Why I am not resigning from UCU – Ben Gidley

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.

Ben Gidley

Oxford University UCU

26 Responses to “Why I am not resigning from UCU – Ben Gidley”

  1. David Hirsh Says:

    I’m not resigning because I refuse to be pushed out of my union by antisemitism.
    When there is strike action to defend Higher Education in Britain, I want to be part of it; I won’t be pushed out of it by antisemitism.

  2. Paul M Says:

    “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.”

    What does it mean to say UCU is a racist union? If it means a union that officially hates a minority group then no, UCU doesn’t qualify. If it’s a union, the majority of whose members hate that minority, then no again. But if it means a union whose policies and actions single-mindedly focus unfairly to the disadvantage of a minority’s interests, concerns and freedoms, and which repeatedly and officially denies the validity of fears expressed by it’s minority members, and refuses to take an interest when those members leave, or do anything to keep them in the union, and would rather deny the definition of racism than wean itself from its addiction to hate, then UCU is the archetype and template of institutional racism. I think we’re past the stage of maintaining a distinction between the activities of a few zealots in the hierarchy and the face UCU presents to the world.

    I realise it’s easier for me to say this as a non-member who isn’t trying to work in the present UK academic environment, but I think if the branch and national leadership would rather destroy the union than abandon its bigotry, and if there’s no realistic plan in the works for reclaiming the union from them, the principled course is to oppose them by leaving, as publicly as possible.

  3. Sarah AB Says:

    Just reading Sue Blackwell’s comment (via Mira’s link) about people joining the UCU because they like the boycott policy – and wondered what she’d think of people who joined the union in order to promote Israel’s interests?

    Although I don’t suppose anyone here needs convincing, I can of course completely confirm Mira’s statement at the bottom of that exchange – that she only found out about my resignation because I wrote about it on my blog. I subsequently rejoined and have just put myself forward for a small role in our local branch.

  4. Jane Says:

    Sarah, Ben, and others who have decided not to leave – it would be great if you could share your plans. If, as Ben argues, the problem is mainly a matter of awareness, what might we best do to change that? There’s so much documentation already on the Web – if this is indeed a matter of awareness, we can be confident that writing on its own will not work. At the next branch meeting would it be a good idea to ask delegates to say how they have voted on the motions to date, and why? Perhaps you also have ideas about how to assert what we hopefully almost all believe Jewish members are entitled to in the way of solidarity (which should not after all only be extended in one direction from the individual to the group). What do you think could helpfully happen between now and next conference? A little more about your experiences, including how to raise this difficult issue, would be appreciated. And how do we recognise a pivotal moment?

  5. Sarah AB Says:

    Jane – I’m not sure if anyone from my branch has attended as a delegate, and thus voted on these motions. I have raised the Masuku issue at meetings and also put the ‘Working definition’ issue on the last agenda although we didn’t manage to complete the other business in time to discuss it – for perfectly valid reasons, there was no obstruction. Not many attend meetings but some discussion of Masuku was had via emails which went to all branch members. I am keen to raise awareness but at the same time think it is probably better to be selective about how often I raise these issues.

  6. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “[I] think it is probably better to be selective about how often I raise these issues.”

    Ay, there’s the rub.

    Raising issues frequently isn’t a problem for the SWP/UCULeft faction, only for those seeking to promote democratisation and complete anti-racism in the union.

  7. Sarah AB Says:

    Brian – that’s true! And if the people at my branch were raising the issue themselves I’d respond – but their focus is very much on pay, working conditions etc.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Which, of course, is what trade unionism is _supposed_ to be about, as its raison d’etre. All else comes later.

  8. Alex Says:

    Ben – I respect your views on this, particularly given that Oxford UCU has a good record on this area, which made my resignation so much more difficult than it may have been at other institutions. I found this issue to be the red line that, once crossed, I couldn’t in good conscience remain a member. The question I have for you (and other people who are still members), is “where is the red line for you?”

    What is the point where you say, “No, this is too far for me. I can’t even bring myself to remain a silent member as an insurance policy. I must resign.”?

  9. Ben Gidley Says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Jane, Paul and Marjorie are right that I don’t offer a realistic plan or a vision for action. To be honest, I don’t know what the right strategy is, just as I don’t know what the right strategy is for the union to respond to the cuts or to the pressures of performance management. For myself, I participate in my branch, I vote in elections and in industrial action ballots, and generally act as any other rank and file trade union member.

