Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) since 2007, has stepped down following a long period of inactivity due to ‘ill health’. The news of the end of Hunt’s 12-year reign came, coincidentally enough, a few days after a higher education (HE) strike ballot over stagnant pay failed to meet the draconian 50 percent threshold for legal strike action set by the Tory Trade Union Act.
Of eligible union members, 41 percent participated in the ballot, it was announced last Friday. Of those, 70 percent were in favour of strike action, and 80 percent of action short of a strike.
While there was a clear majority for industrial action amongst members who cast their ballots, this result is an embarrassing blow for the union, particularly as the UCU’s national office had made a very strong push (far stronger than usual) for a high turnout.
A huge amount of material was delivered to members encouraging them to vote for industrial action; we received several email reminders each week; and teams were organised by union reps at universities across the country to drum up participation on the ground.
It proved too little, too late. Despite the best efforts of grassroots activists, it is clear that the demoralising effect of our pensions dispute (the biggest industrial action in our union’s history) being sold out by the UCU leadership last year has taken its toll.
In the ballot for strike action in 2018, 58 percent of members took part, of whom 88 percent voted yes to a strike, with 93 percent supporting action short of a strike. The contrast with the latest result is very stark. This outcome proves that it doesn’t matter how hard you push for industrial action as a trade union leadership if you’ve already exhausted, betrayed and disappointed your membership, few will trust you to lead a fight to the finish.
Which way forward?
While Hunt has been off the scene for a number of months with a chronic health complaint, the timing of her announcement has been widely interpreted as an admission of defeat after this latest ballot fell through. In her departing statement, she made no direct reference to the 2018 strike, but claims “she leaves UCU as a strong, well organised and active campaigning and organising union”.
In reality, when the call came to seriously fight for her members, Hunt instead held us back. She tried twice to end our strike prematurely, succeeding the second time round, and resorted to all manner of dirty tactics at our last national conference (including threatening industrial action against her own union membership) to avoid motions of censure and no confidence. Members deserve far better going forwards.
Academic workers showed last year that we can fight, and fight hard. We are now moving through a period of ebb and after the UCU leaders stitched us up. But cleaners, porters and other support staff are showing the way forward, with militant action that has won serious results. Our union can certainly learn a thing or two from our outsourced and precarious comrades about fighting for our interests.
An election for a new general secretary will soon follow. Now more than ever, we need a leadership that can galvanise the mood of resentment and frustration that exists amongst academic workers. With such a leadership, our union could play a powerful role in linking up with the rest of the public sector, and building for mass co-ordinated strike action to finally put an end to this rotten Tory government.