Unions and democracy

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The Paris Commune had accountability at its heart

The strike by lecturers this year led to a new confidence which clashed with the leadership at the congress of the University and College Union. Megan James looks back at the history of holding leaders to account.

Over the past twelve months, struggles in Higher Education have had a potency and engagement with people moving into political action for the first time that is unprecedented, certainly since the early 1970s. I personally have known nothing like it and the past year has been the most exhilarating and productive of my political life.

The University and College Union (UCU) strike in defence of Defined Benefit pensions has begun to transform the union and the experience of 14 days on the picket lines has transformed us as individuals. The picket lines were organised by branch committees and not by national officials. Often comprising hundreds of people and enjoying the support of students, they were scenes of amazing creativity, teach-outs, growing confidence and increasing assertiveness.

Significant politically was an attempt by the UCU general secretary Sally Hunt to engineer a deal with the employers, Universities UK (UUK) during the strike. A national “consultative” (meaning non-voting) meeting of representatives from striking branches was called at UCU headquarters in London. In the past this kind of meeting had been used to call off strike action since activist branches were generally outnumbered by passive ones.

This one could not have been more different. Mass strike meetings were taking place simultaneously up and down the country, including meetings of an unprecedented size in formerly conservative branches like Edinburgh and Manchester. Social media played an important role, undercutting the union officials’ control of the means of communication between branches and of debate. In the meeting itself, delegates were in real time communication with their branch meetings, reporting back to the meeting on the votes being taken which rejected the proposed “deal”.

One after another, delegates rejected what began as an “agreement”, was turned into a “proposal”, then wasn’t a “proposal” at all — then finally the officials announced that there was no agreement. It is necessary to go back decades to find examples of rank and file revolts against union officials on anything like this scale.

The later sell out by Hunt was greeted by a howl of protest from new activists and old, resulting in two motions to UCU Congress critical of the general secretary. One called for resignation. The response was a walkout by staff, Hunt and the president that closed the conference down. In remarkable scenes, most delegates remained in the conference hall and convened a meeting and democratic debate from which a statement emerged that said, “We believe the union members have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account. This is a basic democratic right in all trade union and representative systems”.

Attempts had been made prior to congress to close down debate about the conduct of officials including suggesting that criticism, censure and calling for the resignation of the general secretary would be illegal!

Developments in the UCU echo the tendency of tension between trade union bureaucracies and their rank and file.

Rank and file struggles, where workers collectively take control of their actions independently of union officials, dominated trade union struggle in the 1960s and early 1970s. This culminated in the 1974 miners’ strike where Tory prime minister Ted Heath was forced to declare a three-day working week because of effective rank and file picketing of power stations and coal stores.

The government declared a general election based on “who rules Britain” and lost. There were two sides to the rank and file movement of the time, on the one hand Communist Party-influenced shop stewards focused on influencing trade union leaders and putting Communist Party members in official positions. The best was Arthur Scargill who organised flying pickets in the face of a right wing union leadership. On the other side was a rank and file movement built on change from below, democratic involvement at all points in struggle and inspired by ideas of the Paris Commune.

Marx, in The Civil War in France described how Paris in 1871 had risen in arms, got rid of the army, and replaced it by a national guard, the bulk of which consisted of working people. This fact was transformed into an institution, The Commune, whose first decree was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.

The Commune was chosen by universal suffrage and revocable at any time. Most of its members were workers or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Democracy and recallability of delegates were at its heart.

In the words of the Communist Manifesto “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.” This ever-expanding union must be built on the democratic principles first demonstrated in the Paris Commune.