    I think some of the things we can do, those of us who are members, is try and know more about who our branches are sending to congresses, be involved in the processes of deciding about it (such as attending the meetings where delegates are voted on), being aware of what the motions are going to be, talking to delegates and putting the arguments across, holding them to account afterwards, demanding that the union does more to inform members of what congresses are considering, voting in executive elections for sane candidates.

    I think that collectively, as Engage, we could probably do more to help networking amongst colleagues, both those in and those not or no longer in the union – many of us are not aware of like-minded people in our own local associations.

    Jane’s point about what a pivotal moment would look like is an important one: I often wonder that.

    My experience is not of solidarity as a one way street, from the individual to the group, but have personally benefited from the solidarity of the union, and I try to offer the same solidarity to colleagues where I can.

  10. Ben Gidley Says:

    Alex, That’s a very good question, which I have been thinking about for some time and am really unsure about. Can I ask why this, rather than other issues, was the red line one for you?

  11. Vanessa Freedman Says:

    I agree with Ben. I joined UCU with some reservations, on the grounds that it was important for my own security and solidarity with co-workers to be a member of a union, and since UCU is the recognised union for my grade it would be representing me whether I joined or not – so I might as well have some influence. These reasons are unchanged, and like David I refuse to let anti-semitism push me out of my union. It would be good to do some networking: I and another member have been fighting a rather lonely battle at UCL to have a debate about Congress motions in advance, so that we can put forward amendments and mandate our delegates how to vote – but keep being blocked on procedural grounds (though we did get an amendment to the anti-semitism motion submitted to the 2009 Congress).

  12. Alex Says:

    Ben, that’s a good question. While in previous years they have come close to the line, my respect for my local branch kept me in. And my branch were remarkably understanding when I did resign.

    One of the factors about this year and this issue, is that they can’t honestly pretend that this is primarily about Israel. This is unequivocally more anti-Jew than it is anti-Israel. When I joined, the president of my local branch (which I also have tremendous respect for), assured me that, unlike the BNP, UCU is not intrinsically racist. With this motion, I can no longer agree with him.

    I leave knowing that I have done my bit – I’ve been on the branch committee, I have been a safety representative, I’ve been on various subcommittees. I’ve given a fair bit of my time and effort. And, in the past, I have done it despite feeling regularly uncomfortable and often offended. I have also seen good friends made redundant or survive on month-to-month contracts, good friends suffering depression as a result of the impact their work conditions had on their personal lives, and felt disgusted at the political capital destroyed and attention diverted. I wondered, “where is the union’s solidarity with them?”

    But this is the first time I have felt frightened. Because with this, far more than the Livingstone formulation or the regular anti-Israel hatefest, they are working at dismantling the structure that means if someone does cross the line into antisemitism, I have something I can point to explain where that line is. And with the EUMC definition, they’ve effectively taken out any practical definition of antisemitism – nothing stops them dismissing any other definition as “based on the discredited EUMC definition”. If that doesn’t terrify you, it makes me ask what is the point at which you do get scared? And yes, I am scared without a union. It is not a good situation to be in.

    And I do appreciate the efforts of those who stay and fight and try to reclaim the union. But with this, there are too many fronts, too many fires to dowse. David and Mira and Jon and everyone else can keep trying, but if the anti-Israel activitists feel confident enough to put up this motion, and have it pass this easily, they have won, and the good fight is lost. I don’t see how the union can be reclaimed. Does anyone fancy starting a new one?

    This may be bleak, but that is part of the point – why should I feel bleak about my (ex-)union? And why should I support it with my precious money and my even more precious time and effort?

    Ben – Does that answer your question?

    • Marj Parsnips Says:

      “why should I feel bleak about my (ex-)union?”

      That’s it. I hate to chivvy, but it would be a mistake to confuse opposition with progress. Antisemitism in UCU isn’t a matter of lack of awareness. That is why Alex is frightened. He is right to be frightened. Concern and offence are under-reactions.

      If we were to act on Ben’s recommendations, Jews and a few courageous non-Jews would become the most active group within the union and all of a sudden the union would be controlled by Jews and the friends of Jews. Wouldn’t work, would it. No, the answer is not for Jews to become more active, over and above other members. The answer is for UCU members to extend solidarity to Jews.

