That is as true in our universities and colleges as anywhere. Last year, the UCU took on 7,000 cases for individual members treated badly at work and our fine record of winning redress for them, including financial settlements, shows that we are a powerful and effective advocate for staff.
In the past year alone, the UCU has used its collective power to try to defend members’ pension rights, protect jobs and oppose cuts to our sector and its staff.
Many historians consider the period from the 1950s to the 1970s to be the golden age of trade unionism and say that our best years are behind us. However, the need for trade unions is stronger now than it has been for a generation. We have a real opportunity, but can we take it?
The challenge is to be as relevant in today’s world as we were 30, 40 or even 100 years ago. Because, despite our successes, past and present, union membership overall remains too low and support within the general population for our values is weak.
As much as it hurts to say, in the eyes of many of those we need to recruit, we can be seen as old-fashioned, and sometimes self-serving and self-interested. We can say this is unfair and we can blame politicians and the press as much as we like, but the truth is that unions, including the UCU, need to be better at engaging with society as it is, not as we would like it to be or as it may have been 40 years ago.
So how do we go about achieving this? The recent ballot of UCU members on change delivered a clear mandate to the forthcoming UCU Congress to transform our relationship with members and to give them a greater say in how the union is run. I hope we take that opportunity.
The changes I am proposing for the UCU are modest sounding but important and, if the recent ballot is anything to go by, extremely popular with members.
First, I propose to reduce the size of our National Executive Committee. Our NEC is currently bigger than that of Unison, which has 10 times as many members. What we need is to create a more effective, representative body comparable in size to those of other unions.
The money saved – more than £600,000 over my term of office – will be used to provide direct support for members and their representatives at the coalface. This change was supported by 88.6% of members in the recent ballot.
Second, I propose to give members a vote on any employer offer that the majority of our negotiators believe to be final, before the union takes big decisions about whether to accept, reject and take action. This can be done quickly and cheaply using modern technology, and it puts our members in the driving seat. This change was supported by 85.1% of members in the recent ballot.
Third, I propose that we elect our lay national negotiators not from the annual conference floor but from the members themselves using one-member, one-vote. This change was supported by 82.1% of members in the recent ballot.
I have heard it argued that these measures will weaken democracy in the UCU but I, and those who voted, believe they will strengthen it. Consulting members before we take action is what gives us legitimacy in our struggles. Letting members decide who represents them at the negotiating table makes us more accountable, not less. Investing in our local activists, rather than in internal bureaucracy, will deliver a union that is closer to its members.
Reform of the UCU is not about turning us towards the political Left or Right. It is about turning us towards our members. That means using our resources for the things members want us to fight on. It means choosing our battles rather than fighting ‘total war’, as some have argued. And it means using our brilliant staff to concentrate on supporting members, running campaigns and building a credible alternative to the cuts, rather than writing paper after paper for internal committees.
People will join unions if they see us standing up for them, they will stay with us if they see us listening to them and they will become active if they think their voice counts.