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UCU National Executive declines to endorse Hickey/SFC statement on boycott

This article, by Jon Pike, first appeared on Engage

The national executive met last week and made some important decisions, agreeing the finances of the union, bargaining arrangements, and resolutions for Congress on a variety of matters, including an emergency resolution against the Liverpool University cuts. We will direct readers to the resolutions as soon as they are published by the union.


Towards the end of a long day, there was an important discussion and decision about the union’s international policy. It’s complicated, and perhaps of interest only to those who have followed the debate quite closely. If that’s you, get a coffee, set aside half an hour – this is a long one – and we’ll go through it. I’ll try to present the issues in a neutral way, before suggesting an analysis.


At its 2008 congress in Manchester, UCU adopted Motion 25 – against the view presented here at Engage. You can read it here – and the exact wording of the text is very important. The resolution was proposed by the pro-boycott SWP supporter, Tom Hickey. The President, Linda Newman seconded it. They won, we lost the vote, by a big margin. It’s now generally agreed that the debate was poorly handled, and in particular, there was no main speech against the resolution, and the chair took us straight to the vote.


Immediately after the vote, the General Secretary announced that implementation of Motion 25 would be determined by the NEC.


There was a good deal of opposition to the resolution amongst the membership, and, in the absence of a vote of the membership, twelve members decided to launch a legal challenge.


Months passed.


In the Autumn, and in consultation with the union’s lawyers, the General Secretary drew up a four point programme for the ‘implementation’ of Motion 25, and took this first to SFC (“Strategy and Finance Committee”) and then to the NEC, and both committees approved the four point plan. The four point plan is relatively uncontroversial.


Once the General Secretary’s programme was revealed to the litigants, they dropped their action.


So, what are we to make of this? Who compromised, or climbed down, or got faced down? What was the relation between Motion 25 and the four point plan? What were the competing narratives? After the litigants withdrew their threat, they said, in a press release, that the union had dropped plans for a boycott. I commented on the crucial NEC meeting here. In response to the press release, first the General Secretary issued a public statement, and then Tom Hickey wrote a statement that was adopted by SFC, and eventually published on the union website. The SFC statement looks like the official union gloss on the issues surrounding Motion 25. The status of the SFC statement is, then, important.


SFC is a much smaller, more frequent committee than the NEC, but it is elected from the NEC and accountable to it. Last Friday, in the context of a motion onIsrael to be taken to the next Congress, the NEC was asked to endorse the SFC statement. But it declined to do so. Instead, it voted for an amendment to endorse the actions of SFC in a general way, without endorsing the statement.(The actions of SFC amount to this: agreeing the four point plan, and issuing a statement. Since everyone is more or less happy with the four point plan, from the boycotters to the litigants, then endorsing the actions of SFC, absent the statement, is not controversial.)


NEC refused to endorse the SFC statement, because the SFC statement waswrong.


Specifically, as I argued at the NEC, it mischaracterises decisions taken by Congress, and by the NEC. It makes claims about union policy that are simply false, and demonstrably false to anyone who looks at the documents – as you can do now. NEC members spent ten minutes looking at the documents, and a majority seem to have agreed me on this.

Here we go. In the second paragraph of its statement SFC says the Motion 25 “called for an investigation and report into the conditions of education in theOccupied Territoriesand specifically for an investigation of the role of one college preparatory to any request of ‘greylisting’ being received.”

This is false, in at least two ways.

First falsehood: The sentence distinguishes between a specific investigation of Ariel and a general investigation and report into the conditions of education in the Occupied Territories. These are two separate entities, joined by ‘and specifically.’ But Motion 25 did not call for a general ‘investigation and report into the conditions of education in the occupied territories.’ There is no possible question about this. The claim in the SFC statement is just false – a fabrication.

The most charitable understanding is that SFC somehow recalled amendment 25A.4. This would have committed us, not to an investigation of conditions on the West Bank in general, but it would have committed us to investigating ‘similar institutions.’ (presumably this means Israeli institutions situated in the occupied West Bank). However, 25A.4 was withdrawn and is not union policy.

Second falsehood: Motion 25 did not call for an investigation of Ariel ‘preparatory to’ any request of greylisting. Rather it called for the investigation of Ariel ‘under the formal greylisting Procedure.’ The greylisting procedures say, roughly, when we get a request for greylisting, we should launch an investigation. There is just no scope under the greylisting procedures for a ‘preparatory’ investigation. The reason for the change from Motion 25 to the SFC statement is straightforward: as some people pointed out at the time, UCU has not received an appropriate request for the greylisting of Ariel. The reason is important. We haven’t received a call from PACBI, or any other organisation, for a greylisting of Ariel because the politically organised Palestinian advocates of a boycott are largely eliminationist, and hence they don’t make Green Line distinctions. It would be a big political step for them to say, effectively, ‘target Ariel, but lay off HUJ, TAU and the rest’. We can’t investigate Ariel under the greylisting procedure, because that procedure is triggered by a call from specific legitimate agencies. We haven’t had such a call. The SFC statement acknowledges that we have not had a call, but it falsifies Motion 25 – which just doesn’t call for a ‘preparatory’ investigation.

