NATFHE, the UK further and higher education union, had its national conference in late May this year. Like the AUT, the union for the academics of the prestigious universities, NATFHE had been talking about boycotting Israeli universities. But unlike the successfully defeated pro-boycott campaign at AUT, the equivalent campaign in NATFHE kept going strong. It just got quieter and smarter, and worked to to avoid any danger of legal action. The NATFHE web site has this account of the motion passed at its conference:
Emergency motion 25 on AUT Israeli University Boycott was moved by South East's Tom Hickey, and CARRIED:
* the AUT Council's previous decision to boycott two Israeli universities and the resulting attacks on, and misleading and insulting claims about, the AUT;
* a number of NATFHE Branches' and CoComs' declarations expressing solidarity with AUT's opposition to oppression in the Middle east, and affirming AUT's right to act.
Conference affirms that:
* to criticise Israel policy or institutions is not anti-Semitic;
* it is the duty of educationalists and their organisations, to speak out and act against oppression and discrimination;
* it supports the AUT's right to make this decision.
Following this motion, general secretary Paul Mackney made a brief statement interpreting the third bullet point ('to criticise Israel policy or institutions is not anti-Semitic') to mean 'to criticise Israeli government policy or institutions is not automatically anti-Semitic' because some criticism of Israeli government policy clearly can be anti-semitic. He also drew delegates' attention to NATFHE's existing policy on Israel/Palestine (download as Word document), and to speeches he had made based on that policy, and committed NATFHE to work with the AUT and the TUC to develop this based on a debate involving all of the union's membership.
This account of NATFHE's conference by a barrister academic called Gerald Adler appeared on the Engage website in June. The account he gives of what was said in the debates around Israel and the Palestinians and on fighting anti-semitism includes some very revealing detail about the atmosphere and the stated intentions of the union.
The implications that he spells out for Jewish and Israeli academics and students are really ominous.
But it's not just for Jewish and Israeli students.
It's for anyone who values democracy in our universities and colleges-- and in our politics too.
What Gerald Adler doesn't spell out is anything about the implications of all this for all of us through the forthcoming proposed merger of the AUT with NATFHE.
AUT is a traditional professional association like the AAUT, which only became a trade union in 1997. NATFHE is a much larger union with a long track record of embracing hard left political campaigning and strikes. And this merger will undermine and reverse all the hard work that's been done on overturning proposals to boycott Israeli universities which was anyway spearheaded by totally unrepresentative hard-leftists and baby revolutionaries in AUT.
NATFHE has already adopted hard-line anti-Israel policies, and stands also for a hard line anti-Iraq war line. It passed a motion at the same conference which Adler describes, which labelled the recent Iraq elections as fake democracies. It has a very hard line general secretary who leads anti-war and anti-Bush demonstrations in London, and makes speeches for the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, which itself supports a total boycott of Israel, all things Israeli and any organizations which associate with Israel.
It's all but taken for granted by the hierarchies of both unions that the merger is a fait accompli. But like the EU constitution referenda, there's still a chance for it to be overturned through the democratic process.
AUT members can throw out the merger if they vote against it this Autumn.
Parents of potential students may not be bothered about NATFHE, as they hope their children will go to the traditional universities whose academics belong to AUT.
Under the merger, AUT-NATFHE would become the sole union for every level and type of further and higher institution for over-16s.
NATFHE is a deeply undemocratic union. That's why its motion to support moves towards boycotts had only two people, voting against it. Really democratic unions, like really democratic countries, don't pass highly controversial political motions by 99% majorities (250+-2).
Here's the decision the NATFHE executive passed in April 2005, before the AUT boycott motion was defeated:
At the NEC on 30 April 2005, the following resolution was carried overwhelmingly: In the light of AUT Council decisions on Palestine and Israel, the NEC confirms its policy of working to support the building of civil society in Palestine, including cooperation with AUT where appropriate, to build positive relations with Palestinian and Israeli institutions and organisations which share our goals, and the consideration of sanctions where they are targeted and deliverable in respect of institutions which are creating obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Palestine
Sounds reasonably innocuous, doesn't it? But then there's this supplementary:
The NEC further resolved to support the Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration in London on 21 May.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign stands for a total boycott of all Israeli goods and services. That includes cultural services, such as Israeli singers at concerts, readings by Israeli poets, and youth football matches. And NATFHE is affiliated to the PSC.
NATFHE's key decisions are taken by its regional representatives who are almost all long-serving left-wing political activists who are chosen year after year off a slate. And those decisions can't be overturned by grass roots revolts.
AUT doesn't have this deeply undemocratic structure. Its local branches choose those who stand for Councils. You don't get slates at AUT branches, and even a concerted campaign of subversion by a hard line Trotskyist revolutionary party like SWP has to proceed one branch at a time.
Under the merger, the new union will elect its decision-making Council from branch based votes. But it’s not as simple as that. There is going to be an arcane system (section 18 of this document) whereby branches in given regions send numbers of delegates to Council based on the relevant voting power of the institutions in that region.
But given that there is a ceiling of numbers of delegates that can be sent to Council some institutions will find that they have little or no representation. And in most regions, FE and lower status community higher education institutions will easily outvote the traditional universities in the numbers of representatives they can send. They will also have a regional structure which appears to be a largely powerless talking shop.
However, the reality is that it will continue to be an organizational base in which the old time serving “comrades” whose names are so familiar that they go on being voted in continue to dominate. And the number of NATFHE-unionised institutions and long-serving politicised hacks will far outnumber the former AUT university academics in each region.
During the summer, Jon Pike of Engage wrote a very rosy view of the merger, which he supports, under the slogan "One Big Union". That now seems to have disappeared from the Engage web site. Actually, the history of monolithic mega-unions is usually one of disastrous over-reliance on strikes and industrial action, with relative loss of earning power. In the field of education, the influence of NUT has steadily waned in relation to its smaller more profession-oriented siblings, such as the ATL, as the DfES has by-passed its all-or-nothing maxmialist stances and impossibilist demands. Like NATFHE, its decision making structure is dominated by hack hard left time-servers who get voted back on slates.
I would be very interested to hear from any readers with interesting stories about radical and anti-democratic politics in NATFHE and AUT at any level. It would also be interesting to hear of anyone who knows exactly how the decision making voting structure of electing members to the new Council will work out in their institution and region. And I shall be posting more information on the eyebrow-raising track record of NATFHE policies and practice and the role of its General Secretary, Paul Mackney, the man being tipped for the General Secretaryship of the merged union.
The proposed AUT-NATFHE merger is a threat to academic democracy and decision making. It is not only a threat to Jewish students and to the peace initiatives of dialogue currently going on in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the wider Middle East. It is a threat to democracy itself.
It's really all about democracy.