What to do about UCU dysfunction?

Mark Pendleton
16 min readAug 7, 2020


Over the past five or so months since I was elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC), we’ve been dealing as a union with much that could not have been anticipated and a lot that is truly terrifying. Local reps and activists across the UK have been flat out dealing with attacks from employers and defending members’ jobs and conditions, sometimes with good branch, regional or national support and sometimes doing the best they can without. Many of us on NEC are also those same local reps and activists. Staff of the union have also been working hard to resource local activities, and build and support campaigns. But on a UK-wide elected level, and particularly in structures like NEC, our union hasn’t risen to the task. We are dysfunctional.

Members see the fallout of this dysfunction on social media, alongside a lot of factional spin from all sides, but what actually happens is very opaque. This post outlines my perspective of the last five months on NEC as an unaligned* new member. It’s my personal view. I’m sure it won’t make me any friends, and may lose me others, but in my election campaign I promised to be as honest as I can be with members— so here it is.

*I ran on the Grady4GS slate and continue to discuss union issues with other NEC members elected on that slate, as well as people from established factions and none. However, I don’t block vote, and am unaligned with any faction. I am also not involved in any current VP candidate’s campaigns.

Broken Decision-Making

Our democratic structures have proven incapable of responding to the COVID-19 in some very practical ways, from the relatively trivial to the more substantive. I’ll start with what appears to be trivial, as these are nevertheless instructive.

Several months in, many NEC members have not yet been able to figure out how to participate in an online meeting. I am not referring here to standard connection issues, or an occasional problem, which we all have, or general or specific access issues (which are absolutely legitimate) but a fundamental lack of willingness to figure out how to use basic technological solutions that have become quickly normalised for most of us in our day jobs. Officials have provided opportunities to help NEC members figure out how to engage, initially through Skype for Business (vomit), and then as we transitioned to MS Teams, through setting up test channels for members to use outside of official meeting slots, logging in half an hour early to talk members through what to do, providing options to call in by phone etc., and yet every meeting we have several members who do not access these support structures, or bring up new problems right when meetings are due to start. Meetings always start late, often very late. It is somewhat ironic that groups regularly calling for mass member online meetings somehow can’t figure out similar technologies when decision-making in our union needs to happen.

Most NEC/HEC meetings spend the first hour or more debating process and the order of the meeting, with a small number of members regularly interjecting and demanding that their individual issues be resolved by a meeting of 60+ people. This reduces time to actually have constructive debate on the important issues we face. I know less about the Further Education Committee, but I understand that it is significantly more functional, which suggests the problem is less to do with technology and more to do with how elected representatives from the higher education sector orient to the union and to their fellow NEC members.

The established factions do not engage in anything approaching good faith. Anything proposed by somebody outside of their group is immediately treated with suspicion and, sometimes literally, shouted down.

Those around what was called the Independent Broad Left (IBL), and now seem to go by UCU Agenda, stonewall by picking out minor details in proposals and raising questions about the effect of these details on A policy or B practice, or use the chair (if they’re in it) or suggest points of order (if they’re not) to slow things down. This has the effect of dragging out debate on relatively non-contentious points or motions so that other important issues later on the agenda are not debated. These members also rarely propose their own ideas, so it’s never clear what they think we should be doing as a union, if anything. All of that is pretty demoralising.

The UCU Left bloc, while not opposed to using disruptive points of order, tends instead to grandstand. This happens through flooding the agenda with multiple motions that say the same (often not politically wrong) thing but actually achieve little. Similarly, the speaking list is filled with speakers repeating the same basic lines. The focus is on gestural politics, such as “days of action”, issuing solidarity statements or asking (often “demanding”) that the GS write letters to the Prime Minister, plus opposition to anything proposed by anyone other than themselves, with little consideration of what meaningfully to actually do. This also manifests in the common demand now to hold online “mass members meetings” in response to every issue. I’ve been to some UCU Left-organised meetings, and seen them dominated by pre-determined speakers directing anger at the union instead of employers or the government, with limited avenues for members or activists to meaningfully contribute. They rarely propose anything concrete beyond the repeated demand for “a national campaign.” What that looks like is never made clear either in those meetings, or more worryingly in actual NEC discussion when influence can be exerted. Some grassroots groups have no doubt been more effective at presenting alternative models for how online meetings could work, but speaking lists at many meetings tend to be dominated by the same small array of speakers. Outside meetings, anything that comes out of central HQ is attacked as inadequate because it doesn’t stack up to motion C or principle D, with blame usually apportioned to amorphous ‘officials’ or the General Secretary.

