UCU members on strike. Photo: Paul Mattsson
UCU members on strike. Photo: Paul Mattsson

Bea Gardner, UCU member

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are voting for a new leadership, with the general secretary election beginning on 25 January, alongside elections for vice-president and the union’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

The Socialist Party calls for a fighting, democratic leadership which gives a serious, consistent industrial and political lead.

Across all sectors in which it is organised, UCU members have mounted heroic and determined fights in recent years. Fighting against job cuts and closures, for inflation-proof pay rises, in defence of pensions, and for better workloads with less job insecurity. 

Prison education members took strike action for the first time. More colleges than ever coordinated action as part of the ‘Respect FE’ campaign, with many winning awards above the 7.5% pay recommendation.

In universities, members showed their determination to fight by delivering two historic strike mandates, which smashed the Tories’ required 50% turnout threshold on a collective basis for the first time.

A significant victory was achieved in the USS pensions dispute – as a result of the 69 days of determined strike action members have taken since 2018 – with cuts reversed and member benefits restored by an estimated £16-18 billion.

Leadership mishandling

Nevertheless, the mishandling of the disputes by the leadership, particularly in universities, through a series of delays, retreats, and anti-democratic manoeuvres, has resulted in many members losing confidence in the current leaders.

Last year, UCU Congress voted to censure the actions of general secretary Jo Grady in the university disputes, and a ‘no confidence’ vote was held, narrowly failing. UCU HQ is also in disarray, with two strike ballots by UCU staff and a contravention notice issued by the Health and Safety Executive. Jo Grady is now opposed by three candidates in the general secretary election.

The incoming leadership must prepare a fighting strategy that is seriously prepared for and built – a campaign for above-inflation pay rises, an end to marketisation, and for full funding. We must defend the right to strike, oppose the use of the minimum service legislation, and defend against victimisation. 

A coherent political strategy is also vital with a rapidly approaching general election and likely Labour government to follow it. The general secretary candidates should demand that an incoming Starmer-led Labour government deliver full funding to adult education and be prepared to fight for it industrially and politically. That includes backing candidates that support UCU policies to stand in the local and general elections.

Rank-and-file members must have control over their disputes and their union. We call for the democratic election of all union officials, who should be subject to recall and paid an average members’ wage.

Two candidates with left support

These elections could have galvanised activists and reps to organise on a shared platform for a fighting, democratic union, laying the groundwork to fight as part of a new, democratic left. It would have been better if there was one left candidate.

Unfortunately, there are two general secretary candidates standing – Saira Weiner and Vicky Blake – who have a base among left reps and activists.

Standing as the ‘UCU Left’ candidate, Saira offers a stronger campaigning programme, and also pledges to take an average workers’ wage.

Meanwhile Vicky is backed by many left activists and is mounting an independent challenge with a campaign that targets issues to do with union process, democracy and culture.

A vote for either would send a message to the current leadership, but both could go much further in putting forward a political and industrial strategy for the union and drawing together all those who want to campaign for that.

Socialist Party members want to discuss with anyone who wants to fight for a serious fighting and democratic programme in the union, including how we can build an effective, democratic, and open broad left at each layer of the union.

Socialist Party member Duncan Moore is standing on this programme for a national Further Education seat on the NEC. The ballot runs from 25 January to 1 March. See the next issue of the Socialist for more on Duncan’s campaign.