The annual congress of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) took place last weekend, from 27-29 May. Delegates from across Britain met at Glasgow’s SEC to discuss the future direction of the union, including what it stands for, how it organises, and how it fights.
Having been engaged in two serious disputes in the higher education (HE) sector for a number of years, and with battles looming on the horizon in further education (FE), this was an important opportunity for the union to regroup and prepare for the coming year.
It was also a chance for UCU members to make themselves heard, in the wake of numerous questions around union democracy, provoked by the actions and antics of general secretary Jo Grady.
The first day of congress was dominated by a discussion about members’ thoughts and stance towards Grady’s leadership.
Since December, Grady has run a one-sided fear campaign against indefinite strike action; disorientated lay members with a treadmill of ‘e-ballots’; and unilaterally paused industrial action without any concrete promises from the bosses.
As a result, the union ended up postponing any strategic planning for our marking and assessment boycott (MAB) until after it had already begun. This has created the present situation of confusion among the rank and file, with members wondering how to resist the punitive attacks by the bosses in response to the MAB.
Consequently, numerous motions of censure and no confidence were submitted to congress. These were distilled down to two composite motions.
Delegates speaking in favour of both focused their criticism on the general secretary’s actions, her apparent unwillingness to fight, and the damaging effects that this has all had on the disputes in HE specifically.
After a fair – if tense – debate, the motion of censure passed by 155 to 117, with 21 abstensions. The motion of no confidence then fell, however, with 119 in favour, 146 against, and 34 abstensions.
Grady’s response was less than fair, however, with the UCU leader seeking to characterise the motions as being a personal attack against her.
She was then allowed a right of reply of over 10 minutes, in which the audience was in effect subject to a telling off for daring to criticise and challenge the leadership.
Grady outrageously even accused delegates in favour of these motions of misogyny – once again showing how identity politics is cynically weaponised within the trade union movement.
There is clearly considerable, widespread dissatisfaction with Grady. Nevertheless, the vote of no confidence failed to pass. This is primarily down to the weakness of the left in the union.
This is not a numerical weakness, but a political one.
The dominant left faction within the union, UCU Left, largely made up of those supportive of the Socialist Workers Party, at root agree with the current strategy put forward by the general secretary: for a MAB combined with local strikes.
What’s more, while they have made consistent criticisms of Grady’s actions, the UCU Left have not provided a serious, alternative vision for how the union can win.
The censure vote shows that many members are clearly unhappy with Grady’s leadership. The failure of the no confidence motion, in turn, is down to the absence of any viable left-wing alternative, were a new general secretary election to be called.
Sunday afternoon also saw an important motion from the University of Sheffield branch, drafted by Socialist Appeal activists in the UCU.
This called for a cross-union staff-student campaign to be launched, spearheaded by UCU, with the explicit aim of “kicking capitalism out of higher education”.
Motion HE32 passed at HE conference this afternoon! ✊
Drafted by comrades of UCU Marxists and put forward by University of Sheffield branch, it commits the union to kicking capitalism out of Higher Education!🚩 pic.twitter.com/NLxOjGFKhX
— UCU Marxists (@ucumarxists) May 28, 2023
Demands raised in this motion include: abolishing tuition fees; reversing funding cuts; and removing all private companies and interests from the sector. It also called for the replacement of opaque university bureaucracies with democratic bodies of staff and students, in order to run HE for social good, not private profits.
This motion passed overwhelmingly, showing the popular support for a fighting vision that expresses clearly the reality which many members already know: that capitalism is at the root of the poor pay, conditions, and general decimation in the sector.
Having passed at congress, we cannot now allow this motion to be buried by the union. Instead, rank-and-file UCU members should urgently take up the call for such a bold campaign on every campus.
Not only can this provide a positive vision and clear programme for university workers and students to rally behind, but because it can serve as a clarion call for the whole labour movement: to kick out the Tories, and kick out capitalism!
Although much focus was on the HE sectoral conference (which takes place within the UCU congress), the FE sectoral conference was also important.
Last year, 33 FE branches smashed through the Tory anti-trade union barriers in order to take action, withdraw their labour, and claw back concessions.
