By James Brackley, Birmingham UCU branch officer and caseworker, West Midlands UCU HE Secretary, and SA member writing in a personal capacity
I write this article following my recent censure by UCU, which went out on Friday 12 November 2021 to all 120,000 members of the union. Responding to this is not something I take lightly or something I would want to put in the public domain, but given that I have now been publicly censured without any detail on what took place, I feel I have no choice. The censure was for the alleged use of a single word that I never in fact used – and that senior UCU officers and officials including from the General Secretary’s office know I never used – in a single email dated 20 July 2020. The word I was censured for, according to my outcome letter, was the word “weaponise”. According to the letter, this term crosses a line and should never be used.
This conclusion took 15 months to reach and was, in my opinion, part of a wider attempt to prevent our branch from challenging the ongoing abuse of activists – particularly casualised and migrant members – by supporters of the General Secretary. In an email dated 20 July 2020 I had called this behaviour into question, in confidence within my branch committee and in my capacity as Branch Secretary. To censure me for a single word that I categorically did not use and to spread this process out over such a period of time was not only incredibly distressing, it prevented legitimate and serious concerns from being raised within the branch and allowed this abuse to continue.
Putting these points into the public domain is a last resort, but as reps we cannot keep quiet in the face of threats, intimidation, and harassment from our own union simply for asking officers and/or officials to follow the union’s own rules, or for asking that our legal rights as trade unionists be upheld. Our branch and region have spent many months trying to raise these issues within the union without success, at times facing further threats and intimidation for doing so. In this article I draw on my experiences as a whistleblower, but based on discussions with many others in the union I know that these experiences are far from isolated or unique.
Factionalism and intimidation tactics in UCU
In July 2020, in my capacity as Branch Secretary of Birmingham UCU I took advice from a very senior National Equalities Officer on reports of factional behaviours and potential abuse of the rules within our branch. I wrote to our committee asking members to work together and to stress the need to avoid making unfair allegations against other members of the committee following what had been, in my view and that of many other committee members, damaging manoeuvrings by the political faction associated with the General Secretary. The branch committee asked UCU to support an independent mediation following the May 2020 branch elections, in which this faction had missed out on a number of officer positions, and in relation to the various allegations its members had been making throughout 2020 (and into 2021).
Before sharing my email with the committee, I shared the wording and my intention to share this wording, with the National Equalities Officer and other regional and national officials on 13 July 2020. I also spoke on the phone to National Equalities Officer specifically about the wording in my email and the behaviour of the concerned members on the 16 July 2020. She highlighted to me that we have an active duty to oppose bullying and harassment and that she could understand why I would want to discuss this with the committee. At no point did the National Equalities Officer or any other UCU Official suggest that my wording was in any way inappropriate.
My email, shared with the committee on the 20 July 2020, contained one sentence that suggested a political faction associated with the General Secretary had “mobilised” allegations unfairly and in a manner that made it more difficult for the committee to respond, and a second sentence that suggested that we should be trying to work together rather than point the finger at one another. These two sentences would form the basis of a disciplinary case against me that would last the next 15 months, in which I was facing potentially being expelled from the union.
Instead of supporting the branch via a mediation as requested, the General Secretary’s office decided to initiate the ‘Rule 13’ (or disciplinary) process. The various other complaints the faction brought in relation to the 2020 election were subsequently thrown out over the following months (more than 30 individual complaints in total across several submissions), leaving the one complaint against me, for the two lines in my July email. Why I was singled out in this way by senior officials of UCU, given that other senior officials had discussed and agreed the wording I was being disciplined for, I don’t know.
Meanwhile, the continuing concerns about the behaviour of the faction, some of which were quite serious, were dismissed or ignored. In 2021, 17 witness statements from members of the Birmingham UCU committee variously described how female and casualised members had been targeted and felt ‘manipulated’, ‘intimidated’, and ‘harassed’. 8 casualised members went on to write directly to the General Secretary highlighting how the actions of the faction, and institutional support they were receiving from UCU, were making UCU an unsafe space for casualised members to organise. These concerns were dismissed without investigation and the General Secretary’s response seemed to suggest that any wider circulation of the concerns would lead to further disciplinaries against the branch.
During this process, the General Secretary refused to accept that there was a potential conflict of interests in prominent members of a self-defined faction who had only recently changed their name from ‘Grady4GS’ bringing what appeared to be a highly political complaint under a process overseen by the General Secretary. As this was ongoing – I decided to put in a subject access request under the Data Protection Act. This was rejected with very little explanation, and when I asked for review, the General Secretary herself wrote to me to inform me that my request for a review had been rejected despite the fact that she herself had been named in the subject access request.
All the while, any discussion of the activities of the faction in question were deemed off limits due to confidentiality. The promised mediation never took place and subsequent witness statements showed that much of the problematic behaviour continued throughout 2020/21. What I found especially distressing was the implication by the faction that the disciplinary against me could not be discussed because I was a “perpetrator” (for sending one email that did not use the word “weaponise”). Aside from anything else, such as the experience of casualised and migrant members who I was trying to support, this clearly implied that I was somehow guilty of some form of violence or abuse to which I should not be allowed to respond. This was incredibly upsetting.
To make matters worse, members of this faction then posted about these allegations and the ongoing case in an all members WhatsApp group in April 2021, despite previously having argued that the committee could not discuss them due to confidentiality. This group contained more than 150 members, many of whom were colleagues and co-workers, again suggesting that I was potentially guilty of some terrible unmentionable crime, and advising members to go to them “privately”, outside of the branch committee, to find out more. This was incredibly upsetting and one reason why I have decided to write this article and set the record straight, whatever retaliation I might now face.
