Socialist Party delegates at UCU congress. Photo: Rob Williams
Socialist Party delegates at UCU congress. Photo: Rob Williams

James Kirkup, UCU congress delegate and rep

UCU Congress, held from 29 to 31 June, was the first trade union congress held since Rishi Sunak called the general election. Delegates made it clear that they want to see the back of the Tories urgently, and that the union should prepare to fight under a Labour government. Significantly, motion 16 entitled “No honeymoon for Labour”, was passed, which reflected the mood of Congress not to back down to appease an incumbent Labour.

This was my first trade union conference. Members at the colleges I represent voted almost unanimously for me to bring an emergency motion that resolved to use the UCU fighting fund to put pressure on Labour. This was after Starmer showed his willingness to backpedal on his commitments to workers’ rights. Unfortunately, the motion was ruled out by the congress business committee.

However, delegates we spoke to supported our argument that, as well as preparing to fight industrially, we also need a new political strategy. As our Socialist Party leaflet, which we gave out to delegates, stated: “We can’t rely on Labour to defend workers’ rights without pressure – we need a working-class political voice too”.

Congress was marked by a strong discontent towards the leadership of the union. Undoubtedly, this is rooted in how the UCU leadership misled the HE and FE disputes over the last few years. The Black members standing committee (BMSC) had been boycotting UCU for the 6 months leading up to this congress. On top of that, UCU staff in Unite were on strike against UCU senior management over the treatment of Black members of staff, workplace stress and other working condition-related issues.

Jo Grady, who was re-elected general secretary earlier this year with just 35% of first-preference votes, did not even address delegates. Instead she opted for a pre-recorded video uploaded online, presumably to avoid potential disruption from staff or delegates.

The Unite strike on Thursday meant the sector conferences didn’t go ahead. Many important motions were missed, much to the disappointment of delegates. The responsibility lies firmly with the general secretary. Socialist Party members visited the picket line to express our solidarity.

On Friday, motions were passed in support of the staff, including confronting the claimed structural racism within UCU. For me, a highlight was a speech challenging the genocide the Israeli state is unleashing on Gaza, and the importance of resisting Israeli ‘scholasticide’: the complete destruction of Gaza’s education infrastructure.

It is a longstanding UCU policy to support the Palestinians’ struggle for liberation, and further pro-Palestine motions were passed during the congress. The trade union movement has a vital role to play in the anti-war movement, but not enough has been done so far. Backing the student encampments and supporting pro-worker, anti-war candidates that support our policies in the general election are important steps as part of the process of building a workers’ party in Britain that fights for socialism and internationalism.