  13. Marj Parsnips Says:

    And another thing. I was at the Benny Morris event at LSE. He received warm applause and had the ear of the vast majority of the audience. But almost all of the questions were hostile, and as the session wore on, people began to shout at him, prevent him from finishing his questions. Now I read with shock at your place Sarah a piece by Michael Ezra reporting that he was accosted near to LSE and that the chair, made aware, did nothing.

    The situation is that Israelis would have to either be very thick skinned, belligerent, or share the impoverished politics of the boycotters to speak on our campuses. That’s even if they received an invitation. And hosting them would cost money, because of the security.

    We need to understand that the climate has developed under the auspices of UCU. The behaviour of the chair confirms that awareness is no guarantee of action. We need to stop making excuses for UCU. This has been going on too long.

  14. Ben Gidley Says:

    Alex, thank you for your eloquent and hard-hitting reply.

    I don’t think it took a lot of confidence for the the anti-Israel activists to put up this motion, and have it pass. The wording of the opening of the motion, remember, was this: “Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS and local student unions in relation to activities on campus. Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” I would doubt that hardly anyone at congress had actually heard of the EUMC or the EUMC definition. They were presented with something that was already portrayed as bogus (“the so-called definition”) and that had no status in law (“not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status”) and they were told that it designates criticism of Israel as antisemitism. If you believe your NEC members, how can you not support that? Especially when a series of “as a Jew” speakers parades in front of you to reassure you the motion isn’t antisemitic. The easy passing of the motion was, in my view, just another symptom of the common sense nature of Israel-hatred in the milieu from which UCU members are drawn combined with ignorance and lack of interest among congress delegates: I don’t see it as indicative of a particular shift.

    Yes, “they [the single-minded Israel-haters within the union] are working at dismantling the structure that means if someone does cross the line into antisemitism, I have something I can point to explain where that line is.” Indeed, they have been working hard at this for some time, and this was a victory for them in that process. But I am not sure how much this victory is a cause for fear. I am not sure how much use the EUMC definition was to us practically before.

    I also think that they just might have shot themselves in the foot this time. When the Israel boycott was debated, at least after the 2006 Lebanon war, the tide of opinion in academia was so far against Israel that the boycott motion advocates were articulating a view that was widespread if not dominant in the union. When I had conversations with colleagues about it, after 2006 many were hard to convince against a boycott. This time, the NEC are actually taking a step ahead of the consensus, and when I talk about it with colleagues they seem much more inclined to realise the NEC were wrong than with the boycott issue. It is much easier to show how the motion is antisemitic than the boycott motions.

    This does not in any way imply I am critical of those who have left the union; I am very sympathetic to your position.

  15. Ben Gidley Says:

    Marj, I am not recommending that we become active in the union in order to fight on the Israel/antisemitism issue. I am recommending that we are active in the union because we need a union to defend us at this difficult time. And I think there are ways we can combine that activism with holding the leadership to account (at least, a little bit more) on this particular issue. I agree that the answer is for UCU members to extend solidarity to Jews as Jews, as well as to Jews as colleagues, but I don’t think that will happen if we all withdraw. I don’t see how saying this is making excuses for the UCU leadership.

    On the Benny Morris issue, I agree with you that there is a climate that is more than inhospitable to Israeli academics. But it is also the case that Benny Morris is not any Israeli academic. He is a partisan in the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and like all partisans in that conflict cannot speak without temperatures rising. I have been to conferences and seminars at British universities this year with Israeli participants and speakers at them on other issues or on less hot button Israel issues, and it has been completely normal and unspectacular. I doubt if there will be heckling at the Israeli speakers at the Geometry and Arithmetic of Lattices conference at Durham next week, for instance.

  16. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    But, Ben, many academics are partisans (Tony Giddens and his Third Way – just don’t mention Libya – anyone?), but they are rarely, if ever, heckled and shouted down. Why is it only (or largely) Israeli academics who believe in Israel’s right to exist, etc, who are shouted down (or met with open hostility) while anti-Zionist Israeli academics aren’t?

    Doesn’t it bother you that there is this bifurcation?

    • Marj Parsnips Says:

      Ben, on conference delegates being unaware and duped – that seems to depend on viewing the EUMC debate as discontinuous with earlier debates about Israel. In fact, a lot of the same people go to conference every year.

