Union officials walk out - against their own members

UCU gen sec / basic democratic norms / is this a workers' rights violation?

Officials of the education union UCU have downed tools and walked out - from their own annual congress.

Paid officials from the UCU union today walked out of their Congress at the Manchester Central in a dispute with their own members.

Two motions, 10 and 11, were due to be debated stating no confidence in and censuring the General Secretary (GS) of the Union, Sally Hunt, for their handling of the bitter pensions dispute earlier this year.

That dispute saw fourteen days of strikes in February and March by academics and support staff at 64 institutions across the UK.

Motion 10 called for “the resignation of Sally Hunt as General Secretary with immediate effect”, while Motion 11 resolved:

i. to censure the GS for relaying branch positions at the 28 March meeting whose accuracy, in the absence of a vote, or provision of a detailed list of positions, could not be verified.

ii. to ensure that in future branch representatives’ positions are recorded in a clear and verifiable manner.


However, before the motions could be discussed, a letter was circulated by Unite, another union which represents UCU’s paid officials.

The letter stated “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 General Secretary is an elected post with salary and benefits in the region of over £125,000, according to the THE.

Unite’s letter ended 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, UCU officials suspended Congress proceedings, walked out and formed a picket line outside.

Delegates in the hall reported on Twitter that around 10 people joined the pickets, while over 100 delegates remained in the hall and produced a collective statement asserting their right to discuss concerns with their own union.

Members react

UCU members reacted with shock and sarcasm on Twitter:


The pensions dispute was called off in April when UCU put an offer from the employers to members, which was accepted by a ballot of the membership 64 to 36 on a 64% turnout.

The strike saw considerable rank-and-file activity as new members joined the union and strikers resisted attempts by union leaders to get them back to work.

A previous offer in March was only rejected after at least 45 branches voted against the leadership’s position and hundreds of UCU members protested outside their own union headquarters. The hashtag #NoCapitulation trended on Twitter.

Dr Jack Saunders is a UCU member who was on strike for the full fourteen days earlier this year.

He told libcom.org “the problem isn't with members voting to end the strike, really. All disputes end eventually.”

“The issue was the manner in which is was ended. The General Secretary and her followers were essentially pushing for us to go back from about 4-5 days in on the back of the most meagre of concessions.”

“There was a fair bit of bureaucratic manipulation around the very hasty decision to call a ballot of the members.”

'Power play'

Saunders, who studies the history of work in post-war Britain, added “I've never heard of full-time union officials walking out on conference on these sorts of grounds. It's absurd really.”

Amanda Williams, a UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) member for Higher Education - London and east, joined the union staffers’ picket.

She said on Twitter “If you don't like what NEC members are doing vote us out when our term is up.”

However in a Twitter thread, UCU’s University College London branch described the walkout as a “power play”.

“No rule, policy, motion, or other UCU instrument exists that prevents this or rules out democratic decisions critical of high office in the union”, they wrote.

The UCU’s annual congress opened today and is due to run until Friday.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
May 30 2018 18:10


  • I've never heard of full-time union officials walking out on conference on these sorts of grounds. It's absurd really.

    Dr Jack Saunders, historian of work

Attached files


May 30 2018 18:28

Excellent write-up, thanks for doing it. This is completely barmy.

Although I know my union, Unison, would have dealt with this by just refusing to allow the topic to be debated at conference, by getting it ruled "out of order" by the Standing Orders Committee.

R Totale
May 30 2018 18:50

After the conference of the 30th of May
The Secretary of the University and College Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Manchester Central
Stating that the members
Had forfeited the confidence of the leadership
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the leadership
To dissolve the union
And elect another?

(sorry Brecht)

May 30 2018 19:40

Hearing events unfold from our branch delegates. interesting that lib.com doesn't try to get beyond the usual leftist position on what's happening at UCU: bureaucratic sell-out, conference represents the broad membership, crisis of democratic accountability ....

