The current position in the Higher Education sector is complex in terms of the mandate which the union’s HE Committee has been given in organising industrial action.
The first is that we are mandated to ballot for industrial action to take place at the start of the autumn term should no adequate progress be made. Any ballot over the summer runs the risk of a low turnout.
Whatever happens, we need to prepare for a highly aggressive assault by employers. We know from last year that the employers clearly have an agenda to up the ante on issues like docking pay of striking workers.
On the issue of the Israel-Palestine motions at congress, I think anger at what the Israeli state is doing translates into supporting all motions which invoke criticism of Israel. For me, it is important to be critical of the Israeli government but not to write off all Israeli workers.
For example, on the final day of Congress, a motion critical of the aggressive actions of the Israeli government was overwhelmingly supported by delegates. But the motion passed included breaking off links with the Histadrut, which is highly regrettable. Breaking off links (if any actually existed) with Israeli unions sends a clear message that, for UCU, worker solidarity comes a long way behind opposing anything to do with Israel.
The first problem the left faces in UCU is that the “Left” label has been hijacked by a very narrow section of the left, who often pursue reactionary policies and seek to divide rather than unite the union. The name “UCU Left” [the SWP-run grouping within the union] is attractive to new activists who attend congress; very few who are active in unions would label themselves as being on anything other than the left.
Organisationally, the SWP has been quite successful in labelling anyone who does not take their whip as being “UCU Right”. However, how many of the approaches being taken really are genuine left wing-trade union strategies? Does having a walk around Brighton chanting anti-Labour Party slogans outside the Labour Party conference really strike fear into employers?
I helped organise a meeting of the broader left at UCU congress this year with a view to organising some sort of platform that can develop industrial strategies capable of taking on the employers. In terms of increasing democracy, the first principle must be that branches or local associations are the core organisational unit in the union.
Through the “National Organising Plan”, branches seem to have to be answerable to regions; this completely distorts the need for representatives to be accountable to those who elect them. Rank-and-file members also must be encouraged to actively mandate their delegates at congresses and conferences.