Both of these approaches are highly damaging and unproductive.

In NEC meetings, we rarely get through half of the agenda, and there is no real opportunity for meaningful debate on what we should be doing. As a result, little is done, and we are stuck in a never-ending loop of ineffective meetings, vague gestural motions, inaction and then ever angrier public denunciations on all sides, which lead back to more ineffective meetings.

The GS, her staff and HQ should not be immune from criticism either. There appears to be a resistance to calling meetings or facilitating meaningful debate within formal structures. This is reflective of a general mistrust between the GS and some elected NEC reps. That may be partially because of the above issues of factional game-playing, but the outcome of it is nevertheless unproductive and arguably anti-democratic. HQ has also been too suspicious of grassroots responses to the COVID-19 crisis, been slow in developing and communicating plans for national efforts, and should accept at least some blame for the levy debacle. Cards are held close to the proverbial chest. Communications have been poor.

Take for example the criticism around the relative slowness of our response to COVID-19. It’s become quite clear in the last few weeks that work was being done to build the #FundtheFuture campaign, from social media videos to parliamentary campaigning, organiser training, online seminars, resources for branches, etc. Very little of that was shared with NEC or its subcommittees as it was being developed, let alone the general membership, and the result was a perception that the union nationally was doing nothing. That may well be a symptom of the general dysfunction I’ve pointed to above, but one that the centre holds at least some responsibility for.

Those of us elected on the Grady4GS slate haven’t always behaved much better than the old guard. At times we have rushed to judgment, or used social media in less than helpful ways. This may be an understandable outcome of a group of people who have been outside of formal structures suddenly finding ourselves in decision-making structures with a bunch of people who often behave, quite honestly, like entitled brats. When you’re in a schoolyard scrap, I guess it’s understandable to want to scrap back. While I agree with much of the substance of the critiques of the established factions (as is perhaps obvious by this point), the way that’s played out on social media hasn’t been productive and feeds into a narrative that concerns are being raised for factional advantage, rather than a desire to make our union’s decision-making more functional.

Despite attempts by some people to hold things together (I’ll give credit here to Vicky Blake — while I disagree with her on some things, she’s one of the few people who actively tries to keep meetings on track), the NEC and its subcommittees are broken, with internal factional fighting prioritised over political or strategic discussion. The important role the NEC plays in directing our union’s work between meetings of Congress has been basically abandoned. Members of NEC will, and do, disagree on strategy, and sometimes (but less often than you may think) on political priorities, but we have not been able to debate that seriously in ways that aren’t reducible to who is in which group.

Moving motions — for what purpose?

Over the past few months, many motions have been tabled (many more than is normal), but often they have been disconnected from immediate concerns.

I’ll give a couple of examples — demanding that the GS write a letter to Boris Johnson asking to “defund Trident” (part of a recent UCU Left motion) may be not wrong (as a historian of 20th century Japan I understand more than many the horrors of nuclear weapons!), but does precisely nothing to address the current crisis. Why then should we be debating this, now?

Appointing the union’s trustees to conduct “an evaluation of the strategic, tactical and organisation weaknesses that led to the lack of [strike] success” (part of a recent IBL/UCU Agenda motion) may well be necessary, but was presented in partisan ways in April and, at least to me, seemed less urgent than what to immediately do when thousands of our colleagues were about to start losing their jobs. Again, why this and why then?

The recent increase of motions seems to be aimed at wrongfooting opponents rather than effectively developing a response to what our union and its members face. Our union should of course be expressing solidarity, be joining up with grassroots campaigns, etc., but NEC members also need to fulfil our roles of overseeing the union’s work and ensuring that our union is responding to grassroots demands and members’ needs. We have not done that effectively over the last few months.

Our elected structures should shape our collective responses and guide officials in their work, which we have not done. Attempts to apportion blame for that are common — whether naked red-baiting directed at UCU Left members or the converse, blaming ‘officials’ for inaction. Both of these are partially correct but at base fundamentally misguided. We are all to blame, collectively, for the failures of our union.

Can UCU seriously assess successes and failures?

How do we assess the success or otherwise of the 2019–20 strikes, or any other action our union takes for that matter? That is a fundamental question that NEC should be considering. However, partisan attempts to establish inquiries into decisions made by the last HEC will only result in partisan outcomes. Conversely, claims that the strikes were a total success, only scuppered by COVID-19, as is the line some are currently pushing also strike me as pretty naive.

