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Witch-hunting women within the trade union movement only helps employers

Unions divided among themselves can’t fight and win. As UCU faces unprecedented challenges, we argue that attacking our own members has to stop, and the movement needs to practice what it preaches about respect, solidarity and equality. By HOLLY SMITH, SHEREEN BENJAMIN and JUDITH SUISSA

THE Universities and College Union (UCU), which represents academic and related staff in UK universities, meets for its annual Congress this week.

The union is facing unprecedented challenges having taken 18 days of strike action in two disputes — #FourFights and #USS — this academic year, without wringing any concessions from Universities and Colleges Employers Association and Universities UK. 

Frustration in the disputes is running high, with just 20 HE branches starting a marking boycott on Monday May 23 and some employers threatening 100 per cent pay deductions. One motion (19) is critical of the leadership’s approach to these disputes.

It is in this context that UCU has chosen to include in the agenda a highly divisive motion celebrating a lesbian feminist academic losing her job after a relentless campaign of bullying and harassment. 

Anyone seeing the images of masked activists on campus demanding the sacking of Professor Kathleen Stock must have wondered how political debate on women’s rights could sink so low.

The UCU Sussex branch notably failed to offer any solidarity to Stock, who had been a loyal member for decades. 

The failure to support her right to participate in public policy debates about women’s rights sets a precedent that can only damage the labour movement.

Historically, trade unions have recognised that allowing workers to be blacklisted or censored for our political activity prevents us from organising, and enables employers to victimise union members. 

Freedom to campaign on the political issues of the day is an essential pre-requisite for democracy in general, and for workers’ rights specifically, and to give up that freedom and hand employers the right to vet our political work will be to our own cost.

Motion 38 is wilfully divisive. It depicts as “transphobes” anyone who holds “gender critical views,” which means the view that sex matters in a range of contexts, from sports to single-sex service provision.

The motion denounces anyone who disagrees with the erasure of sex as a legal category, and anyone who criticises the corporate lobby group Stonewall, or opposes “affirmation-only” therapeutic approaches for children and young people experiencing gender dysphoria.

Clearly, a wide range of views on sex and gender exist within the membership of UCU, and many academics are engaged in research or teaching that addresses sex, sex differences, gender, gender identity, or the implications of changing language around sex and gender in law and policy. 

The position that only one view is acceptable is incompatible with democracy and antithetical to academic freedom, which UCU purports to defend.

Only totalitarians oppose the right of oppressed groups, such as women, to speak and write freely about our experience and the impact of policy or proposed changes to legislation on us.

Motion 38, “Defend trans and non-binary people’s rights,” reads: 

Congress notes:

1. Government hostility towards Stonewall for its support for trans rights, including disaffiliations by the BBC and government bodies;

2. Government’s refusal to implement Self-ID in the Gender Recognition Act;

3. Government’s failure to recognise non-binary as a legitimate identity;

4. The EHRC’s [Equality and Human Rights Commission] attempts to delay anti-conversion therapy legislation for trans people and undermine the Scottish government introducing Self-ID;

5. The Tories’ anti-conversion therapy Bill that dangerously presents equivalence between oppressive anti-trans conversion therapy and pro-trans affirmative intervention.

Congress:

a. Congratulates Sussex University UCU for their solidarity with student protests against ‘gender critical’ views;

b. Welcomes the founding of the Feminist Gender Equality Network, committed to opposing transphobia on campuses and more broadly;

c. Resolves to oppose ‘gender critics’ and transphobes promoting ‘gender ideology’ and trying to undermine trans and non-binary people’s rights and promote divisions between women’s and trans people’s rights.

At the heart of this attempt to stoke division within the union is a profound disagreement about the definition of both trans rights, and of transphobia.

The motion suggests a crisis of attacks on trans rights, but in the UK trans people have been protected through anti-discrimination legislation since 1999, and “gender reassignment” is one of the protected characteristics in the 2010 Equality Act. 

The disagreement is over the controversial demand that anyone identifying as a member of the opposite sex to their birth sex must be treated as a member of the opposite sex in absolutely all circumstances (even in sports, domestic violence shelters and prisons) solely on the basis of their self-identification. 

Some feminists have argued that self-ID substantially infringes on women’s rights, particularly when it comes to single-sex spaces and resources set aside to tackle sexism. 

Conflicts between rights are common, and need to be negotiated through careful discussion and legal compromises, but even acknowledging this conflict or calling for discussion on how to resolve it is enough to attract accusations of “transphobia.” 

In many cases, this has led to women being insulted, threatened and even losing their jobs.

UCU has a proud history on equality, but advocating for discrimination against our own members would betray that history.

Motion 38 appears to commit UCU to unlawful discrimination against anyone whose research or teaching addresses sex, or the implications of changing definitions of sex in law and policy. 

Passing the motion will expose UCU to the risk of legal actions by members who complain of discrimination on the basis of their belief that there are two sexes, that humans can’t literally change sex, and that sex is a politically salient category. 

UCU should note the Forstater vs CGD appeal judgment in 2021 which confirmed that such widely held “gender critical beliefs” are protected by the 2010 Equality Act, and that it is unlawful to discriminate against those holding them. 

It is unclear what it might mean to “oppose” feminists who take a materialist approach in practice, but it certainly raises the possibility that the union would then advocate for us to be subjected to unlawful discrimination. 

A trade union is most effective when organising on the broadest basis of common interest of the membership. 

We need a strong, confident union that will be able to unite members and face down the growing belligerence of managers. Division on the issue of sex and gender has already driven some female members, including activists of long standing, out of UCU.

Motion 38 will further divide and weaken the union, at the very time when UCU needs to be strengthening its hand. 

Creating a purity test for UCU membership based on attitudes to gender identification would undermine the ability of UCU to act collectively and decisively. 

At a time when we have two industrial disputes in crisis with the hashtag #OneOfUsAllOfUs it is hard to imagine anything more divisive and demoralising than this attempt to mandate witch-hunts against anyone who argues for the material reality of sex, and believes that sex matters in a sexist world. 

Stop Press

On Friday afternoon Congress business committee (CBC) issued a new agenda which strikes resolutions a) and b) and an amendment from the motion as unlawful (see UCU2040B). 

This legal advice vindicates our argument above, but Congress is not mandated to accept CBC’s recommendation: when Congress starts on Wednesday June 1 it must debate whether to accept CBC’s revised agenda.

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