By Socialist Alternative members in UCU
UCU’s annual congress took place at the end of May in Glasgow, at a crucial time for the union. The cost of living crisis has been affecting everyone, including education workers. In universities, the Marking and Assessment Boycott on pay and conditions has been underway for almost two months and is having an effect, potentially delaying student graduations at several institutions. In Further Education, there have been localised strikes on pay at many colleges.
Congress was dominated however by criticism of General Secretary Jo Grady. Multiple Higher Education branches submitted motions critical of Grady, ranging from censure to no confidence. This was a response to her actions in the Higher Education pay and conditions and USS disputes, where she repeatedly overturned strike strategy in favour of her own plans.
Socialist Alternative members in UCU believe it was right to bring these motions in an attempt to hold UCU’s only full-time elected officer to account. We have explained that the General Secretary has been an obstacle to our union, through her bypassing of lay democratic structures such as the Higher Education Executive and our elected negotiators, and by unilaterally cancelling strike days. It is not an exaggeration to say that without these interventions, significantly more could have been achieved in the pay and conditions dispute.
Bureaucracy blocking debate
The debate over these motions was tense and ill tempered. Before the debate began, delegates were told that even discussing these motions created a legal risk for UCU because they represented an attack on the General Secretary’s employment rights. Outgoing President Janet Farrar made several speeches from the chair in defence of the GS, and during the debate took exception to comments made by one Socialist Alternative member, perceiving them to be overly critical of President-Elect Justine Mercer. Farrar temporarily expelled our comrade from the Congress, preventing them from voting.
This could have been an opportunity to discuss what went wrong and how the union can function more effectively. Instead, it was clear that several national officers were focused only on minimising and dismissing delegates’ criticisms. This was underlined by the General Secretary herself, who used her right of reply to speak for over 15 minutes and dismissed the criticism as “bullying”.
The motion of censure criticising the General Secretary’s actions passed, with 155 votes in favour and 117 against (21 abstentions). However, the motion of no confidence fell, with 119 votes in favour (plus our expelled delegate!), 146 votes against, and 34 abstentions.
Understandably, some delegates felt they simply could not vote to get rid of a General Secretary in the middle of such a huge dispute. We sympathise with this perspective. However, recent disputes have demonstrated that we are not just struggling against the employers, but also against our own leadership.
The Congress was also overshadowed by controversy following debates on Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine. This was the result of a poorly constructed motion, which rightly criticised both Western and Russian imperialism and opposed supplying Ukraine with weapons, but also attempted to draw unhelpful comparisons between Ukraine and Israel and was largely not posed in a practical way.
The situation was made worse when delegates from one left group chose to film a speech for the purposes of social media. This particular contribution failed to make any serious points about international solidarity, and gave the impression that trade unionists and socialists should simply ignore the war in Ukraine. Predictably, this created far more heat than light on social media. It is important to note, though, that there were far more serious contributions made which were not filmed.
Following discussion, the three Socialist Alternative members delegated to the Congress decided to vote in favour of the motion, and against the amendment that attempted to neutralise it. While we had criticisms of the motion, ultimately the debate on conference floor was about whether or not UCU should support Western governments arming Ukraine, and we had to express opposition.
We need to clearly establish the link between military “aid” to Ukraine and military escalation, particularly given the recent provision of seriously lethal weapons like depleted uranium, which put Ukrainian lives at risk in the service of imperialist war. It is worth noting that there were more unifying motions on Ukraine, calling for support for Ukrainian refugees and to build links with anti-war layers in Russia.
Socialist Alternative members in UCU call for an international anti-war movement, against all imperialisms – US, Chinese and Russian – and for international working-class solidarity to bring down the capitalists’ war drive.
Building UCU in FE and HE
Aside from these controversies, the Congress was extremely productive. In the Higher Education conference, delegates passed a policy to better support the Marking and Assessment Boycott, which is progressing locally despite limited national support. There was a renewed commitment to campaigning against outsourcing and to unionise outsourced staff.
Delegates voted overwhelmingly to continue resourcing the PGRs as Staff campaign, which organises postgraduate students. Of course, policy has to be implemented. Disappointingly, shortly after Congress, the Unite branch representing UCU staffers announced that the two staff responsible for the campaign had been issued redundancy notices by the General Secretary, and that the branch is holding a consultative ballot on strike action. Socialist Alternative sends solidarity to the affected staff and calls for these redundancy notices to be withdrawn.
In the Further Education Conference, important decisions were taken to build on the localised strike action on pay in colleges like Kirklees, Leeds, Bradford and Manchester. UCU will hold a national disaggregated ballot on pay, to be launched in September. This provides an opportunity to generalise the struggle on pay in FE, and for branches to strike together rather than separately. Kirklees (where Socialist Alternative members are playing a leading role in the strike) and Bradford colleges have already illustrated how striking together can lift the confidence of members.
Importantly, the FE conference also passed a late motion following the tragic death of Ruth Perry, a headteacher who committed suicide recently following a critical Ofsted inspection. Conference sent solidarity to her family and friends, and resolved to call for the abolition of Ofsted inspections in FE.
UCU Congress was, for the most part, a productive event. In general, the left were able to pass policy freely. However, there were again signs of the need for a genuine, organised rank-and-file within UCU. For example, the HE Conference had no choice but to vote for UCU Left candidates for the elected lay negotiator positions, since the only alternatives came from the two right-wing groupings in the union.
Some movement was made on the eve of Congress, where around 20 delegates met for the first time in person to discuss the possibility of building towards such a rank and file organisation. While no formal decisions were made, this is a positive step, and Socialist Alternative hopes to continue these discussions going forward.