On the ground at pickets I went to in Manchester (where I live) and Sheffield (where I work), pickets remained pretty strong, but things definitely felt different to the USS strike of 2018. That several post-92s were able to take action this time was one clear and major success of this round of action, but we nevertheless still had a minority of branches out. Many members were confused about strategy, scared that we appeared to have no plan to win, and wondered openly what a win would even look like. We should acknowledge that the strikes were the culmination of a confused strategy that at best achieved a small amount of progress in some limited areas.

The reasons for that limited success are likely multiple, and were further confused by the onset of COVID-19 as the strikes were drawing to a close. It’s hard to know what might have happened in the absence of a pandemic, but I’m not at all convinced by the more rosy predictions that we were on track to win. However as a union we do need to try to understand, and members I think rightly expect that union leadership do that work, whether the GS, the presidential team or members of the National Executive Committee, and its subcommittees.

Instead of discussing this openly, however, the UCU Left dominated Higher Education Committee continued to insist on keeping open the prospect of an immediate reballot for months after COVID-19 was a major issue, well after it was made clear that a reballot was not technically possible and after we knew that it would not be supported by branches or members. At the same time, UCU Agenda members tried to initiate partisan inquiries into a “failed” strike. It was only in June, when the new HEC (now more evenly split between the IBL, UCU Left and a larger group of non-aligned members, including those elected on the Grady4GS slate) met that we finally approved a way forward that resulted in the recently concluded consultation process and proposals for special sector conferences later in the year.

While that may reflect progress after months of inaction, given the above problems I am not confident that the new HEC is currently able to direct next steps without significant guidance. So I hope that members bring meaningful proposals to those upcoming sector conferences on how to take our disputes forward in the current environment. Members and branches will need to drive where we go from here in the absence of a functional HEC.

Criticism of the effectiveness of the strikes has been slammed by some as opposition to action (attentism is one niche critique). But there is no desire to return to the demoralising half-day strikes we endured before 2018, or the softly softly approach of the pre-2018 union. New members and activists like me became more active in the union precisely because of its new orientation towards militancy and taking action, for which UCU Left comrades deserve much credit in shifting our union’s approach.

Our union must be ready to take action in defense of our terms and conditions. We also must be prepared to also fight for our vision of what post-16 education could be.

But I am concerned that the new orientation towards militancy has happened without a plan. Striking cannot be the only, or necessarily the first, option. Instead what we need are comprehensive industrial and organising strategies— these were not evident before 2018 and have not been developed since either, despite the passing of some Congress motions and local developments. Debating strategy and assessing the relative success or failure of the strikes should be an opening for a conversation to collectively try to figure out what to do next. Members expect that from their elected reps. Neither of the old guard factions appear to be willing to have a serious conversation about organising and industrial strategy —which is a serious problem to me.

The levy debacle is another example where we as a union leadership failed members. There has been a strange development recently where prominent leaders of our union, whether NEC members or national negotiators, try to claim they are not in leadership — this is ludicrous. As decision makers in negotiating rooms and committees, we are as much responsible for what our union does as the GS and the presidential team. On the levy, NEC members did not sufficiently challenge claims by the Honorary Treasurer and then-President that the only option to rebuild the fighting fund after the HE strikes depleted funds was to levy all members. That is not true, either in formal rule or in established practice of the union. The levy was avoidable if NEC members had been more willing to challenge what was presented to them as fact. However this would have required knowledge of lots of boring stuff like standing orders, budgets and a decade or more of union policy (which, granted, is impossible to access in a meaningful way), as well as the capacity to act on this knowledge. Most of the NEC seem unwilling or unable to get across this detail, which means that a few key players control information and therefore decisions. That’s not good enough. I will count myself among the number of those who have not been doing their roles adequately. While I wasn’t yet elected at the February meeting where this was decided, I also didn’t take later opportunities to challenge this decision, which I regret.

One of the reasons, then, why we have been failing as a union is that both our elected structures and representatives are not up to the task. Elected reps in our national structures are all committed trade unionists, no doubt, and bring knowledge, skills and experience to their roles, but the absence of anything approaching goodwill among those who differ politically results in no real desire to make structures work.

Unfortunately, I have no expectation that this will change.

Old Problems, What Solutions?

