The actions of full time officials of the UCU in walking out of the union's Congress is effectively a dispute with their own members. It is unprecedented in the history of British trade unionism and an abuse of trade union principles by the Unite branch to which UCU full-time officials, including General Secretary Sally Hunt, belong.
The initial walkout was in response to a motion (B19), from the University of Sheffield branch, calling for the establishment of a democracy review within the union. This had originally been left off the order paper but when delegates voted to put it back on the agenda, the officials walked out.
The officials objected to the proposed review covering the accountability of elected officials. The majority of delegates remained in their seats and an impromptu meeting was held to discuss the situation. Hunt supporters took the line that the walkout was taken by members of Unite and it was delegates' duty to support fellow trade unionists. The main argument in opposition to this was that the question involved democracy and the accountability of the general secretary. In the end, a statement was agreed, giving support to the officials’ defence of their terms and conditions, but affirming the right of UCU members to hold their general secretary to account.
Meanwhile, negotiations took place with the Unite branch and eventually a compromise was reached over motion B19, in which mention of officials was removed. Agreement was also reached on a couple of other motions, where the Unite branch had found contentious phrases, but no agreement was reached over two other motions (numbers 10 and 11), the first a motion of no confidence in Sally Hunt and the second censuring her handling of the pensions dispute.
A letter was circulated by the Unite branch, stating “Our members believe that if Congress debates these motions, it will breach agreements between UCU and Unite which protect employees’ dignity at work and right to due process.”
The letter closed with an ultimatum: “We want to be clear with you that if these motions are debated, Unite will need to hold immediate emergency meetings to consider our response to this attack on our rights.”
After delegates voted 144 to 123 to debate the motions, officials suspended Congress proceedings, walked out and formed a picket line.
Delegates in the hall reported on Twitter that around 10 delegates joined the pickets, while over 100 delegates remained in the hall and produced a collective statement asserting their right to discuss concerns within their own union.
It seems that the officials, or at least those who run in the Unite branch, decided to engineer a confrontation with the membership over the issue of officials’ accountability. Ironically, the two Unite members behind this decision are former rank and file militants from UCU's forunner NATFHE, in the 1980s and 90s.
It is important to note that all the motions in question had been submitted well in advance of congress and had been accepted by the Conference Business Committee (CBC), the body in charge of the standing orders; no attempt was made to raise any concern about these motions beforehand; the CBC repeatedly stated that the motions had been ruled in order and could therefore be discussed.
The Unite branch's claim that this was legitimate trade union action in defence of employees' rights and dignity at work is entirely bogus: these were union bureaucrats and their employees blocking the democratic business of a conference in order to prevent debate and criticism of their past actions. And in the light of the branch's claim that the action mainly involved junior members of staff, it is worth questioning how free the junior members of union staff were to act independently from their line managers and employers.
Holding the leadership of the union to account is not a threat to the terms and conditions of ordinary staff members or, indeed, to full time officials. This is in essence a matter of who controls the union: the officials or the membership?