What does a General Secretary do?

Returning (Proverbs 26:11) to the recent Tribune article on the state of UCU, let’s have a look at what it has to say about the role and responsibilities of the General Secretary. One of the authors has form when it comes to selective accounts of what General Secretaries can and cannot do, and where their responsibilities and powers end. This article is no better.

The story begins, as usual these days, with the end of the 2018 dispute in defence of our defined benefit pension. The authors claim that the then General Secretary, Sally Hunt, “acted in a way that many members believed was undemocratic by ramming through a weak offer at a time when employers were vulnerable and ready to make further concessions.” This is a pretty standard argument and comes from a long-standing “anti-bureaucratic” tradition. Four paragraphs later, the authors say:

Strategic decision-making about industrial disputes is not under the General Secretary’s control. In UCU, decisions about the timing and nature of industrial ballots, the calling – or calling off – of strike action, and the conduct of negotiations are a matter for elected members in the union’s national committees and negotiating teams.

An alert reader might wonder about the apparent contradiction between these two statements.

The authors list the responsibilities of the General Secretary including ensuring “that picket lines are well attended” and “that the strike fund is topped up” (though this is not a General Secretary responsibility). They then claim that there can be no complaints: “[p]icket lines on the opening day of action were as strong or stronger than the peak of any previous strike”, and “[s]trike fund payments were larger than ever, faster than ever, and weighted progressively in favour of lower paid members.”

First, the decision on “strike fund payments” was made by the national executive before Jo Grady had taken office.

Second, the authors say that in February and March this year “[p]ickets visibly dwindled as the second wave of action went on and no breakthrough was made”. So, when picket lines are strong (in the authors’ opinion), this is because the General Secretary is doing well, but the General Secretary was not responsible when “pickets visibly dwindled”.

Finally, there is the question of the offer which UCU is currently considering (it has not yet been accepted, or even put to members for decision). The authors claim to be thinking about why the strike “did not work” but at the same time say of the offer that it

offers a platform to build for something better. It involves an expectation that individual employers will negotiate and consult with their UCU branches – often for the first time – on issues of equality and job security. Branches will get a foot in the door of negotiations with managers at precisely the moment they need it most – when institutions are plotting to use Covid-19 as a pretext for imposing mass redundancies.

The difference between 2018 and 2020 is interesting: in 2018, the authors demanded that the “union” (whatever they might mean by it) continue industrial action in pursuit of further gains, and denounced the General Secretary for not doing so; in 2020, the authors denounce the national executive for pursuing further gains, and absolve the General Secretary of all responsibility for any outcome they object to.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the authors are, at best, cherry-picking factoids as part of a factional struggle in which their aim is to concentrate authority in the General Secretary. Their position on the role of General Secretary varies depending on the occupant of the post, and on whether they are talking about success or failure.

(There are also some serious issues with the Tribune article regarding its attitude to members on casual contracts, but these are being dealt with elsewhere by those members themselves.)

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