The established polarisation of NEC and the wider union before 2018 into two discrete factions, with one claiming the singular mantle of the ‘Left’ and the other essentially functioning in opposition to that, was simple (as a leftwing member of the union I voted for UCU Left candidates consistently and without much thought for the first seven or so years I was a member, and have continued to preference them after independent left candidates like Vicky Blake and Jo Grady), but it masked fundamental problems in who was able to organise in our union, and on what terms.

This was disrupted by an influx of new activists in pre-92 universities off the back of the 2018 USS strike, who brought knowledge and organising expertise from outside the union, and a politics shaped by different Left currents than had previously been prominent — from wider social movements within the UK (environmental, queer, migrant) or from outside, by the 20% of HE staff in the UK who are migrants themselves, or both. Local disputes in FE and in some post-92s have also seen new voices emerge, as has the Four Fights dispute in post-92s and the current crisis. Instead of taking the opportunity to engage constructively with those newer voices, both established functions have resorted to gate-keeping and sectarianism, which has further driven division. That sectarianism has also been replicated by some of us newer activists too, I acknowledge, which hasn’t helped.

So where does that leave us? For now, the NEC will continue to carry on I guess as best we can with the dysfunction we have. But if UCU is to continue to change, to be more reflective of the diversity of our membership and our collective political priorities, and to be more effective as a union, members do need to engage in what’s happening in the union on a UK-wide scale.

We should seriously consider whether the existing representative structures, and particularly the factional polarisation set by the pre-2018 and pre-Covid world, does our union and its members justice. In my view it doesn’t. There is a legitimate case for a new grouping (or more) that is organised around something more concrete than an election manifesto and a personality.

But that is a conversation for another day. In the short term a few things can be done by all members:

  • Voting. We are currently electing a VP from the HE sector and a casual vacancy for the LGBT+ FE spot until next year’s Congress. The LGBT+ rep will come up for election again in the regular elections at the end of this year — both candidates are trans-inclusive reps actively engaged with their roles on the LGBT+ members committee (as am I). Each would bring different priorities and approaches to the role, but I think both would do a good job. I’m sure we will continue to all work together for LGBT+ members regardless of the outcome. The VP will be in post until becoming President in 2023–24, so will help shape the direction of the union for the next few years. I’ll have more to say about the VP elections after this week’s live online hustings (check your Friday email for details of how to join them, or you can see my live tweeting of the Yorkshire & Humber hosted hustings held on August 4), but in my view there are four serious VP candidates and one completely un-serious one, reflecting a range of politics and priorities in the union.** Read the statements, check out the platforms and exercise your vote.
  • Communicating. UCU social media is a bin fire dominated by many of the usual voices spouting factional spin. Many members rightly tune out — I often wish I could. But you can also communicate your views in other ways. Move a motion at your local branch. If your branch is undemocratic and doesn’t have meetings (an all too common problem in many branches), get a few of your local UCU members in your department together and demand a meeting. Model branch rules provide a mechanism for you to do so — it only takes 1/20th of membership or 25 members (whichever is least). Failing that, reach out to your elected reps to tell them what you think — my role covers the UK as a whole, but there are those who represent regional, national, or other groups. At the moment, there is no central way to communicate with your reps (which is a disgrace), but for those in HE at least you can usually find an email online via your rep’s employer. One of my priorities this year is to make it much easier for members to contact their representatives, and also to find out how they’ve voted.
  • Step up to a role. While running for elected roles can be intimidating, particularly if you’ve read the above (sorry!), there are lots of other ways to get involved. Get your branch to nominate you as a Congress delegate or for one of the upcoming special sector conferences (mechanisms for how that happen are also in rules). Or perhaps if you don’t want to witness a shitshow, come along to the equality groups conferences later in the year (dates not yet publicly announced) if you’re a woman, LGBT+, disabled, Black or migrant member. Those conferences elect representative committees. On some committees spots are rarely contested but are a great way to begin to get involved in union work and influence the direction in key equality areas. In my experience of LGBT+ committee, we also are much less factionalised and people tend to just get on with what needs to be done.

For now though, the most important thing is to exercise your vote. The only way we continue to change our union is if more of us do.

**This comment has correctly been called out as inappropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate to edit things after they have been published, so I will just accept this criticism and apologise wholeheartedly to all five candidates for VP. All candidates for election in our union deserve to be assessed by members on their track records and their vision for the union.



Mark Pendleton

Queer, migrant, trade unionist. I’m a member of the UCU NEC and LGBT+ Committee. Day job is a modern historian, mostly of Japan.