Friday, 5 October 2007

Living in wonderland

The Guardian reported on Sally Hunt on the occasion of her election, highlighting how the mission of the new general secretary is to make sure that the disagreements between the AUT and Nathfe should be put aside. "Now is a time for unity as we build a union to protect our members and increase public recognition of their important work. I am relishing the opportunity of working with everyone, whether they voted for me or not, to build a bigger, better, and stronger union."

How many nice words in just two sentences. She would surely win a prize for the most promising rhetorical general secretary. If this would be true, I could afford to comment on the last few months of her activity. Actually, I would like to the take the opportunity to step just a little back. A little enough to include the campaigning and her promises before election to general secretary.

Her words were then firm like her voice. The following is an extract from an email she sent out to all Natfhe members as part of her campaign. I received the message and politely answered her not to spam my email inbox with her lies. But let's see the contents of the message:

Dear colleague, help me build a better, stronger union. I know you are busy so I promise to be as brief as I can. My name is Sally Hunt. I am currently your joint general secretary having been first elected to that post in AUT in 2002. I helped negotiate the creation of UCU because I believe we can do better together........I am standing as general secretary of the new union because I believe UCU should be: focused on pay, pensions, workload, jobs, academic freedom and lobbying for funding, democratic not bureaucratic resources should be used to improve services for members not on union bureaucracy, arguing from the political mainstream not shouting slogans from the wings............ I believe that UCU should be a politically independent, industrially confident union and I am disappointed that political parties such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and others are seeking to influence this election. I think they should leave the decision to you - the members. My position is that I am committed to leading our union from the mainstream, not the extreme from where ministers and employers will find it easy to ignore us.

Certainly the tone is a little bit alarmist. It looks as though there are extremists, terrorists, spies or people within the base we should doubt or be afraid of. The suspicion is legitimate. You can have terrorists, extremists, or people packed with explosives in the union in the UK. I wonder who are the leaders they should die for? The list could be enlarged by including mafia men, corrupt bureaucrats and others, even if it is unlikely that such people would like to be associated with extremism, and they would not even be interested in being part of something where close scrutiny and transparency should be the norm. 'Something' being the union. She may not have been entitled to judge and label such people and elect herself as the median to which all should refer as the center. It is unlikely that such center may even have existed. She didn't carry out a political analysis of the situation and didn't illustrate to the moderate where the center was. Her words were the same for all the workers, because the words must be the same for workers in a union. Perhaps what she was referring to with the term 'extremes' were those individuals unsatisfied with the current leadership. Her alarmism was in fact to be read in conjuction with a speech given by Tony Blair, a few months earlier, in relation to the change of leadership in the labour party. He at least admitted that there were difficulties in the party and that the transition (in monarchic style) from him to the next leader would have happened without giving space to the extremes. Actually he called for an all out vigilance. After that she saw UCU as a continuation of the Labour party and herself as a sort of Blairite ill who cannot excape the virus and the inevitable contagion. The results of the UCU elections are evident and speak for themselves: the center does not exist and possibly the extremes, or read the 'unsatisfied' with the leadership of the union, are now more evident. Yes, because now we can possibly talk of extremes and center. Surely she is in the center, but as a by-product of the election itself and not as product of the election campaign. Her campaign has as such stigmatized the people she would really have needed in order to lead the union from the center. The boycott of Israeli academics, the lack of condemnation of anti-semitism and of the attacks of palestinians on Israelies, her lack of leadership in addressing the situation politically, the emergence of daily abuse and bullying in the universities, deep discontent for the breaches of academic contracts by the senior management; these things have cleared out, once and for all what it means to address the union from her center: political ineptitude. As a product of the Blair - Brown era she has lost sign of right, left and center for herself. She is a little bit Berlusconian in the sense that she likes to raise alarmism about extremes and link this to socialism or communism. An attempt to demonize and stigmatize some political parties which are legal and in some european countries are within democratic governments. Unfavorably, Berlusconi and Blair are both gone; the third way in Europe never really took off before crashing clamorously.

Independently from the type of political party a worker adeheres to, she conceptualises them as machines without ideologies or political orientation. The Socialist Workers Party had every reason to put forward ideas and slogans like any other party on the face of the earth. This is the role of a party in a democracy. It is also true that her words should have been the same either for the Socialists and the Right-wingers, that is, words indicating what sort of reforms or what sort of protection of the workers' interests and rights she would have implemented once elected. Conceptualising the worker as simply interested in salaries and working conditions and workloads and bla bla bla is another of her errors. Some words are part of the repertoire of any rhetorical union leader: salary, working conditions, workloads etc. etc. and workers know this already very well. We all know them all very well. But the error which is left to inexperienced new union leaders is in not understanding that workers would like to be more involved in the running of the unions and in the decisions to be taken at local level. Not in the governance of the institutions but giving space to a share of the ownerships of the methods of decision making. This would have demonstrated more openness with them and would have also erased any doubts for those who have always had in the back of their minds that she was just implementing an agenda written by Brown-Blair and shared under-the-table with the government. An event in which she clearly distances herself or in which she rejects a policy from government initiatives in order to protect workers' rights is missing.

Academic freedom, which is a cornerstone for university workers was cited in her campaign along with her plea to lobby for funding. The link between the two has been manifest for a long time. Yet still the sneezes of Blairitus can be heard. But academics are now calling for an academic world free of hidden agendas, and free from particular research which only supports goverment policies. Academics are now annoyed by such rhetoric: ideology and research can survive without necessarily doing so thanks to the funding of university departments or thanks to this or that council. Academic freedom which underpins research in the free democratic world of universities can also be found online, on the blogs, on newspapers and without investing massively in labs or waiting for the next round of editors of an illustrious journal. Academic freedom has been heavily penalised in the UK and all this has happened in the face of the union and their reps; academic altogether. Although this may not be a political struggle, we should have expected from UCU a quick response to the breaches of contract, where academics are ostracised, censured or obliged by their senior managment to conduct only some particular type of research. Breaches of contract are sacrosanct but not for UCU which has never to my knowledge openly condemned and boycotted an institution or engaged in an all-out strike until academic freedom is reinstated fully.

Words come cheaply and are for some, free without the need to pay anything even at a later date. The voices of workers are agitated as ever due to the battle of classes: where does she believe she is living; in wonderland?

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