On the same day as the case was referenced in this way in the members’ WhatsApp (27 April 2021) I was informed that my NEC hearing panel set to hear my case had been ‘disbanded’. This now looks like a political intervention in the process to ensure the panel came to the ‘right’ decision in my case. It is not entirely clear what took place – but I do know that the 5 national officers met on 20 May 2021 to approve (retrospectively) the disbanding of the panel that had previously been appointed by the President, and to appoint its replacement. It is not clear who disbanded my panel given that the national officers, who were the only people who could authorise such a move, did not meet until three weeks after the panel had already been disbanded.
Neither myself nor the original panel were ever given any reason for this move, and of course any emails and minutes that would have fallen under my subject access request were never disclosed. Indeed, I would later find out that the original panel had been left with the impression that my case had been resolved. It would take another 7 months for that to finally be the case.
In the end, after well over a year, my sanction was downgraded from “suspension” to “censure” when an appeal panel accepted that I should not have been suspended for a word I did not use, but that I should still be censured for using the word “mobilise”.
There is so much more I could say about how incredibly damaging this process was, not just for me personally but for the many other activists in our branch who were variously ignored or kept in the dark. To face suspension from the union, losing all trade union rights and protections could easily expose a union rep to workplace victimisation. The workload and impact on my mental health was devastating. It still blows my mind that this could happen in a trade union simply for trying to follow the union’s own rules on the advice of the union’s own officials.
Conflicts of interest and abuse of process: how Birmingham UCU and the West Midlands Regional Committee were repeatedly let down by the “Carlow Street” black box
Throughout this process the Birmingham UCU branch wrote several times to the General Secretary asking for mediation and asking how the branch would be supported in addressing the disagreements and allegations brought by the faction supporting the General Secretary. The branch were consistently fobbed off by the General Secretary’s office, which refused to support mediation or give any meaningful response to the concerns being raised. I would take no part in this, but clearly it impacted on my ability to act as Branch Secretary. Not just in terms of the distress the process was causing for everyone, but because it was my job to coordinate the business of the committee and try to make sure it was a safe space for people to organise in. At times I felt the General Secretary’s office and other senior elected and unelected officials made this job almost impossible. I will be forever incredibly grateful to our Assistant Branch Secretary (themselves a casualised worker with no facilities time) who took on many of the key functions of the branch during this time, and to other comrades who provided support and advice.
In October 2021, Birmingham UCU brought a motion to the Regional Committee (RC) asking for a review of Rule 13, given the complaints they had received. A call that has recently also been made by UCU’s own Sexual Violence Task Group (See pg.57-58). This motion was moderately worded and called on the union to ensure that the rules were being properly followed in relation to complaints received by the branch. The motion was ruled “in order”.
The response to this motion was astonishing. The regional committee received anonymous advice from “Carlow Street” that any member of the RC (around 30 in attendance on the day) could be disciplined simply for being in the room if the motion was discussed. One female rep from another branch spoke in the subsequent regional executive meeting about how they felt intimidated by these threats – they were repeatedly interrupted until they agreed not to finish their contribution and stop asking questions. Ultimately the motion was not heard and the executive were not allowed to discuss why it had not been heard. As one member of the committee pointed out – “Carlow Street” had ruled that “Carlow Street” could not be questioned. We were never told who had issued this anonymous advice.
The impact on our members and the urgent need for change in UCU
I want to finish by reiterating one important point – these are my experiences but they are not unique. 17 witnesses from our branch (all of whom were rank and file members – and non of whom were members of any faction in the union) wrote to UCU supporting my right to act as I did as Branch Secretary, and 8 casualised members of our committee wrote to the General Secretary stating that they felt UCU was becoming unsafe for casualised members. Several were forced to quit as union reps. I also know of many other reps in our region who have felt threatened and intimidated to the point that they have also considered throwing in the towel.
This is also not limited to Birmingham or the West Midlands – branches across the country have brought various motions seeking to reform the UCU disciplinary process in recent years. One result of these efforts was the UCU Sexual Violence Task Force, whose report recently described the current process as a “mess” with there being an “urgent need for reform”, noting that the current process further marginalises and excludes already marginalised groups within the union.
This is certainly what we saw locally – as BUCU Branch Secretary I saw evidence of casualised and migrant members being targeted under this procedure by permanently employed colleagues. In other cases, when casualised members asked if their evidence could be kept anonymous they were told that would not be allowed. Disabled members found it impossible to navigate and many others found it highly intimidating.
The UCU disciplinary process does indeed urgently need reform and, just as importantly, we need to elect representatives who do not abuse the rules however partial or imperfect they may be, in order to further factional interests or intimidate political opponents. It is explicitly illegal under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992 paragraph (65)(2)(C) for a trade union to target their own activists for speaking out in this way and we should not be bullied into keeping quiet. It’s time to start talking and time to end abuse of process in our union.
*Disclaimer: I put on record that in writing this article I am exercising my right to assert that the union or its officials/representatives have in my view contravened the rules of the union and/or the rule of law, and as such in writing this article I consider myself to be protected from any further unjustifiable disciplinary action under section 65 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidated) Act 1992 65 (2)(c). Similarly, in supporting others who have already experienced such unlawful action against them, I am exercising my right to support and/or vindicate them under TULR(C)A 1992 65 (2)(d).