What do YOU think?

Michael Abberton
7 min readMar 25, 2023

Why is posing that question to UCU members in the current Higher Education dispute a problem?

The Thinker — Detail of the Gates of Hell by Rodin — photo ©the author

Another week goes by and again UCU branches are in turmoil over another round of member consultation prior to another Higher Education Committee (HEC) meeting. Branches are being asked to consult members to find out what their opinions are in respect of how the current industrial action campaign should proceed. This exercise, through a national e-survey and also reporting through a Branch Delegates Meeting (BDM), has no constitutional standing and is only advisory to the HEC. But the primary point of contention seems to be not the content of what is being consulted upon — but whether the members should be even given the opportunity to express an opinion on whether there should be any formal consultation at this stage. Debates are being had about the nature of democracy, about the legitimacy of plebiscites, about the meaning of representative democracy at a local and national level in union organisation. What is going on?

The nature of the exercise

The national union, and it must be said local branches, needs to survey the membership on how they think the campaign should move forward. Should various aspects of the campaign, for example the USS Pension dispute, go to a formal consultative ballot on whether to suspend action based on progress to date? Such information is needed if we vote to continue the industrial action for another six months and would help to form strategy and format of what action should take place. Similarly, members are being asked about the start date of a proposed Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB).

The union needs to know whether the action will be strongly enacted with the support of those members not directly taking part. Again this is important information, especially if the punitive lock-outs enacted by some establishments are adopted more widely, forcing members into indefinite strike action. At the same time, the MAB is our last resort, we know that this is damaging to students and could lose student and public support, not to mention those UCU members who will not support the action and may even leave the union in protest. It’s not something that we should do easily without considering all the ramifications.

So this is a survey asking members whether they want to be formally consulted on different aspects of the campaign. If the formal consultation goes out, it would be subject to rules, it would be accompanied by guidance and information from UCU HQ and local branches could also send similar advice to their members. What’s the problem with that?

Some members are arguing strongly that the survey should not be happening at all.

Members are arguing that only elected committee members and negotiators should have any say in union governance — whilst seeking to censure the elected General Secretary and further nerf the powers — and thereby the effectiveness — of that office. There is also the argument that any opinion or decision made in a survey our otherwise is only legitimate if it is the product of an informed, in person, debate. Whilst that might work as an ideal principle, in reality that is very rarely the case. We have limited time for a start, and whatever materials produced to inform the debate may themselves be skewed in one direction or another. In other democratic forums, not to mention the HEC itself, members have publicly declared their voting intention prior to the meeting — and indulged in triumphalism afterwards.

“Consultation should only be done via a branch meeting and motions.”

A branch meeting, even with the best will in the world and the statutory notice given, will only ever hope to be attended by a few dozen members. In my branch, the most I’ve ever seen was during the 2017/18 dispute when we had perhaps 10% of the members in attendance. Members are unable to attend for a variety of reasons, from simply not being able to get away from work to other responsibilities or access requirements. Mostly, when it comes to passing motions or making rule changes, we rely on quoracy — this gives a minimum number deemed to be sufficiently representative of the branch to say that any vote will be therefore legitimate. This is deemed acceptable in the passing of motions especially where prior notice is given to the members, so that they can make special effort to attend if they wish to support or contest that motion.

A motion is an instruction for someone to do something. These are typically arranged through inductive reasoning, starting with a factual base (this branch notes), to a statement of opinion and/or intent (this branch believes) to a resolution — so in essence who is being instructed to resolve the identified issue and how it should be resolved (this branch resolves). It is good for setting future policy and branch outlook on issues, to supporting different campaigns or making donations, or setting branch strategy. A motion has constitutional recognition, where an e-survey does not. Therefore, if the branch held an e-survey that was contradictory to the motion, the motion would take precedence even if the majority opinion was clearly against it.

In this current exercise, branches are being asked to find out what the opinions of their branch members are so that these can then be accurately reported by the branch reps at the BDM. But as we have seen, a branch meeting does not give the majority of the members the opportunity to participate. If a motion is passed, that could be used to dictate the way the branch delegates vote, but this can only reflect the opinions of those present in the meeting. Similarly, it would not be right for the branch meeting to use a motion to instruct members how to participate in a national survey or ballot. In the best case scenario, this would simply mean that the branch reports at the BDM would be inaccurate and therefore useless. In the worst case scenario, the democratic instruments of the union could be used to promote opinions that the majority of members do not share, the HEC takes the reports in good faith and makes unsupported decisions that alienate members and damage the union. The legitimacy of using a constitutional instrument to control or impose on something that has no constitutional standing should also be questioned.

The need for reliable consultation

For a representative democracy to function, the elected representatives need to be in touch with their constituents, they need to be informed about their opinions and their decisions should be shaped accordingly. These can be interpreted or actioned in reference to a declared set of beliefs or principles — this is how most of our democratic bodies work. However, when that ideology overrides the democratic will or best interests of the constituents, it ceases to be valid. The opinions of an ‘elite’, or of a chosen constituency, are taken to be superior, the people don’t really know what they want and so should be content to be ruled, the democratic mandate of given to the elected representatives when they took office is absolute. This is the way the Tory party is currently running the UK government, and we are seeing similar methods being employed in state government across the US.

Similarly we have seen the argument recently that only striking members and activists should have the right to decide how the campaign proceeds. The wider membership — those who do not come to meetings or do not openly participate in the industrial action — should be disenfranchised. This ignores the fact that the action would be impossible without the financial and other support of those members, as would the legitimacy of our recognition in collective bargaining in the first place.

Some branch execs are going one further, instructing members not to participate in the consultation process at all. This would seem to be an attempt to de-legitimise any results from the consultation — it could then be claimed that as an undetermined number of members chose not to take part, that the results are not representative. It seems odd that these same arguments are being made whilst they insist that only poorly attended meetings are truly valid.

Why would there be such a debate over the legitimacy of a survey or the option of a ballot if these things are there to either inform the constitutional democracy, or are already a part of the rights of members to be consulted? Fundamentally, this stems from a fear that the membership may vote to end one or both sides of the dispute. For some that oppose consultation, the enthusiasm or even obligation they feel to continue and protect the dispute may be well justified, especially where they have made considerable sacrifice in both time and salary to ensure the success and solidarity of the action. No matter how legitimate those views are however, the action cannot continue without the support of the majority, and the union has to abide by their decision. It is always better to end action by ballot if that is what the members want, rather than the action dwindling away through lack of support — which to all intentional purposes is a defeat.

There is little point in standing aloft the barricade — whilst colleagues are quietly dismantling it, taking their desks and chairs back to their offices, labs, libraries and lecture halls.

The union leadership, both at national and local level, need to find out what the members think. It’s that simple. If the union truly belongs to the members, then their right to be consulted should be respected the maximum number should be given the opportunity to particpate and decide how the industrial action campaign proceeds from this point forward. Well-intentioned arguments can made be made to prevent or limit this, however the inescapable fact remains that without popular support, any proposed strategy, and the campaign itself, is doomed to fail.



Michael Abberton

Tomahawk thrower, writer, trade unionist, Japanese speaker and all around good guy.