UCU’s Rush to E-Ballot Reflects the Weakness of Union Democracy

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
Mar 29, 2018 · 16 min read

On Wednesday this week, UCU branch representatives were summoned to UCU HQ to discuss the latest offer from Universities UK on the USS pensions dispute. Ultimately the union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) voted narrowly to put the offer to an e-ballot, which clearly overrode the concerns of a majority of branches. This (again very lengthy) post analyses this flawed process in detail. The goal is to set these events into a broader context, particularly for ordinary members unfamiliar with union politics.

The TL;DR version (NB each point refers to numbered sections — so you can skip to that section if you like):

1. The offer was not ready to put to members because: UCU had provided no input to it; it had not been agreed by UUK; UUK has already varied the terms of the offer (i.e. they get a “revise and resubmit”, we don’t); the text was far too ambiguous; and there was insufficient time to consult members.

2. Sally Hunt’s conduct, and the outcome of the HEC vote, are not surprising to anyone who has followed/ participated in UCU politics; rather, it follows the pattern of all previous UCU disputes. It reflects the domination of the “independent broad left” faction, which has a conservative perception of the membership, democracy and trade unionism more generally. While this view is not baseless, it fails to reflect significant transformations in the political environment generally, and among ordinary university staff more specifically.

3. The HEC vote did not represent the wishes of members as expressed by branch representatives. The hasty “consultation” was dubious anyway, with new information being sprung on reps at the meeting. Even so, the majority of reps wanted further clarifications or concessions before an e-ballot. Less than a quarter favoured an immediate e-ballot on the amended text. Half favoured a “revise and resubmit” approach and a further quarter wanted more clarifications before a ballot.

4. The General Secretary and HEC’s shenanigans will have a strong impact on ordinary members, who may feel angry and confused, and be uncertain about continuing industrial action against the national leadership’s advice. Simply recommending a “no” vote at this stage may not reflect this. Branches need to re-engage members and promote further deliberation to ensure the willingness to fight on remains strong. Nonetheless, a strong “no” vote will help to discipline the leadership and signal to UUK that members will not accept a shabby deal.

1. The unseemly haste to accept UUK’s offer

UUK’s offer was communicated to UCU late on Friday afternoon. Just an hour later, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt emailed it to members and announced the summit on Wednesday. I have explained elsewhere the flaws with UUK’s offer; here I want to highlight why the offer should not have been communicated to members so hastily.

1. The UUK offer was merely that — an offer. It had not been negotiated with UCU. UCU’s elected negotiators were shown the text only one hour prior to it being sent to members. Therefore, UCU had no meaningful input into this text. It should have been regarded as the starting point for further discussions, not the end point.

2. UUK’s offer had not even been agreed with UUK’s own members, i.e. universities. UUK sent it out to vice-chancellors at the same time as UCU sent it to its members. However, Sally Hunt presented the offer as a final deal which could not be amended, insisting that employers would not move any further. She had also insisted on this two weeks previously, when UUK made a terrible offer that members overwhelmingly rejected — followed, of course, by more concessions from employers.

3. Subsequently, UUK revised its offer based on feedback from universities, insisting on a suspension of industrial action, which was not part of the original text. This underscores the text’s provisional nature. Employers were allowed to “revise and resubmit”, but Sally Hunt told UCU members they could not.

4. The text contained many crucial ambiguities, requiring urgent clarification, discussed at length elsewhere by me and others, like Des Freedman and Dennis Leech. In particular, there was no guarantee that the USS trustees or the Pensions Regulator (TPR) would support the process, and the commitment to maintaining “broadly comparable” benefits was too vague. Subsequently, the USS trustees made extremely rigid statements, providing no real reassurance. TPR sent a letter to USS, one line of which was read to UCU branch delegates: “We can appreciate why UCU and UUK may want to set up a panel as a way to help resolve the number of maters between then. We cannot pre-empt the panel’s report, but we see this an opportunity to bring all stakeholders together and [avoid future problems]. We will engage with the panel at an appropriate point.” This is also not particularly reassuring.

