For those people who aren’t in UK higher education, this post might be a little strange, please feel free to skip. I’m writing about this here because it is the platform that I have to try and influence something that is important in my life and in the life of other workers in the industry that I’m in. The pursuit of collective action and an engagement in democracy is central to my beliefs about what effective career development is and what should be included in careers education, so view this post as an attempt for me to walk the walk. Even for those who are in UKHE the fact that there is an election going on might come as a bit of a surprise. Yet, something important is going on and it is worth engaging with it, if you haven’t done so, so far.
Why the UCU matters
The UCU is the union for higher and further education workers in the UK. If you aren’t a member already, then join, as it is the best way to increase your chance of accessing decent work. If you are a member, then it is worth engaging with the current election as the union is a democratic organisaiton that you can decide the direction of.
For the last few years the UCU has been engaged in a series of campaigns to stop the very real erosion of working conditions in those sectors. Education workers have experienced falling pay, increasing workloads, attacks on their pensions and a massive increase in precarity.
Who is Jo Grady
Partially because of the steady erosion of working conditions, in 2019 the membership of the union elected Jo Grady, who was at that time seen as something of a wildcard candidate, to lead the union. For as long as I can remember elections in the UCU (and its predecessor unions) were fought between centrists technocrats who looked to the Labour Party leadership for their strategy, and Leninists (or their fellow travellers) who did their best to sound as radical as possible while offering very little that looked like viable strategy.
When Jo emerged as a grassroots candidate, I was keen to support her, in part because she seemed to have similar pluralist left wing politics to me, but mainly because she presented a strategy for re-engaging the membership in the union, campaigning for the issues that seemed important to members and doing so with a creative range of tactics that included, but wasn’t limited to, strike action.
Jo’s track record as General Secretary has been impressive. She summarises it in her election statement as, we have:
- won two UK-wide higher education ballots
- delivered the biggest pensions win in UK trade union history in USS
- pushed back against the government more than any union during Covid
- won dozens of ballots and settlements in further education
- doubled our membership in prison education
- stabilised overall membership as it’s fallen across the movement
- significantly raised UCU’s profile
- set a climate and equality agenda to be proud of.
Last year’s strike
Despite this, the union experienced a major setback last year when the strike and marking boycott over pay, conditions, precarity and equality petered out and then we lost a reballot to continue the action. After moving the employer a lot on pensions and not much on any of the other issues, members were tired, the cost of living crisis was biting, the government and employers were intransigent, and importantly the UCU had started fighting amongst itself, with the UCU Left faction arguing for a more radical strategy which essentially would have meant escalating the strike. This felt completely tone deaf to me, with most members that I knew completely unlikely to back a strike escalation. While I agree that ultimately we need to be prepared to strike to get what we want, the UCU Left’s reliance on calls for all out strikes as the only strategy in every situation is tactically niaive.
During the strike, Jo Grady provided strong and visible leadership. Representing us in the media and standing with us on picket lines. She also tried to square the circle of pursuing a coherent strategy while other factions in the union organised against her and tried to switch direction mid-campaign. I felt that she did a good job of striking this balance. She listened and responded to democractic direction from the union, but didn’t just abandon leadership and allow the union to run into the wall. Because of this the last phase of the strike ended up as a tactical compromise with neither Grady nor the UCU Left getting their way and the strategy becoming less coherent as a result.
Some people have blamed Jo for the partial failure of the last campaign. Personally this seems ridiculous to me. We are living in tough times, with a terrible government and a beleaguered higher education sector which is facing a funding crisis. This wasn’t going to be the moment when we were going to pull of a massive victory. It was worth a try, and we won some important concessions, but there is no one who could have led us to victory and a lot of people who might have played the strike differently and seen membership of the union collapse. Jo’s leadership hasn’t been perfect, but at the end of her term the union is stronger than it was before, we have taken real action and seen some real gains.
So, looking forward we need to stay the course. We need a leader who is focused on the real issues that members care about and one who has clear and thought out ideas about the future direction of the union. Jo’s manifesto is incredibly detailed and extremely compelling. I would advise people to read it before they vote and compare it to the far less detailed offers from other candidates. If you want a chance to compare, then this recent hustings sets out the issues pretty well.
So, if you work in further or higher education in the UK, and if you care about your own working conditions and about the future of the sector, then join the UCU, vote in the general secretary election and vote for Jo Grady to give us a progressive, forward thinking, tactically sophisticated and ambitious union.
If you are convinced by this and do want to support Jo Grady. It is also worth looking at the candidates for other roles in the union who are pledged to work productively with her if she is elected. You will have the opportunity to vote in other elections as well as the one for the general secretary, so use this opportunity to elect a powerful team.