      “There was a real, palpable desire in the meeting to take some action against Israel. An otherwise rather somnolent audience woke up at the first mention of Palestine, and applauded every suggestion that action should be taken against Israel.” “We shall not be intimidated!” said the boycotters at conference in 2008, and the delegates applaud.

      And take a look at the posts from the debate UCU imposed on its members which raged on the UCU Activist list. It’s hard to think of a matter which has been more thoroughly considered in UCU than this one. (And that is part of the reason the sector is in the state it’s in). I conclude delegates had their eyes open. This is why Vanessa and I have a hard time disrupting them, and why there is a real possibility now of self-boycott among Israeli academics (just referring back to another of your points, it seems immaterial that some disciplines are worse affected than others).

      Also why I query the wisdom in waiting for pivotal moments. Bad things are just as likely to happen insidiously in increments. Based on the past 6 years I think it is more likely that’s the way things will go in UCU.

      • Brian Goldfarb Says:

        Marj, by “there is a real possibility now of self-boycott among Israeli academics…”, do you mean that Israeli academics will take their business elsewhere, such as the US and (say) Australia?

        If so, it’s something I’ve been suggesting might happen for some time now. For example, the real losers in the U of Johannesburg’s boycott of Ben Gurion’s water conservation project will be the poor of South Africa. The poor of the West Bank and Jordan will still benefit, as their universities aren’t pulling out of the project.

        I wonder who’ll be singing “Who’s sorry now” sooner?

    • Ben Gidley Says:

      I probably didn’t make myself clear, because I certainly am worried about the bifurcation, and I don’t think Morris’ treatment was normal. But I don’t think that Morris’ treatment is the best index of whether or not we should be scared. I am worried about the situation, but I think that it is excessive to be in the sort of fear that Alex and Marj are suggesting.

      • Marj Parsnips Says:

        Benny Morris was one example among a growing number. But it would make me very happy Ben if you were proved right that my worries are excessive. Here’s hoping.

  17. Mira Vogel Says:

    Brian, the reason I too am worried about self boycott in relation to what happened to Benny Morris, most recent in a growing list of Israeli academics and research students, is that a long time ago when I was just admiring Engage from afar, I went to the British Library and read Haricombe and Lancaster’s study of the South African academic boycott ‘Out In The Cold’. They noted that while the impact on academic business was minor, there was a significant symbolic, psychological impact on individual academics and their responses were too unpredictable to vindicate the boycott as a tactic. I wrote (in a rather ponderous paper the Engage journal kindly accepted):

    “The phenomenon of self-boycott emerged strongly, but it had not been explicitly anticipated in the questionnaire and the authors think that it was probably under-identified. Self-boycott is attributed to knowledge about boycott practice gleaned from personal experience or experience of colleagues, knowledge about the boycott policy of the country, institution or sponsoring agency, and expectation of rejection on the basis of nationality or residency. One respondent said “I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get because they … are the most anti-apartheid group … they just ignore you” and “we knew we did not have a chance” (p87). Another gave the following account (p72):

    “I had problems… I could have gone on a British passport but I refused on principle to go. I’ve been in jail for my beliefs… I feel very strongly about not be allowed to go because I was in South Africa.”

    This suggests that some anti-racist academics decided to self-boycott rather than avail themselves of opportunities to participate such as the selective support of the UDUSA. Although the reasons for this remain poorly understood, it is important evidence of unpredictability in responses to the boycott.”

    I’m sure there are places which will be delighted to receive Israeli academics. But above all I’m concerned with our places.

  18. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I see, Mira. I had misunderstood the notion of self-boycott. My own feeling (based on no observed evidence) is that the vast majority of Israeli academics seeking a foreign audience and/or partnership will head for other English-speaking destinations, to the detriment of UK establishments. This is likely to be even truer in the various fields of technology. Anyone not believing this (or if in the BDS Movement and seeking further products to boycott) should look at http://www.Israel21c.com to find out what Israeli scientists and technologists are up to these days.

    It will, inevitably, be tougher on the likes of historians, social scientists, etc. But there _will_ be audiences available for them to address, some of them outside universities. This is especially so if academics pronounce that X is not welcome because they are an Israeli academic and their union is boycotting Israeli institutions and their staff, because the boycotter lays themself wide open to legal action, with only a flimsy defence at best. (ask Anthony Julius)

    Not that that would stop their self-righteous demands to pursue their own freedom of speech at the expense of that of others. Funny how they don’t see the contradiction in that.


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