5. The haste to summon branch reps to HQ and rush to an e-ballot meant there was insufficient time for discussion and consultation at branch level. Hunt’s communication on Friday evening left just two working days. Ten branches were not even represented at the Wednesday meeting. There is no conceivable reason for this haste besides Hunt’s desire to bounce the membership into an e-ballot. It is nonetheless remarkable, and testament to the strength of grassroots feeling, that many branches did manage to hold meetings and pass motions — the overwhelming majority of which favoured clarifications or a “revise and resubmit” on the document before it was put to members in a national e-ballot.

2. Explaining the bouncing: contending visions of democracy

This last point gets to the heart of the problem with UCU’s internal democracy. Put crudely, there are two basic models of democratic decision-making. The first is “deliberative” or “participatory” democracy. In this approach, voters (citizens, union members, or whatever) come together collectively to discuss the matter at hand. They exchange views, learn from one another, reckon with each other’s perspectives, and collectively come to a decision. The process of deliberation is a crucial part of democracy because it is transformative: it improves our collective understanding of the issues, and each other’s views, and thereby enables better-informed decision-making. This is the approach we find in union branch meetings. The second model is what we might call plebiscitary democracy, where people are simply asked to cast votes individually, without any collective deliberation. Voters are individuated, isolated, and asked to make decisions without any formal interaction with others. This is the approach of an e-ballot.

Both of these approaches have pros and cons. Plebiscitary democracy allows people to participate who do not attend meetings, which may not be representative of the total voting population. However, voters who do not have the opportunity to discuss the issue with others may lack crucial information, and their sense of isolation may affect their vote.

This is clearly reflected in the results of branch consultations, reported in detailed notes taken by one attendee at the UCU HQ meeting. Where branches felt compelled by the tight deadline to assess members’ views through an e-ballot, representatives reported considerable confusion over what was on offer, with members tending to accept Hunt’s steer for a national ballot. Where branches held meetings, initial feelings that the deal was worth balloting on gave way to scepticism and opposition, as people were made aware of the offer’s shortcomings. Where branches used both methods, they produced opposite results.

This can obviously be interpreted in two different ways, reflecting the fundamental divisions within UCU’s national leadership. On the one hand, UCU’s leadership has long been dominated by the so-called “independent broad left” (IBL) faction, with which Sally Hunt is associated. This faction prefers the plebiscitary mode, because they have a fundamentally conservative view of the union and its members. They believe that most UCU members are relatively passive and reluctant to take meaningful industrial action. Accordingly, UCU cannot afford to be too forceful, because it will be unable to back up a militant posture with grassroots mobilisation. The IBL is highly sceptical of participatory democracy because it supposedly allows a minority of active/ radical members to misrepresent the largely passive mass. On the other hand, the minority “UCU left” faction sees the IBL’s perspective as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If UCU is conservative, members will feel isolated and fearful, and unwilling to take strong action. Conversely, if UCU is a strong, campaigning union, more people will join, more members will feel confident to fight, and more concessions can be wrung from the employers. Participatory democracy is important because, for example, members will not be isolated, confused and feel there is no alternative to accepting an offer — rather they can learn about the pros and cons of the matter at hand and be persuaded that it is wise to fight on.

The IBL’s pessimistic view of members leads Sally Hunt to a simple modus operandi, which she has used in every single dispute since becoming General Secretary, including the 2006 pay deal and the disastrous 2015 pensions strike: (1) Avoid industrial action wherever possible, because it exposes UCU as fundamentally weak — use negotiation instead, even if it is ineffective. (2) If industrial action is absolutely necessary, try to achieve a deal as quickly as possible, before action peters out. It doesn’t matter if the deal isn’t great — a compromise, even a shoddy one, is the best we can do given the passivity of the members. (3) Quickly put the deal to an e-ballot, bypassing the unrepresentative “radicals”. Try to present the deal as the best that can possibly be achieved, with no alternative strategy offered, so members feel there is little option but to endorse the deal. (4) Call off the action and present the outcome as a victory, even if many members feel betrayed and sold out (and never mind the effect of this on the union’s long-term viability).

