The ability of a union to defend its members ultimately rests on its ability to organise collective industrial action.
It must convince its members that, despite the sacrifice involved, action can make a difference and win.
For this to happen active branches and regions must give workers the chance to debate, discuss and assess strategies to stop government and employers’ attacks.
A genuinely member-led union must therefore be controlled from the bottom up and not top down. We need well-organised branches, and well-trained officers.
Unfortunately, the so-called “democracy proposals” that UCU general secretary Sally Hunt has put forward to discuss at Congress will not bring about such a member-led union.
Instead they will result in a more centralised union where lay members’ views are not listened to.
Our national executive committee (NEC) currently has guaranteed seats for pre-92 and post-92 higher education, and further education.
Regions, nations and sections have seats.
The NEC has equality representatives for disabled, women, LGBT and black members.
Hunt’s proposal to shrink the NEC to “no more than 40” will likely result in a structure that doesn’t properly represent all union sections.
Similarly, the suggestion that half of national negotiators are elected by full membership ballot will result in far less accountability than present.
All national negotiators are currently elected by, and accountable to, delegate-based sector conferences.
Finally the suggestion to put final offers to a full membership ballot may sound non-contentious—but who decides when an offer is “final”?
It makes far more sense for elected committees to decide whether such offers are final on the basis of reports from the relevant national negotiators.
This would avoid the time and expense of holding membership ballots every time an employer says an offer is final.
UCU’s structures are not perfect. But they are based on democratic foundations where lay members’ voices can be heard.
Modifying the structures of the union must only be done on the basis of strengthening the union’s ability to organise more effective collective action.
The economic crisis is growing and the Tory-led coalition is continuing its assault on post-16 education.
We need democratic structures that will enhance our ability to resist these attacks as robustly as possible.
UCU congress begins on Friday of this week. For coverage go to socialistworker.co.uk