The third falsehood has to do with the misrepresentation of NEC decisions.

Third falsehood: SFC says “At its recent meeting, the National Executive confirmed, again by an overwhelming vote, that this investigation would be pursued as part of our wider concern with the condition of academic freedom in a number of areas across the world. The outcome will be reported to our next Congress.”

OK, it gets predictable from here on. Ask yourself, first, what is ‘this investigation’. Either it is the general ‘investigation and report into the conditions of education in the Occupied territories’ or it is the specific ‘preparatory’ investigation of Ariel, or it is nothing. Most promising is the first – the general investigation. But it can’t be that, since this general ‘investigation’ is a figment of the imagination of SFC, and SFC created this piece of fiction after the NEC had met. Perhaps SFC wants a general investigation of conditions on the West Bank. Fair enough. But it’s not part of Motion 25.

The second – the specific ‘preparatory’ investigation of Ariel – was not referred to in any paper presented to the NEC. Nor was it mentioned in the oral presentation by the general secretary. We can’t investigate Ariel under the greylisting rules, as required by Motion 25, so SFC has created another fiction, a ‘preparatory’ investigation. But this ‘preparatory’ investigation, was invented by SFC, after the NEC had met. It can’t therefore have been considered by the NEC.

The SFC statement was full of holes. When I raised this at the NEC, one diligent (and pro-boycott) member said – well, let’s look at the paperwork. Another, soon to be ex-member of the NEC proposed an extension of standing orders, which was welcome, because it gave people time to read the stuff. Once people read the documents, the endorsement was voted down.

Here’s an attempt at an explanation.

Suppose you are an important trade union figure, and a Revolutionary from the SWP. You try to get your union to adopt a controversial policy, so controversial that it might even be illegal. You succeed – your congress is a funny kind of place, all your mates roll up and they’re always up for a fight, especially against the wicked “Zionists”.

But then the trouble starts. Lots of ordinary members hate the policy, and some start resigning. Others keep asking, inconveniently, for a direct say on the policy. Yet others start to mount a legal challenge. What do you do? Well, the Revolutionary thing to do would be to face down the bourgeois courts, take on the lawyers and fight for your policy. Make it a political fight and organise the mass ranks of the membership to demonstrate outside the court, and so on.But you worry that no-one would turn up. Secretly, you know that the mass membership hate this policy, and won’t support you in a legal fight. You’ll lose a political fight about the case – there’ll be no members reaching into their pockets for a fighting fund donation, no demonstrations outside the court. The union’s lawyers tell you that the policy is discriminatory and illegal: if you get to court, you’ll lose inside the court. And if you go to the membership, and offer them a vote, you’ll lose again, spectacularly.

What’s a Revolutionary to do? Well, you’ve got to back down, but you’ve got watch your back. A good way to do this is to back down, but pretend that you’re not backing down. You could do this by going back to the original policy, toning it down, and insisting that you are sticking to your guns. You could issue a statement, petulantly attacking those members who have asked you to keep within the law, insisting that you are just implementing the policy, but then misrepresent that policy so that it looks much more anodyne than it is, and matches up to your plan to ‘implement’ it. You could say – we’re just looking to investigate something, not to take any sort of action.

This, though, is a risky game. If you’re unlucky, someone might remember the actual wording of the original policy. They might go to the trouble of reading the documents, and actually take them seriously. Then they’ll realise that you’ve made stuff up – including the stuff about investigations.

And then, when this is taken to the big committee of the union, people will sit and look at the documents. They’ll see that what you say is there, isn’t there.Your political allies as well as your enemies will say: hang on a moment, this is a bit fishy – this doesn’t say what you say it says! At this point, you can bluster, or you can put your hands up. It’s probably best at this point to put your hands up. But if you bluster, it might go to a vote, and your colleagues will vote down endorsement of your statement, because it’s full of holes. The worst thing is – you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.

The SFC statement is still on the Union website. Maybe it should be taken down – but it doesn’t much matter: it has zero credibility now. Those such as Mike Cushman and Sue Blackwell who touted the statement around to the press as an ‘accurate’ account of the union’s position, might want to think again.

And everyone involved in the drawing up of UCU’s policy on Israel ought to at least take one lesson from this:

Everything you do, everything you try to pass, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the union, will be scrutinised. If you try to pull partisan stunts, or to misrepresent the policies or decision making of the union for your own ends, you might well come unstuck.

Take a bit of care, please. Don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes. Don’t try to rewrite history. We’re watching.

And it’s our union too.