This division within UCU is, of course, mirrored in national politics. Historically, the left took the “participatory” view of democracy, but in the 1980s the British Labour party — and other social democratic parties across the West — lost confidence in this approach and shifted to a more “professionalised” approach, based on “triangulation”. Through opinion polls and focus groups, these parties sought to discover where the public is, then formulate a position based on that, rather than trying to win people over to their vision of the future. This fundamentally assumes that people’s understanding of their world, and their interests, are fixed and unchanging. Conversely, the traditional left view, represented today by Jeremy Corbyn, is that this is a mistake — by campaigning and mobilising people, you can transform how they think, feel and vote. This opens up new possibilities foreclosed by a static view of politics.

The events of the last few years have clearly showed that the latter perspective is correct. Although the process remains in its early stages, the neoliberal consensus of There Is No Alternative (TINA) is clearly crumbling across the West, resulting in the return of a much more dynamic politics and the end of the “End of History”. In the UK, the Brexit vote showed that, for the first time in two decades, like it or not, voting really could make a very dramatic difference. The 2016 general election, likewise, defied pollsters’ static view of voters, showing that an energetic campaign could radically shift people’s attitudes. In Europe and the US, the traditional, triangulating parties of the centre-right and centre-left are crumbling as people seek change, with new parties emerging and populist eruptions widespread.

The USS strikes have reflected this general tendency. I spent five years as a UCU branch official desperately trying to mobilise members in defence of their pay and pensions, and then more years campaigning with colleagues against disastrous changes to Higher Education governance, including the recent HE bill. I found it exhausting and demoralising, because so few academics seemed willing to participate. Accordingly, I completely understand the IBL’s view of members. It does not come from nowhere. However, as many colleagues have commented, up and down the country, this strike has been dramatically different. The initial ballot produced a strong turnout and overwhelming support for strike action, surmounting the challenge of Conservative anti-union legislation. (Indeed, arguably the legislation has the opposite effect to that intended, spurring activists to stronger action to mobilise their members.) The bold announcement of 14 days of strike action stunned many members, but also energised them. Within a couple of weeks, 5,000 more members joined UCU, clearly attracted to a union that — for once — showed a willingness to fight. Despite the atrocious weather, picket lines — often scant in the past — were swollen by newly active members, and many participants have reported that they found this new experience of solidarity a moving and transformative one. A wave of student support emboldened staff worried about a consumerist backlash, reminding many of us why we were in the profession. Suddenly, issues long moaned-about but too rarely addressed were on the agenda: casualisation; sex and race equality; the democratisation of university governance. We became angrier and more confident. We started to feel a sense of our own power, after years of defeat and demoralisation.

Like centrists in national politics, UCU’s IBL faction simply does not grasp these transformations. Sally Hunt clings to her usual MO. The leadership only moved to a strike ballot because negotiations broke down and perhaps because they knew that yet another — this time, massive — defeat, after years of capitulation on pay and pensions, would probably mean UCU’s demise, and certainly would damage the IBL’s claim to be able to deliver victories (point 4). However, at the first sign of a deal, no matter how shoddy, Sally Hunt rushed to accept (point 3). She endorsed UUK’s offer of 12 March as a “good deal”, claiming it was “as far as the employers were prepared to go”. She summoned branches to UCU HQ the very next day, allowing no time for any consultation, pushing for national e-ballot. Her plan was only derailed because UCU members were so mobilised: already on picket lines in massive numbers, and newly connected via social media, they could easily react against the proposals and divert pickets to UCU HQ for a huge “#NoCapitulation” demonstration.

