Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Shameless union


The office looked authentic enough.

The shabby, dirty, poorly- lit room the Wolverhampton NATFHE branch had chosen as it’s headquarters looked like a place of hard struggle. Nothing wrong with that.

We had been told to meet union rep. Penny Welch on the street outside, immediately opposite the University’s central complex. When she arrived, she nervously unlocked the decrepit door, uttering something about being careful not to let the tramps in. I had walked past the building just about every day for more than a year and hardly noticed the tatty NATFHE poster in the filthy window.

It was alongside the prominent posters of other unions with which NATFHE apparently shared the ramshackle ‘offices’ (I use the term very loosely). Penny led us down a dark and dingy corridor to a room wherein were a table and some chairs. There was so little space that you could barely get to the other side of the room without clambering over the chairs or pressing against the wall and breathing in. No wonder the place was deserted; it was so stuffy my head began to thump after a few minutes inside.

Down to the matters at hand. We were there, supposedly, to plan a defence. A defence against the lunatic claims of a professor-without-doctorate-head-of-department-puppet and his attempts to purge one more worker from what could become a too-uncomfortable base. We sat down to what would turn out to be a surreal conversation. This conversation would reveal the rot penetrating throughout the Wolverhampton branch of NATFHE, and later UCU. Penny knew a little about the case we were there to discuss. She was keen to tell us that she had been on the phone to the regional office.

Ah! I thought, time to talk strategy. But Penny was a little more discursive and paternal, explaining that the regional rep had advised her that it had been a mistake to put a grievance to the professor -without-doctorate-head-of-department-puppet.

Ah! I thought, was she going to suggest more direct action? But Penny was more subtle and smooth, suggesting that such things should best be solved in other ways. In less confrontational ways. In ways that don’t rock the boat. She hinted of obscure networks and under-the-table compromises. This was the way things were done here. And she was not talking of democratic representation. She was trying to indoctrinate us to the power above.

We should learn of the quiet and non-disruptive ways of working things out (aka keeping things in) with a nod and a wink to the management.

Ah, I thought, maybe the union is feared so much by management. But Penny was more direct. ‘Grievances don’t succeed in this university’ she said, or words to that effect. Don’t put grievances. But there is evidence, she was told. Recordings – the truth on tape. And Penny seemed to change colour. First to a sort of greenish-white and then, perhaps in recognition of the faces awaiting some sign of strength and integrity from this union representative, a bright crimson.

She seemed overtaken by panic and quickly warned not to bring forward such incontrovertible evidence. What it might show!

Ah! I thought, maybe she has another tactic (though I was now getting impatient to know what the union would do to help). But penny was more ineffective. The evidence could not be heard. The management must not be questioned. At the conclusion of the meeting, I had no better idea how the union intended to help fight this case. What I did know was that the workings of this union were more obscure than I could have imagined. Penny Welch taught that this was union in which Associate Deans were welcomed alongside demonstrators and lecturers, in which Labour membership was favourable and in which activism and waving the union flag were now mere shadows. Mere dreams of nostalgia.

Here was a rep close to breakdown with no sense of action. Here was a rep unable to recognise the responsibility of the union. Able only to enact a role in a pointless drama.

Ah! I thought, this is a club not a union. And with that we left the offices of what I now understood to be a masonic organisation more than a union. As Penny Welch bolted the door behind us all and scurried off back to the panopticon, I reflected on new feelings about the union.

Ah, I thought, what a disgrace.

3 comments:

Howard Fredrics said...

This is shocking and sickening. That she (the NATFHE rep) would so blatantly kowtow to management culture against bringing grievances.
I just don't understand the point of having a union with an attitude such as this. What IS the point?

peter crosby said...

For Penny Welch's involvement in the Weaver v NATFHE racial discrimination case 1985 -1988visit www.legalferret.net, sample letters section, sample letter number 22 question 43. The whole of the documentation on that website is very informative of how that union's officials and officers dealt with serious complaints.

Anonymous said...

I recently joined a union, the UCU, for the first time in my life and I thought I would be well protected. In fact I seeked the ucu president's help in the university I work.

It has now been revealed to me by the the HoD that my union rep has had secretive meetings with the personnel to make decisions not put a grievance forward and other shocking things.
I will stop my ucu subscription tonight.
A.