England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UCU elections: Left alternative needed

By Socialist Alternative members in UCU

UCU elections for General Secretary and the National Executive are currently taking place, with the ballot due to close on 1 March. These elections come at a time of significant crisis for the union. In Higher Education, the dispute over pay and conditions has stalled following a crisis in leadership and coordination, culminating in the failure of the union to ballot over the summer.

Employers are now responding with redundancies at many institutions. TPS pensions are under attack in post-92 universities. In Further Education, the push for a national ballot of FE colleges on pay has also stalled. In the General Secretary elections, the incumbent GS Jo Grady faces three challengers: Vicky Blake, Saira Weiner and Ewan McGaughey.

In 2019, Jo Grady stood as a ‘rank and file’ candidate for General Secretary. However, in office she has been anything but, and quickly adopted the same bureaucratic leadership style of Sally Hunt. Grady has consistently undermined UCU’s lay democratic structures and committees, demobilised our disputes at every crucial moment and is completely unwilling to engage with criticism or debate.

Furthermore, Grady’s authoritarian leadership style has provoked a series of disputes with UCU staff and their recognised union, Unite. Most recently, the Unite branch have raised complaints about discriminatory treatment of Black staff members, and have felt so ignored that they gave interviews to the Times Higher Education. Grady has even attempted to recognise a new, rival staff union branch organised through GMB, which only senior officials are members of, creating a two-tier structure within UCU staff.

After failing to win the pay increases members demanded during a cost of living crisis – repeatedly botching strategy and negotiations despite members winning ballots and making significant sacrifices, such as the Marking and Assessment Boycott – UCU also rejected a progressive pay increase for their own staff proposed by Unite UCU and instead proposed a flat rate increase that would disproportionately benefit senior staff (including UCU leadership).

As Marxists, we acknowledge that the power of trade unions comes from their membership and from strong grassroots organisation in the workplace. Who occupies the leadership positions of the union is a secondary question to this, and any leader will inevitably come under pressure to make concessions to employers. But Jo Grady’s leadership of UCU has been an unmitigated disaster. We believe it is therefore important that a new General Secretary is elected in order to draw a line under recent failures and setbacks, and that this would allow UCU members greater time and resources to organise.

It is unfortunate that there are three challengers to Jo Grady in this election. The fact that there is not one candidate for union activists to rally around not only makes it more likely that Jo Grady will be re-elected, but also demonstrates that at least at this stage the rank-and-file membership of UCU is not sufficiently organised and developed to dictate the terms of this election.

Socialist Alternative is recommending a vote for Vicky Blake in this election. Unlike the other candidates, Vicky has a strong track record as a lay representative at local and national levels, is widely respected among the membership, and has shown determination and ability in leading strike action.

Vicky Blake was also one of a number of independent left NEC representatives who pushed for indefinite action in the recent pay and conditions disputes, something that we believe could have helped to win. While we do not share her positions on every issue, we have confidence that she would work with our lay democratic structures rather than against them and respect the democratic decisions that we take.

However, this election represents difficult terrain. Many UCU members are disillusioned as a result of Jo Grady, who promised to be a ‘rank and file’ General Secretary but has been anything but in practice, and by a series of defeats and de-mobilisations in national disputes. We are concerned that turnout will be low in these elections and that many members will feel that electing a new leadership will make little difference.

While we support Vicky Blake’s campaign, we would encourage her to make pledges that could demonstrate in concrete terms how she could be different from Jo Grady. For example, a GS candidate could pledge to bring in a recall mechanism, whereby members and branches could trigger an early GS election if we lost confidence in their leadership. The current and previous General Secretaries have both faced votes of no confidence, but these are non-binding. We would also encourage candidates to pledge only to take the average salary of a UCU member, donating the rest back to our union and to the movement.

One candidate who has pledged to do this is Saira Weiner, from UCU Left. We respect this pledge and are happy to see it. Promising not to take an exorbitant salary well in excess of £100,000 per year out of members’ dues is one way of showing that your interests are tied to those of members, and that you will not become bureaucratised or forget completely what life is like for ordinary members.

However, even some UCU Left candidates for the National Executive have publicly declared support for Vicky Blake, and we believe most UCU Left supporters will vote for Blake as their first preference. We also do not believe that UCU Left has even the beginnings of a political program to transform the union. It would therefore be irresponsible to advocate a first preference vote for Saira and in doing so potentially increase the chances of Jo Grady being re-elected.

Ewan McGaughey is also standing, which came as a surprise to us. He is known mainly in UCU for crowdfunding almost half a million pounds from UCU members to take the directors of the USS pension fund to court over USS pension cuts. The case was thrown out at the preliminary stage. Ewan is a Professor of Law and embodies a legalistic approach to trade unionism (relying on the courts which do not defend the interests of workers, instead of taking a class struggle approach to collectively fighting as a workforce). We cannot advocate a vote for him because of the danger that if he were elected on the basis of ‘academic expertise’, he would most likely embody much of the same approach as Grady.

We are sadly not yet in a position where the organised left and rank and file in the union is able to agree conclusively on the candidates we want to collectively support. However, elections are a chance to discuss the structure/functioning of our union and what real leadership looks like.

We can see this in the recent positive movements within the Rank and File group, a loose collection of activists in the union which for the first time has publicly published voting recommendations for these elections. Even more importantly these elections have acted as a spur to have deeper debates on crucial questions and consolidating principles on how to build rank and file activism. We hope that these discussions will continue after the elections, whatever the results.

We are also standing a candidate ourselves, Sam Morecroft, for both the North East and UK-wide elected seats. Sam is a skilled organiser and branch activist who led the first ever strike action in outsourced education in the UK this past academic year. As a result of the strike, members won the best pay rise secured anywhere in UCU since the pandemic – a 10% pay increase over two years.

Sam is standing as an open socialist and, alongside strong rank and file organising, will also foreground political issues such as trans solidarity and opposing the current imperialist devastation in Gaza and Ukraine. We believe electing Sam to the National Executive will be a step forward for members in UCU, because Sam will use his position democratically and openly to develop member control over the union machinery and to win the demands members have repeatedly fought for.

It has been a difficult period for UCU members, who have for the most part taken a lot of action and won little. But as attacks on post-16 education increase under the Tory government, and as Starmer makes clear he will not offer any alternative, the need for organised left leadership at all levels of the union will only intensify.

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