Viewed in this light, Hunt’s behaviour over UUK’s latest offer is not remotely surprising. She pursued exactly the same MO, but this time she got away with it because, with the strikes over, members found it harder to understand, discuss and mobilise around the proposals. Many members were inclined to believe Hunt’s reassurances that this was a victory and — yet again — that employers would not “go further”.

3. Just how undemocratic is the outcome?

Particularly to those subscribing to a deliberative view of union democracy, the haste of Hunt’s branch summit and HEC meeting could not possibly allow for meaningful consultation with members. But her critics have made a further claim: that branch representatives were ignored by HEC when presenting members’ views. Is this fair?

It is true that, prior to the branch reps’ meeting, 37 branches had expressed a “revise and resubmit” sentiment while only two had expressed a desire for a national ballot. However, according to the notes from a participant, views inside the meeting were not so one-sided. This is partly because of new information sprung on reps at the meeting itself, specifically Alistair Jarvis’s letter committing UUK to “meaningful defined benefits” and the opaque line from the tPR. Jarvis’s letter does not, in fact, contain any further concession, being no more specific than UUK’s previous commitment to “broadly comparable” and “guaranteed” pensions. In fact, UUK also called the #NoDetriment offer “meaningful defined benefits”, so Jarvis’s letter offers no reassurance at all — it only underscores the risk that we end up with a deal very similar to that which we have already rejected. However, springing the letter on reps at the last moment was clearly enough to disorient some of them, since their members had not had the opportunity to reflect on this information. Some felt that it would have changed members’ minds (though proper scrutiny of these non-commitments, coupled with UUK’s post-hoc, unilateral alternation of the deal to include the termination of industrial action) should really have only confirmed members’ scepticism). Accordingly, my analysis of branches’ views, using the notes, of the branches’ meeting, is that:

· 13 branches (24% of the 54 who spoke/ attended) wanted to proceed to a national e-ballot.

· 13 branches (24%) expressed mixed sentiment, most wanting further clarification on key terms before proceeding to an e-ballot.

· 25 branches (46%) expressed a clear “revise and resubmit” position, saying the deal was too vague to be put to members and needed further negotiation first.

· 3 branches (6%) made non-committal statements, with two citing the insufficient time available to consult members.

If this reckoning is correct, then UCU officials are simply misleading members when they claim — to quote Hunt’s latest email — that “only a small minority of branches wished to reject the proposal outright. A further substantial minority wished UCU to seek revisions to the proposal. A majority of branches present indicated that they wished the proposal to go to a members’ consultation”. Even if everyone in the “mixed” camp was added to those wanting an e-ballot immediately (which was not actually their position), that is only 48%, i.e. not a majority. It would be truer to say that the overwhelming majority of branches were sceptical, some extremely so, and favoured further assurances and clarifications before the proposal was put to an e-ballot. According to those present, the Liverpool rep asked for a show of hands to clarify this, but this was refused by UCU President Joanna de Groot. There is only one possible explanation for this — the leadership was already determined to push forwards an e-ballot and did not want a clear sign of opposition to this.

Accordingly, the HEC vote that followed was clearly not a legitimate expression of branch representatives’ views. The HEC voted very narrowly — 10 to 8, with one abstention — to move to e-ballot. HEC members who wanted to discuss amendments before a ballot were blocked from doing so by the chair. An overwhelming majority for further clarification/ assurances on the deal was thereby turned into a majority favouring an immediate e-ballot, in which individuated members will be asked to decide to accept or reject, possibly based purely on Sally Hunt’s highly dubious assessment of UUK’s proposal. Since Hunt’s goal is to bounce the membership into ending industrial action, she will provide a strong “steer” towards acceptance and make rejection appear like a non-option. Indeed, HEC agreed to warn members that rejecting with a view to “revise and resubmit” would require an “intensification of industrial action”. This will likely happen within a week. There is now no time or opportunity for further clarity, nor will there be an R&R option on the e-ballot. The battle for these things was lost yesterday.

