At the end of last month, on the eve of the congress of my trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), I wrote an article for the Dissent website Arguing the World. The article was about a motion brought by the National Executive (NEC) of UCU to boycott the Fundamental Rights Agency’s working definition of antisemitism (known as the EUMC Working Definition). In the article, I detailed some instances from the recent history of the union, including the accumulating scale of resignations of Jewish colleagues.
Since writing it, I have been surprised at the number of people who have contacted me, students and fellow academics, for whom my article articulated their own sense of growing alienation in the union. A few have asked me if I am now resigning.
However, I don’t think this is a pivotal moment. I don’t think most union members had a clue about the motion or about the issues. The poor democratic process that means members are never told about congress debates (and indeed rarely know who their congress delegates are if they miss the meeting where the election is held) is not unique to UCU and is independent of the EUMC and Israel issues. The motion was passed swiftly, with even most delegates being unaware of the issues, content with the reassurances they got that this was The Right Thing To Do from certified radicals “speaking as a Jew”.
So, while the union leadership refuses to acknowledge the fact of the existence of antisemitism in the union, I don’t think that adds up to the idea that the UCU is a racist union. Debates at congress find their echoes in what goes on at grassroots, but I doubt that this decision will make a significant difference to working life in local associations, and to how rank and file union activists and case workers conduct their industrial affairs.
The history of minorities and of anti-racism in the UK has been punctuated by struggles against exclusion within unions; minorities have had to fight on two fronts, for their rights at work and for recognition by union leaderships. Whether for Jews in the garment industry in Edwardian times, West Indians in the transport industry after the war, or Punjabis in the car factories in the 1970s, leaving the unions to the racists was not the right thing to do then, and is not the right thing to do now.
This is a very difficult time for those working in further and higher education in Britain. The massive “reforms” to the funding of universities will see departments and possibly institutions go under. The managerialism and performance management (including the Research Excellence Framework) rampant under the last government have intensified under the current government. Yoked to the desperate need to find cost savings, these are increasingly causing anxiety and insecurity. Cuts to funding for English as a Second Language, the channelling of funding away from the social sciences and humanities, and other changes mean that colleagues in some fields will be particularly vulnerable. Conditions will continue to worsen, and our pensions are at risk. As across the public sector, austerity pressures are pushing downwards from the government to managers to department heads, and passed on to lecturers, researchers, administrators, porters and other employees.
Across our universities and colleges, we area already seeing how this translates into job losses, and to management and department heads bullying people into leaving or into taking on more and more work.
All this, of course, makes it all the more reprehensible that the NEC devote their energies to boycotting the EUMC and promoting an “open debate” on Middle Eastern history.
More to the point, the boycott of the EUMC Working Definition means the union will be less able to defend some members who are bullied in some ways. For instance, if a manager in dispute with a colleague uses particular forms of antisemitic expression to harass her, the union case worker will not be able to cite the Working Definition as part of a defence. (In fact, perversely, the union case worker will now be obliged to actively disavow the Working Definition at every opportunity – if they pay attention to the congress policy.)
But the harshness of the situation also means that we can’t afford to stand outside the union now, and we can’t afford to see the union destroyed now.
I am writing as a researcher on a fixed term contract (indeed, on several fixed term contracts for almost the whole of my academic career), and therefore all too familiar with the forms of vulnerability and precariousness that some academics experience.
In the last local association I was in, some of the most vociferous advocates of the NEC line on antisemitism had become branch officers. In union meetings, when Israel or antisemitism topics came up, I felt marginalised and beleaguered – but not significantly differently than how I felt simply socialising with my close colleagues, amongst whom a certain kind of one-dimensional Israel-hatred has become common sense and second nature. I understand, therefore, why colleagues are resigning, and I sympathise with their positions.
But when I experienced vulnerability at work because of my contractual status, the support I received from the same officers was invaluable. Without a union, individual members are left with only the ad hoc and fragile collegiality of their co-workers. Senior academics in relatively secure positions will manage with this alone, but for more vulnerable members the union might be the difference between a job and unemployment, or between a bearable and an unbearable working life. The union has access to legal expertise and to the accumulated wisdom of countless preceding struggles, but above all it brings the courage of acting together rather than alone.
The refusal to acknowledge the possibility of institutional antisemitism, and the boycott of the flawed but useful EUMC Working Definition are both offences against the principles of solidarity at the heart of trade unionism. But I still believe that the principles of solidarity and the values of trade unionism will survive this moment.
We need a trade union campaign against antisemitism, we need to expose the union leadership’s complicity with racism, we need a more democratic trade union in touch with its grassroots, we need a trade union whose priorities are re-balanced away from gesture politics and back to core values – but we need a trade union.
Oxford University UCU