricature in, for example, the homepage of Mona Baker (a high-profile proponent of an academic boycott of Israel). There, the history is defined as follows: "Zionism and Nazism were twins in their narrow nationalism and even collaborated against the public.
The Zionists thus found no reason not collaborate with the Nazis in the mid-thirties to rid Europe of its Jews".
Thus, the Warsaw Ghetto rising is written out of history, and the desperate and sometimes foolish attempts of terrified, conservative-minded, timid Jewish leaders to mitigate the mass-murder drive against their communities is grotesquely transformed into blaming the victims (the Jews) for the crime.
In actual fact, Zionism was and is an arena of struggles - a multifaceted terrain that cannot be reduced to simplistic, demonising equations. Whilst the Israeli state operates at one pole of Zionism, there is also an entire history of left-wing Zionism. There was a Zionist unit in the Red Army during the 1918-21 civil war in Russia.
There is an Israeli labour movement. Since the early 1980s, there have repeatedly been demonstrations against the government in Israel bigger, in proportion to population, than any demonstrations ever by other nations against their own governments in times of armed conflict when the local population is under fire. .
Of course the accusation of anti-Semitism should not be mobilised to stifle criticism of the Israeli state. But equally the cry "look at Israel's crimes" should not be used to excuse politics which actually target the Israeli Jews as a nation, and often Jews in general.
The resurgence and strengthening of the right-wing in Israeli politics - and in Palestinian politics - is a distressing trend. So is the weakening of the Israeli left - and the Palestinian left - in recent years. As trade unionists, consistent democrats, socialists and Marxists in Britain, we should reject any political gesture which writes off Israeli workers and the efforts of the left in Israel to recover and mobilise itself.
Any offerings of solidarity should be made to both Palestinian and Israeli workers, because their possibility of collective alliance and struggle against the leaderships that have and continue to fail them is imperative for a progressive, peaceful future.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.