UCU Stumbling

David Hitchcock
5 min readMar 18


Sometimes you need to write just to work through what you think, how you are feeling, and why. Sometimes you need to write to try to get things out of your head and on to paper so your mind can rest. That’s me with union stuff right now: I’m feeling pretty awful about it. So here I am working through things in text, because on Monday I will be up early and back out on a picket line supervising, and I need to know what to say to people, and how I can bear to say it.

I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you are up to date on what has been decided in the #ucuRISING conjoined disputes. But in case, here’s a very short re-cap:

  1. An e-ballot question to all members was put out on Wednesday 15 March. It read: “Do you support UCU members now getting a vote on the negotiated proposals that have been reached, and pausing strike action (ASOS would continue) whilst this consultation takes place?” Yes/No
  2. People understandably hated this question because it asks multiple things at once. Some have argued any results of it are therefore invalid. Others have argued the membership as a whole should not have as much of a voice as activist members visibly striking (shall we “dissolve the membership, and elect another”, eh Bertolt?). They want the “free rider” problem solved by creating two tiers of union membership.
  3. A Branch Delegate meeting was called. The same question was put to Branch delegates. They narrowly voted against it, presumably as instructed by their branch meetings, but also requested that the question be split in two (consultation, and strikes). This duly done, the final votes were FOR consultation (52%) and AGAINST pausing strike action.
  4. The Higher Education Committee met in emergency session on Friday, and considered this exact question: “Should the proposals agreed with UCEA and UUK relating to the USS and Four Fights disputes be put to UCU HE members in a formal consultation?”, there was apparently no formal recorded challenge to the chair, and much dust is now being kicked into the air about exactly what did or not not get allowed at this meeting.
  5. HEC voted NOT to consult members on anything, 19 votes to 22.

And here we are.

I personally think that unless the original question was incomprehensible (which it was not), the answers to it ought to have played a strong part in determining next steps. I think throwing out the responses made because the question is flawed will potentially de-mobilise thousands of members of all stripes, who voted yes and who voted no. In fact, I’m pretty sure that is already happening over the weekend. People with far more experience of polling also agree with this position. I think that one thing delegates did right at the BDM (descriptions of the behaviour in it give me some bad flashbacks) was to ask for a question split, and I think their votes then to put things to consultation also deserve to be respected.

I think the HEC decision is therefore a complete disaster of union democracy, and that a significant number of defences for it are about absconding from responsibility. “It’s not my fault the question was bad!” “Its not my fault the meeting only had two hours.” And so on. All true, but none of those things let decision-makers off the hook.

People in power in the union should be honest about what they believe, and why they take such consequential and far-reaching decisions. They should be doubly honest about exactly how those decisions were arrived at, or constrained. Down any road other than this one, the essential bonds at the heart of union activism and working together start to rapidly fray.

Down that road I hope the last remaining senior SWP member on their way to the next organisational power structure can please turn out the lights?

On the point about constraints. I see in multiple places the allegation that certain things were not allowed at this emergency HEC, that the “standing orders” of the meeting were not in effect, and that no changes to the question were permitted. If such things prove true that is also a genuine disaster of union democracy, and there’s no getting around it for anyone, no matter their union politics. Boxing people into a corner with manipulations of procedure is never, ever, a good look. Nor for that matter is holding small meetings full of activists (I include myself here) and pretending that is representative of member’s wider views. But as with much of this fiasco, I want confirmation and reliable information first. I want to be able to talk to members at my institution from a straightforward and honestly-arrived at position, and the more clear information I get, the easier and better that will go.

Getting Back Up

So now what?

Only a handful of proposed ways forward have appeared that I can see working. The idea that the union as a whole now will just joyfully continue marching out onto pickets ad infinitum, and that any Marking Boycott we run nationally will easily manage the strong rates of participation we need, till everybody’s finally and absolutely assured we won, seems pretty unlikely to me. This week’s events have carved a hole right through any possibility of that.

Activists should be prepared to try and hold up flagging spirits, and to prioritise keeping local branches healthy, united, and together, because in the long run, it will matter enormously that those branches are still able to function, grow, and get better conditions for their members no matter what happens here.

One proposed way forward came from Sam Marsh who negotiated on USS for the union nationally for a good while. The basic idea here is, as soon as practicable, get the USS offer out to members, but don’t consult on the UCEA offer because it’s not good enough. Given the other options, I can close my eyes and support this one and it has the serious merit of actually trying to get everyone on the same page again. Right now that is a very important thing we need to do.

As for not consulting on UCEA, I work in a Post-92 and while I definitely agree we need a deal that improves things for us, I also know I want to be directly asked about deals that affect me, and I know many Post-92 members will feel similarly. Who really gets to decide a deal is not good enough?

If putting any deal short of thumping victory to the membership as a whole is simply seen as a de facto ending of the strikes, then perhaps we are indeed stuck

“with redoubled striking. Would it not in that case
Be simpler for the union
To dissolve the membership
And elect another?”

(My apologies to Brecht fans for my edits).



David Hitchcock

Historian of poverty, utopia, and colonialism. Author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 and co-editor of the Routledge History of Poverty.