4. What next?

By putting UUK’s proposal — unamended by UCU but amended by UUK — to members, the national leadership has clearly acted in an anti-democratic and divisive manner. While some UCU members favoured accepting the deal, a very large number of them — particularly those who have been most active over the past month and therefore drove the concessions employers have made so far — did not. Having expressed their views through their branches, understandably, they now feel completely betrayed by their national leadership. After the #NoCapitulation fiasco, many of us familiar with Hunt’s MO felt Hunt should go, but were willing to keep quiet for the sake of unity during an industrial dispute. Her evident inability to learn any lessons from this episode has already rekindled calls for her removal. There is also an open letter circulating calling for an emergency HE Conference of UCU to enable members to discipline the leadership and force it to reflect the will of the membership. (This was also floated the last time this stunt was pulled, in 2015; the failure to discipline the leadership led to their eventual betrayal of the members.)

In the shorter term, branches have to decide how to respond to the e-ballot, which we can expect within a matter of days. Many of those feeling betrayed are already calling for a “no” vote, both to reject an insufficiently specified deal, and to discipline the leadership. This was also my first instinct. But we also have to recognise that the leadership’s actions will inevitably affect grassroots members; contrary to the IBL analysis, they are not just static units who do not respond to leadership. They are now being strongly “led”, at a national level, towards accepting the deal and ending industrial action. Many ordinary members do not understand the issues raised in this post; they may have little understanding of the union’s internal politics or how a consultation with branches could lead to an unrepresentative result. Many may feel that other branches are unwilling to fight on. Many were already inclined to take Sally Hunt’s word that employers would go no further, as shown in e-ballot results at the branch level. Now that branches have ostensibly been “consulted” and the HEC will also now recommend acceptance, even more will be inclined to do so, particularly if the guidance implies they will have to make further massive material sacrifices if they reject the offer. Many members have lost half a month’s pay, which few can afford, and many are also burned out from an intense period of direct action.

Accordingly, branch officials now need to be very careful about simply recommending a “no” vote; they need to be certain that this outcome, if achieved, would genuinely reflect the will of their members and especially their willingness to maintain industrial action if necessary. Branch officials cannot carry another round of industrial action alone. The consultation with members over Monday and Tuesday was overly hasty — we cannot criticise Sally Hunt for this without admitting it ourselves. We cannot necessarily assume that hastily-arranged meetings early this week still reflect members’ views.

Whatever the shortcomings of plebiscitary democracy, true democrats should not be afraid of going back to the members and allowing them to make their choice (cf. the Miners’ Strike). But true democrats will also favour deliberation, so members do not make their choice in isolation, possibly feeling confused and demoralised, taking nothing into consideration but Sally Hunt’s emails. Branches should organise structured debates where both sides get a hearing and the pros and cons are clearly spelled out, and members can ask questions and learn from one another. Those who can’t attend should be given the opportunity to participate in other ways — through a recording of the event, social media, email discussion, and so on. Naturally this will be very difficult given the end of term — which is another reason why the haste to rush to an e-ballot is so flawed and anti-democratic. If in-person engagement is impossible, we need to do as much as we can online. Those of us who believe, as I do, that the deal remains flawed and should not be accepted without further amendments, can make our case, try to win people over, and see how far our comrades agree with us.

One positive note on which to finish: even if the e-ballot produces a majority “yes” decision, a substantial “no” vote will be beneficial. It will send a clear signal to UCU’s leadership that these sorts of manoeuvres are illegitimate. It will also send a signal to UUK that many union members remain militant and willing to fight, creating stronger pressure for them to pursue a fair and decent outcome, or face further action in future.

Lee Jones

Written by

Lee Jones

Reader in International Politics, Queen Mary University of London (www.leejones.tk)