Of course, the criticisms made of Hunt here and elsewhere are mostly spot on - a career union bureaucrat who has singularly failed to make any kind of mark - particularly in FE, where I work. The criticism of her behaviour in the USS strike is also spot on. But put her to one side. What about her factional opposition? Brecht's line about electing a new membership apply there also. UCU-Left are more / less an SWP front, whose response to the Hunt faction rarely goes beyond the ritual demand for strike action ... and more strike action, even at times when it is patently clear at branch level that members are not in the mood - and not simply because they lack the 'right' 'fighting leadership'. UCU-Left's idea of a 'membership-led union' is a union led by activists who are led in turn by their own political faction which in turn is led by the SWP caucus. Lib.com readers will be very familiar with this model of 'caucus democracy'. UCU is the last redoubt of student politics - remember SWSO? UCU Congress may be the 'sovereign body' of UCU, it is not a genuinely democratic forum. Members - often disengaged from the rhetoric and the internal faction fights, trying to get by, worried about workload more often than pay - in a battered, run-down FE system with no effective national bargaining structure. After the circus at national congress, we need to do some serious thinking work.

Joseph Kay
May 30 2018 19:50

No time for the SWP, but rank-and-file criticism of the handling of the USS dispute goes far beyond their depleted ranks. If the SWP ever get control of the union I'm in no doubt members will need to organise themselves to get around their bureaucratic bullshit too. Not a reason to spare the current general secretary their well-earned censure.

May 30 2018 20:06
WilfW19 wrote:
UCU Congress may be the 'sovereign body' of UCU, it is not a genuinely democratic forum.

Probably a more democratic forum than Sally Hunts private chat with the other staffers about not allowing members to criticise her though...

May 30 2018 20:20

Interesting that Ein.stein's theory of relativity says nothing whatsoever about why there are no unicorns.... of course the criticisms of classical mechanics are basically spot on, but putting that to one side, where are the unicorns? Let me tell you at length about why there aren't any... where are you going? Stop! Come back! I have Important Truths to tell you about The Left! etc.

Mike Harman
May 30 2018 21:37
WilfW19 wrote:
Hearing events unfold from our branch delegates. interesting that lib.com doesn't try to get beyond the usual leftist position on what's happening at UCU: bureaucratic sell-out, conference represents the broad membership, crisis of democratic accountability

There were mass meetings/protests outside UCU head office, several branch motions rejecting offers a few weeks ago. It's a bit disingenuous to restrict this discussion to what's going on at conference.

For anyone who cares our intro on unions, which explains many of our positions, is here: http://libcom.org/library/unions-introduction

May 31 2018 01:35

Got sent this link by an AF comrade. No idea if the Exeter UCU delegates are SWP or not. Interesting to see another perspective that is just as, if not more, damning of the leadership and officials than the one above!


Joseph Kay
May 31 2018 05:38

The Exeter branch denies SWP links.

Given SWP propensity to flog Socialist Worker anywhere and everywhere it should be easy for the people claiming they're SWP to prove it or shut up.

Mike Harman
May 31 2018 08:42

This is from a branch member and it's stridently anti-SWP:

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Mike Harman
May 31 2018 11:27

I'm all for uncovering SWP front activity and manoeuvring, but randomly throwing around accusations that rank-and-fileist activity is an SWP front is unhelpful.

1. If it's independent activity from workers at the branch level, then even the activity is classic rank-and-filism (emphasis on union democracy/reform rather than independent self-organisation/mass meetings/structures outside the union apparatus) associating that with the SWP is a smear.

It'd be fine to point out that it could run up into the limitations of rank-and-filism, even that rank-and-filism can end up just supporting leadership campaigns for trots which divert from independent organisation, none of these require a specific conspiracy of trot sects.

2. If there are Trot sects jockeying for position and this specific motion was part of that, just not the SWP in this specific case, then making false accusations about it being the SWP is crying wolf and undermines the argument anyway. Like if it suddenly turned out all the Exeter Uni branch are SP it's easy for them to say "no we hate the SWP" and if you then said, "but you're the SP" they can say, "who can trust you, given you completely fucked up last time".

Mike Harman
May 31 2018 12:34

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Jun 3 2018 17:45

Agreed. Congress was the issue at hand, but there is a much wider landscape. Also - possibly caricaturing UCU-Left. Be interested in other views. Conscious that the claimed aspiration for a 'member led' union can mask all kinds of shady doings. Independent Broad Left seems to have a close connection with the residual CP, of course, so themselves (possibly) neither independent or broad.