Our Union, Our Sector, Our Society

Dr Gareth Brown

Lecturer in International Business, University of Leicester
Co-Secretary of Leicester UCU

1. Our Union

In April–May 2019, more UCU members than ever before voted in our union’s election for a new General Secretary. As I write these words—in early June 2020—we have just come to the end of another chapter in the most sustained period of industrial action in our union’s history—over the past two-and-a-bit years, many of us have struck for 36 days—more than seven weeks. As a union, we have shown that we want change and that we are prepared to fight for it. 

But we cannot change our profession by looking backwards. I want a UCU that works imaginatively and effectively to achieve its goals—and which is open and expansive in deciding what those goals are. I want a UCU that draws upon the rich variety of modern organising practices. Over the past few years, we have seen many examples of innovative and effective organising at local-branch level. It’s time we allowed such imagination to spread and to infuse the whole union. I want a sector that treats its staff—and its students—with care and compassion. And I want all of us in education to contribute to the communities—workplace, local, and global—in which our places of work are located. I believe there is a real possibility that we can capitalise on the energy and enthusiasm of the last few years and bring about real change in our union, in our sector and in our communities. But for this potential to become reality, we must walk forward together.

In UCU we need to move away from the adversarial decision-making politics which has clogged up our national committees and prevented us from taking strategic industrial action and action on key issues such as sexual abuse. The modern left strives for consensus and hears the views of its members. It favours horizontal organising in place of uncompromising top-down structures. To achieve this in UCU, we need an officers’ team that works effectively with the General Secretary. One that consults members not just through formal structures but through local and regional meetings, email briefings, and new forms of engagement such as Facebook Live events. Consultation and participation in decision making must amount to more than members casting a vote in the occasional National Executive Committee election. Mandates from our members should not be seen as ‘given’ but as constantly negotiated between the members and the officials they elect.

UCU is the largest post-16 education union in the world; it has 120,000 members and this membership has a tremendous collective intelligence. We should be harnessing that. We should use it to organise in our union, in our workplaces and in our communities—and to do so in new ways, more appropriate to the nature of our sector and of our society in the twenty-first century. One common vision of industrial organising is based upon the Fordist factory of the twentieth century. Workers with little leverage over employers were often left with no option but to use strike action as the sole tool by which they could effect change in the workplace. We should not underestimate the effectiveness of such action, but we should not fetishise it. We should also remember that production-line workers, with an intimate knowledge of their work processes, frequently adopted other tactics too: go-slows, work-to-rules and rolling strikes were all deployed to great effect.

My experience in social movement organising, and in the university sector, convinces me that we can build our leverage in many different ways. Consider how colleagues game the REF and the TEF. Let us use similar strategies to game our own employment relationship. One way in which we can be more creative in our industrial action is to better frame our annual pay claims. So far, these have been formulated in such a way that UCU has not been able to lawfully request members to undertake actions such as withdrawal from external examining. (Where this has happened, examiners have organised spontaneously—in itself no bad thing.)  Likewise, including claims related to the REF and the TEF would allow us to make effective use of action short of a strike (ASOS) to target these two pernicious parts of members’ workload when in dispute over pay and conditions. A great advantage of disengaging from REF and TEF is that, for many of us, they are a part of our jobs that detracts from meaningful scholarship and meaningful engagement with students. Pay claims could also be devised in such a way as to foreground migrant solidarity by incorporating visa fees, dealing an internationalist blow to the hostile environment wherein our workplaces are transformed into an extension of the border.

ASOS can also be advanced by extending tactics from other social movements to education. Refusals and ‘Bartleby’ actions can be effective. For example, at University of Leicester we have found management will ask us to voluntarily hand over module materials to third-party education organisations such as Study Group, but are extremely unwilling to put in writing a formal instruction to do so when the request is met with an ‘I’d prefer not to’. By refusing to participate willingly in the privatisation of our sector, and through using these tactics in pursuit of other causes, we can make our managers manage—make them take responsibility for their own actions—rather than co-opt ourselves to their implementation of a neoliberal agenda within education.

We can also learn from other movements in regard to leveraging our employers. As marketisation of education proceeds, universities have increasingly become brands. We lament this. But it opens up opportunities to strike back at our employers. From the Situationists, through Naomi Klein to collectives such as Adbusters and Special Patrol Group activists have recognised the value of striking at capitalism’s brands. Our employers expect us to turn up at weekends and evenings to sell their wares to new students and parents. They expect us to smile and portray a sector that is not in disarray due to extremely high levels of poor mental health. We can learn from cabin crew in Cathay Pacific who, in 2011, undertook a ‘smile strike’—a refusal to front up a welcoming smile to customers. Devastating to Cathay’s brand, and completely lawful. Cathay soon capitulated. Open-Day smile strikes would alarm managers whose main care is for their brand, not their workers. We can leverage this and other tactics from across the international trade union movement and from other social movements to our advantage.

