The general secretary of the University and College Union has acknowledged “great upset” among members after the union’s staff walked out at its annual congress in protest against calls for her resignation.
The three-day conference in Manchester last week was disrupted after UCU staff, who are represented by fellow trade union Unite, walked out on the first day because they feared motions calling for the resignation of Sally Hunt went against the union’s official complaints procedures.
In an email to members seen by Tes, Ms Hunt said the situation was “unprecedented”.
She added: “The staff’s view was that these motions proposed very serious disciplinary penalties on an employee of the union while denying them the due process, such as an investigation, hearing and appeal to which every employee should be entitled. This view was supported by legal advice obtained by the union."
'It is now about who runs our union'
Ms Hunt said: “The staff concerned are not senior managers, as has been suggested in some quarters, nor are they directed by me. Many of you will know those involved personally as loyal, committed trade unionists with many decades of service – they are people who work well beyond the call of duty on behalf of UCU members.
“Disputes are never easy to resolve but a union needs to take special care when it comes to its own staff. By the time congress had finished, some of our staff were in tears at the attacks they had received. Others were deeply upset by online calls for UCU staff to 'all be sacked' or disciplined in retaliation by UCU for supporting their own union.”
UCU national executive committee member Sean Vernell said the anger in the union was palpable. “The motion calling for the general secretary’s resignation, if allowed to be heard, would not have been passed,” he added.
“When the general secretary’s union intervened and walked out and blocked congress, which voted three times to discuss the motion, from hearing the motion it turned into a much bigger issue. It has turned into a debate about the ability of members to hold the general secretary to account for her actions. It is now about who runs our union – delegates bringing motions from their branches to be discussed and voted on at UCU’s sovereign body – its congress – or unelected full-time officials.”
Mr Vernell, who is a member of the UCU Left faction and vice chair of the union’s FE committee, added: “The general secretary must intervene and allow this motion to be heard. If not, there is a real danger that UCU will erupt in further acrimony.”
UCU 'has battles to fight'
Ms Hunt defended her position and told members that the union had “enjoyed the best year in its history”. She added: “Public criticism is part of the life of a general secretary and in each of the four elections I have contested for the post, my record and my policies have been extensively scrutinised before members voted to support me.
“What I personally object to is that just one year after winning a democratic election, congress can vote to call for my resignation based on a motion which incorrectly attributes actions to me; criticises my part in an agreement which is now UCU policy; and follows a ballot in which that agreement was supported by a substantial majority on a record turnout of members.
“We in UCU have some real battles to fight in the coming months. Notwithstanding this week’s events, the union is in good shape – with rising membership, wins at work and a growing wider influence.”