This post is intended to highlight specific issues regarding how union structures have failed to provide means for truly democratic engagement and debate. While we do not wish to undertake personal attacks, we will be scrutinising specific roles within the union’s structures, and thinking about how the approach taken by HQ produces a structure that makes any e-ballot firmly undemocratic through communications that mislead the membership. We hope this scrutiny is accepted as a good faith attempt to build a better, more equitable union that is run from its roots. We focus mostly on the last week, though we note that the issues discussed have histories going well beyond this moment.

In a context where UCU comms have pushed a particular perspective on the deal and the ballot, the decision taken by the Higher Education Committee to vote ‘no’ to consultation and pausing the strike has certainly baffled many UCU members, who, like us, feel strongly about internal democratic practices. As 36,000 voted in the e-ballot (with two thirds voting ‘yes’), the fact that the HEC voted against consultation and pausing the strike might work as a strong argument that the HEC failed to “respect the views of the members”. That was indeed the argument made, when the UCU National Twitter account shared a tweet implying that the HEC had disregarded the votes of the members. Looking at the briefing given to the members of the HEC, it is clear that there was an attempt by the leadership to direct the HEC decision through the e-ballot (referred to there, perhaps more accurately, as a ‘survey’). The brief acknowledges problems with the formulation of the survey but still argues that, should the HEC decide differently, they would incur serious legitimacy issues. Not mentioned is that the e-ballot would likely privilege the perspective of workers not striking, as many striking workers would not be checking their email on a strike day.

We need to take a step back and look at how the Union is structured: UCU is a “member-led” union, whatever that means, but has a fundamentally representative structure that values branch and other meeting forms involving representatives. The e-ballot and surveys similar to it operate on a different political plane, instead seeking individual expressions of opinion. Is it more democratic to ask active members in BMs or ask all members through a survey in their inbox? This question lies at the heart of the disagreements within the Union after last week’s developments. Indeed, those who think that all members should be asked their opinion, regardless if they are taking action, and those who think that those taking industrial action should be deciding on the dispute are expressing political views that are not based on facts, but rather principles. They are, in a sense, ideological and a-priori (and that is absolutely fine) and difficult to reconcile.

However, the problem we see with the individually focused e-ballots that we wish to discuss here is how easily they can be manipulated within the context of the communication structures of the UCU. All members received communications, often attributed to the general secretary herself, which reflected the views of the leadership of the UCU. Withheld from the membership – except on twitter and in some branches – were the disagreements with this strategy at work in the HEC and other parts of the UCU.

Together with the intense top-down social media communication pursued by the Union HQ as a means of engagement, the mechanism of ill-formulated e-ballots presented to members twice in less than a month reminded us of the concept of “plebiscitarianism”, one of the forms of disfiguration of democracy according to Nadia Urbinati in her book Democracy Disfigured. Plebiscites have the effect of making the people as individuals considered (superficially), acknowledged, and consulted, but make the People-as-collective “a mass spectator of political elites”. The problem with this is that when the leadership holds complete control of the means of information dissemination and produces a strict and narrow perspective on the decisions to be made, such ballots work to confirm the pre-existing views of the leadership. When the frame of reference for members to understand the issues at hand is tightly managed, members with less time to read, interpret, and disentangle misleading statements within these communications are led to conclusions that benefit the priorities of the leadership. If it takes ten hours of doom-scrolling on Twitter to figure out what is going on, you are not being well informed. Thus, rather than serving the democratic processes of the union, the e-ballots have served as a way to legitimise decisions through inadequate communications. It is finally worth noting here that we do not blame members for this fact. Quite rightly, members are acting upon information given by a source of information that should be trustworthy, open and impartial.

Instead, a strategy of bombast and spectacle that over-emphasises the ‘wins’ of the union has been pursued by UCU leadership. This has taken the form of misleading statements on twitter, such as the UCU claiming ‘Never again will a university worker be forced onto a zero-hour contract’, when the joint statement written by UCU and UCEA says, ultimately, individual institutions will be left to determine contracts and they will only ‘recommend’ other contractual forms. This is further shown in recent livestreams which put the general secretary centre stage. In one, we watch her tell us our wins whilst moving between supersized images of vice chancellors, demanding a public debate - then critical comments seemed to be deleted from the video after the fact. Rather than be active participants, we are asked merely to consume and visually delight in the ‘domination’ over VCs.

A parallel with a recent important political experiment in Italy could shed light on the matter: the 5 Stars Movement (M5S) launched a privately-owned internet platform (“Rousseau”) to consult its members on political positions to take. The Rousseau platform consistently voted to confirm the position of the leadership. As Stockman and Scalia have noted, the platform works through a top-down pattern: leadership asks questions to individuals, rather than individuals, interest groups, classes, or other collective bodies challenging the leadership with new perspectives. For this reason, Deseriis characterised the M5S as a leaderistic-cybercratic variant of technopopulism. Stockman and Scalia observe that “the sovereign proposes to individual citizens its singular issues around which they have to make a two-tier choice, without any possibility of mediation”. This analogy is, of course, limited by the fact that UCU and its leadership share few political values with the M5S, but the purpose here is to highlight the structural failures that emerge with these forms of direct internal democracy.

Favouring a form of top-down plebiscitarian consultations or a system of representative bodies is linked to the aprioristic principles highlighted above on what a Union fundamentally is and how it should be run. It is therefore rather unsurprising that the e-ballot has followed the HQ line, while members attending BMs have tended to take a more position less in-line with the leadership. Each of us has put into this dispute a certain amount of work, money, time, and wellbeing, and this amount will be wildly different between members of the union. Who decides on a dispute is a political decision, and cannot be otherwise. This means that different opinions are to be expected here. However, as long as the UCU statute has no official role for e-ballots, HQ should not strive to damage the legitimacy of the HEC through them (for more information on UCU rules and how e-ballots counteract them, see Vicky Blake’s piece here).

We are not opposed to consulting members through e-ballots, but we struggle to see how this can be done fairly in a context where the UCU leadership is providing misleading information to members, and setting incomprehensible questions. Furthermore, the risks of atomising the dispute and repositioning members as passive consumers who serve to reinforce the views of the leadership sets a dangerous precedent. We urge members to get involved in their branches, attend meetings, and work against attempts to atomise us. As leadership is fond of saying, we will win when united. That means we have to work not as individuals, but as a collective.

The authors of this piece are all early career researchers at Royal Holloway, and many of us are PhD students with teaching commitments. We are all firmly embedded within the precarious networks of the university system, and have felt that precarity keenly. We encourage other ECRs to step up in the UCU, as our perspectives are often ignored, even as non-precarious members justify political choices through their ‘concern’ for us. Rarely, however, do we get to speak for ourselves. Historically, it has often been the most precarious who have fought the hardest in industrial disputes. We see our actions in the UCU as a continuation of that legacy and, as precarious workers, demand no capitulation.


Royal Holloway Early Career Academics

A group of early career academics at Royal Holloway.