We need to build on our recent strength and enthusiasm, but not by repeating the past. My experience in modern social movements and in our union will be vital to me serving effectively as your union’s Vice-President. We need to move together, draw upon each other’s ideas, and build a union that is democratic not just in structure but in spirit. 

This means ensuring that our union is inclusive. Like the overwhelming majority of UCU’s members, I want a union wherein the right of trans colleagues to self-identify is defended, respected, and recognised as a vital component in our struggle to improve our working conditions and care for each other. In a historical moment wherein the employer’s need for a pliant workforce and the institutional power of the far right are unmatched in recent times, academic freedom is increasingly under genuine threat. We need a union that can fight to defend and extend academic freedom and which rejects attempts to reshape researchers and teachers as mere extensions of their employer’s brand. That union must recognise and must be unwavering in demonstrating that the project for trans-inclusivity and the project for academic freedom are inseparable from one another. 

2. Our Sector

As an education union, we give our expertise to our students and researchers both in the UK and internationally. But we can also bring our organising expertise to our colleagues across our institutions. Working with other unions in our workplaces, we can boost the ways in which we can hold management to account. UCU has managed phenomenal success in getting strike ballot turnouts above the statutory 50% required by the Trade Union Act (2016). But our sister unions struggle to do so. This fundamentally undermines us in pay negotiations where UCU is only one of seven unions represented. We can work with other unions in our workplaces and help them to build their turnouts by harnessing the considerable expertise of our union members. We quite properly implore our managers to show leadership, but in the regular absence of them doing so let us take control of how we shape our own working conditions by working together across our campuses, nowhere will this be more important than in institution’s responses to COVID-19.

And we can go further, looking outside of our own institutions too. Twinning of FE and HE branches, for example, not only shares expertise but also allows us to sustain each other. (The recent dispute at Nottingham College, for example, provided lessons about day-to-day strike organising that would be of great use elsewhere in the union.)  For instance, we know only too well how the closure of A-level courses such as modern languages affects our student intakes at universities. Working with local colleges and sixth-forms to support them in the struggles they face, often at the hands of exactly the same managerial logic we face in HE, can help to sustain our sector as a whole. We have so much to offer each other.

Likewise, we should consider more active twinning of university branches for the purposes of not only moral but also practical support. For example, members’ attempts to protest via social media often meet with a draconian recourse to institutional social media policies. Twinned branches could lend each other support through sustained social media campaigns to raise awareness of neighbour institutions while at the same time avoiding pernicious social media policies of their own institutions. Innovation and partnership are key tools that will help us defend our sector.

Our reach should also extend from education institutions to the wider community. Many of our students have to sustain themselves throughout their studies by recourse to poorly paid and precarious work. Let us join with those unions such as the Bakers Union, who organised the so-called McStrike, to support our students not only in their studies but also in their workplaces. We should situate UCU as a union that fights for social and economic justice for all who come into our campuses and places of work.

In our local communities more broadly we, as a union, can do much more to share our expertise. Within UCU, UCU Transformed has done much to help our own activists to understand the broader organisational landscape and political economy. But universities and colleges contain a wealth of expertise—in a wide variety of disciplines—that can help local activist and community groups understand better the issues they are grappling with. As idealistic as some might regard it, I strongly believe that more than our individual institutionalised labour, our union movement can become a beacon of hope and progress in our society, locally, nationally, and globally.

3. Our Society

If UCU can work to further address the challenges facing our sector, it can also help to tackle the biggest issues we face as a society. One such is climate change. As a union we must confront our sector’s role in this—not only the damage it does, but also its potential to be a force for good. Many UK universities take money from fossil fuel companies, for instance, undertaking research in non-sustainable forms of energy production. This must cease. Likewise, universities and ordinary members of USS fund non-sustainable forms of energy production through the pension scheme’s investments. Disinvestment is another urgent priority.

As scientists, philosophers, technicians—to name but three backgrounds found in our union—we have the skills to call out these practices, to demonstrate why change is needed, and to propose new ways to make our institutions—and society—more sustainable. We must work as a union at a national level to produce practical policy ideas that can be put to management locally. Often our places of work are themselves the size of villages or even small towns. We should recognise that day-to-day life on our campuses—from the movement of people to the food and drink sold in catering outlets to the heating of buildings—involves activities that impact on our planet’s ecological systems. We ignore this at our peril.

As a union we can also do more to address climate change at other levels. We must, for instance, strengthen links with other trade unions both nationally and internationally; we can provide our considerable expertise to them to help face the oncoming challenges that the transition to a green economy will present. In Spain, mining unions have worked with the government to plan out the dismantling of carbon heavy industries in such a way that moves the workers in those industries into the new industries that arise out of new forms of energy and out of the need to combat the long-term effects of those industries that will linger on long past their end. We have the expertise in our union to contribute to these debates and initiatives both here in the UK and globally.

If you’d like to get in touch and learn about my candidacy, please follow me @Gareth_S_Brown on Twitter or email me on Gareth4VP@gmail.com.