This year, that number looks set to triple, with a huge wave of new branches joining the fightback. In the recent national indicative ballot, over one hundred UCU branches in FE beat the 50% turnout threshold.
This shows that there is the mood among FE workers to finally turn the tables, win nationally-binding pay scales, and secure pay parity with mainstream schools. Some colleges saw turnouts of over 80% – all for striking.
With this in mind, the passing of a motion during the FE sectoral conference calling for “nationally coordinated and sustained strike action” was notable.
This motion also demanded that the union prepare to follow up an autumn campaign of strike action with one in the new year, should the government not budge; and to hold a demo to lobby the Department of Education. This is a positive step in this burgeoning struggle.
Tactical debates around whether to have an aggregated or disaggregated ballot, in reality, are secondary. What is vital is that the union throws its strength behind this campaign, and empowers branch activists to mobilise members and get the turnout.
One particularly controversial episode over the course of the congress, and in the aftermath of the weekend, was around a motion put forward regarding the war in Ukraine.
This motion correctly characterised the conflict as a “battleground between Russian and US imperialism”. It also called for both the withdrawal of Russian troops and the ending of British arms sales to Ukraine.
The motion also demanded a ‘peaceful resolution’ to the war, without elaborating on how this would be established, or who such an outcome would benefit.
Nevertheless, the motion on the whole put forward an internationalist – if pacifist – position on the war.
Despite some of these reservations, supporters of Socialist Appeal spoke in favour of this motion, and also against amendments that sought to remove any condemnation of western imperialism’s role in the conflict, as well as any criticisms of Zelensky’s regime.
Jess Kent, delegate from University of Sheffield, speaking on Motion 5 on Ukraine at Congress today
— UCU Marxists (@ucumarxists) May 27, 2023
The main message put forward was that we should never forget that ‘the main enemy is at home’ – the vile Tory government and the British ruling class that stands behind them.
After some debate, the motion was passed by congress. The reaction on social media as a result of this becoming union policy, however, has been nothing but vitriolic, bordering on hysterical.
This reflects the liberal pressure placed upon those who dare to criticise the culpability of western imperialism in helping spark and prolong the conflict.
Even noted pro-NATO journalist and Starmer fanboy Paul Mason has weighed in on the debate – never one to miss an opportunity to attack Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency.
Bending to this pressure, Jo Grady has today posted a scandalous statement outlining her personal opposition to the motion.
— Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) May 31, 2023
In this, the UCU general secretary indicates that the topic would be up for “discussion” at the next meeting of the NEC – implying that the motion could be overturned, in a blatant denial of union democracy.
UCU members should stand against any attempts to overturn this democratic decision of congress. We cannot allow the establishment, through pliable and bureaucratic trade union leaders, to decide our union’s position on such important matters.
Although the UCU congress concluded on Monday, the class struggle in education continues to rumble on. And it is only set to intensify.
In HE, news of a potential big win in the USS pensions dispute – with pension benefits likely to be restored – should serve to inspire members to continue their determined struggle in the Four Fights campaign.
And with a historic nationwide strike in colleges also on the cards, things are unlikely to be quiet within the UCU anytime soon.
The congress also showed that there are sharp differences between the union’s rank and file and its leadership. The experiences of the last year serve to underline just how important it is to have a leadership that has faith in its members.
Although Grady survived the vote of no confidence, with a general secretary election coming up next year, the left must get organised, start discussing a potential challenger, and seek to unite around a genuinely fighting candidate.
This means a class fighter who not only respects but expands union democracy; puts forward clear strategies to win, in order to embolden workers; and is unafraid of backing up bold demands with militant tactics, such as indefinite strike action and coordination with other unions.
The motion passed at congress for a campaign to kick capitalism out of higher education should also be enthusiastically launched at the earliest opportunity: if not by the current leadership, then by rank-and-file activists, and by any future left-wing general secretary candidate.
With capitalism in crisis, and the marketisation of education intensifying, it is clear that a fight to kick profit off campus – and put workers and students in control of universities – is the only way forward.