An overwhelming victory for rank-and-file activists is the result of the first contested branch elections in years for Southampton University and College Union (UCU).
The new rank and file convincingly won the majority of positions, including president, vice-president, health and safety officer, anti-casualisation officer, and communications officer. The victory cements a process of transformation underway since the 2018 pensions strike that is being replicated in many branches.
In 2018, thousands joined the union. Branch democracy was revitalised, with many stepping into activity for the first time.
The new activist layer was fed up with business-as-usual politics. They wanted the union fighting for members who have had their pay and conditions eroded by a decade of market-driven policies.
Over the last year, this fresh layer has developed confidence and experience. It led the ‘Four Fights’ dispute in many branches, in which members took up to 22 days of strike action last academic year.
However, while introducing a new layer to workers’ struggle, experience has also exposed them to the barriers posed by trade union bureaucracy. The so-called ‘old guard’ has been resistant to change.
Unable to see the shifting ground beneath their feet, they have written off new activists for being too militant, and appealed to a ‘moderate majority’ which no longer exists. In such circumstances, elections are essential to move past the factional stalemate.
Some go to great lengths to avoid elections, thinking it divisive for the branch. But without them, the majority of the membership is left with no choice over who represents them. Elections provide an opportunity for debate about the best direction for the union, and the sort of leadership members want.
The Southampton UCU victory is therefore a decisive step for the development of the branch. However, it is just the start. The new leadership will be tested by the enormity of events in the next few months, including the financial crisis in higher education.
Branch leaders will also face enormous pressure to drop their most combative demands. To counter this, they will need to continue to engage and mobilise members in a movement from below, while quickly learning lessons from previous victories (and defeats) of the workers’ movement.