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The AUT and the UCU: against the boycott - Jon Pike
Added by Alexandra Simonon on December 15, 2005 06:51:38 AM.
The AUT and the UCU: against the boycott - Jon PikeTwo events of some importance took place in the AUT last week. First there was the announcement of the results of the membership vote on merger with Natfhe. This vote produced an overwhelming yes to merger, though on a low poll, and gives the green light to a new higher education union in the UK: the universities and colleges union, UCU.
I hope readers of Engage will nod their heads, or more, to this result: we’re on the left, we’re trade unionists, we want a strong union organisation, and it makes sense to organise lecturers in further and higher education into one big union. But what about the boycott?

The other event was the announcement of the results of the election to the investigative commission of the AUT that emerged from the special council in May this year. The people who were elected, from twelve candidates, were Sue Blackwell, Kemal Hawwash, Alistair Hunter and me. These four people will work with four from the National executive of the AUT to bring forward a policy framework to the last Council of the AUT in the spring. That policy framework will be bequeathed to the merged union. It will, I’m confident, oppose an academic boycott of Israel.
In the long term, the merger vote provides an opportunity to create a serious, strong and effective union across all HE institutions in the UK, and offers the prospect of advancing the interests of FE lecturers in a more robust way. I’ve supported the merger and opposed the argument that a merged union should be opposed because it makes a ‘boycotting Israel’ position more likely. Members and activists in both unions, who want to oppose the boycott and establish a positive policy for the new union, should start to link up now, to make sure that the academic boycott of Israel is defeated, again and again, if necessary.

Nonetheless, there is cause for concern in the outcome of the elections for the investigative commission, not because there’s a serious danger of the AUT adopting a new boycott position: it can’t, for the rest of its life, but because there’s a risk of the AUT looking silly. Again.

On the positive side, of the three people who signed the original Engage – against the boycott - statement standing for election (Pike, Hunter and David Miller, from Leeds), two got elected. But, the results suggest a sharp polarisation and an even split amongst the council members, and I don’t think this polarisation reflects the views of the membership of the AUT or of academia in the UK. The results suggest that the union is split 50:50 on the issue of boycotting Israeli universities, since two council members who support a boycott (Sue Blackwell and Kemal Hawwash) and two who oppose it (Alistair Hunter and me) were elected. But anyone who thinks this is the spread of opinion, misunderstands the AUT. Of course, we accept the outcome of the election, and we accept the way in which the NEC has chosen to resolve this matter. But anyone who thinks the union is split 50:50 is simply deluded. (I don’t think the leadership of either union is deluded) There is a big majority of the AUT membership against a boycott – the vast majority of branches held meetings, discussed this, and rejected the boycott. There is an even more massive majority of academia in the UK against a boycott of Israel. The AUT, the UCU would simply kill itself, if it pursued this policy.

There is, too, a serious problem of representation – of representativeness – in the AUT. On this matter, Council is out of line with the membership, and even Council defeated the boycott in May. If the leadership allows the boycott to resurface, then it will have been appallingly negligent about the long term interests of academics and academic related staff in the UK. It will go down the road towards being a rump, unrepresentative and disrespected body. The results of the vote are a warning shot to the leadership of the AUT and of Natfhe. If you are serious about having a united union, you need to ensure that its policies are properly representative of the membership, and not a showcase for the kitsch ‘left’.

One way in which this is manifested is the fact that Denis Noble did not get elected. It’s come to a pretty pass when a world eminent scientist who has published and argued widely on the subject of academic freedom does not get sufficient support for this committee. It says something about the unserious - the kitsch - nature of the AUT discourse. I don’t entirely agree with Noble on some of the detail about these matters, but the AUT Council has chosen not to draw on his expertise: so much the worse for the AUT Council. This is not so much a matter of Noble not being elected, but of the failure to represent a very important point of view: I’ll call it the ‘Oxford view’ for want of any better label. This is the view that opposes academic boycotts on principle and calls for the incorporation of the principle of the universality of science into the AUT’s and the UCU’s constitution. The Oxford view should be represented to the commission, and I’ll undertake that it is. (I’ve a hunch that there’s a discipline divide going on here, too. Scientists know about Noble’s credentials, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the AUT overly reflected the concerns of those in humanities, social sciences and arts faculties. But the membership is more widespread. Here’s a thought for the leadership of the AUT: remember your members.)
Whilst we’re on the topic of representativeness, something else worth recalling is how the Blackwell and Hawwash team did at Birmingham AUT at the meeting in the run up to the Special Council. Readers will recall that there was a string of meetings across the country about the boycott in April. The Birmingham AUT meeting was on the 17th of April.

At that meeting, Sue Blackwell and Kemal Hawwash proposed and seconded two resolutions calling for boycotts of Ariel College and Haifa University (these were resolutions 2 and 6 on the BAUT agenda. There were no other resolutions calling for a specific boycott discussed at Birmingham.). Resolution 2 was defeated (14-17) and Resolution 6 was defeated (12-20). Of course, in defiance of these votes, both went to the Special Council and both voted for the boycotts of Haifa and Ariel, - voted for the specific policies that the BAUT membership had voted against. By the way, Stephen Rose did exactly the same. He was defeated at the OU branch, where a resolution that I proposed and he opposed was passed, so was a mandating motion, and a proportionate mandating motion was defeated. He ignored all of these at the Special Council – he simply ignored the votes of his branch, just as Blackwell and Hawwash ignored the Birmingham votes. They seem simply to have contempt for members of local associations, and for their votes. Both Blackwell and Hawwash will claim some sort of mandate from the council vote for the investigative commission, and they have some sort of mandate: so much the worse for the good sense of those members of council who voted, so much the worse for the structures of the AUT. But it’s worth remembering: they couldn’t even persuade their own branch to back their boycott proposals.

Remember, AUT leaders, Natfhe leaders, the boycotters do not represent the membership, not by a million miles. If you act as if they do, if you behave as if they might, you will kill the UCU.

The task facing those who oppose the boycott within the AUT is, once again, to get the leadership off the hook, and establish a clear, consistent, anti-boycott line. Despite the wild attempts of some to put me and Engage in the same camp as the boycotters, it’s clear what the cleavage in the AUT really is. There’s a small, unrepresentative pro-boycott minority that is massively over-represented at Council. There’s us, and the majority of the membership, and the majority of the branches, who think along the lines of the Oxford view and/or the Engage view.

Then there’s the leadership. I believe they have more sense than to throw away the gains of the merger by going soft on the boycott. We’ll see, but the future of the UCU depends on it.

Jon Pike