UCU chief prepares for sector-wide fight on many fronts

Jo Grady confident the union will ‘far surpass’ the necessary turnout of 50 per cent to secure a mandate for further industrial action

September 1, 2022
Source: Alamy

The UK’s main academic union has “learnt from the past” and will run an “aggressive” campaign to convince members to back taking unprecedented strike action this autumn, its general secretary has said.

While gearing up to again fight university leaders on many fronts, Jo Grady has insisted she does not see a risk in switching to a sector-wide ballot that will determine whether all or none of the University and College Union’s branches can participate in industrial action.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, she said she was confident that the union would “far surpass” the necessary turnout of 50 per cent, predicting that anger among members over cuts to pensions and the cost-of-living crisis will replace disillusionment with a lack of progress in the disputes to date.

“Things are very different this time,” she said. “When we go on strike every member in higher education will be on strike, there will be no dwindling number of branches taking action; it will be all of us together.

“Branches won’t feel isolated, won’t be able to be picked off in the way that has happened this year. Striking together gives us unprecedented leverage and the campaign is about organising to build power…to break the intransigence of Ucea [the Universities and Colleges Employers Association] and vice-chancellors that we have seen.”

UCU is attempting to win over supporters with a bullish social media campaign, and Dr Grady defended engaging in “rough and tumble” online, saying members expected the union to hold employers to account.

“If you work in an environment that grinds you down, I can completely understand why you might go online and want to talk about that,” she said.

“If people who lead the sector feel that is crossing a line, then I think they need to reassess their role in creating an environment that makes people feel that way.

“There’s an important conversation to be had in how people sometimes engage online in quite a depersonalised way but I don’t think there is anything wrong necessarily in calling out bad aspects of what it is like to work in our sector and calling people out personally and individually.”

Asked what she would see as victory in a year’s time, Dr Grady said the immediate need for a pay settlement that “goes some way to helping staff cover the costs they have this year” was key but should not detract from the “significant importance of making workloads bearable” and ensuring more staff have proper contracts.

On the Universities Superannuation Scheme, now estimated to be in surplus after years of posting billion-pound deficits, Dr Grady said cancelling the pension cuts implemented in April would be a “clear victory” for the union but would also restore “a sense of justice” to the scheme. She added that a longer-term goal lies in instigating a different approach to academic pensions; one that avoids the “triennial trauma” of valuations that “throw their future into the air”.

The union’s renewed sense of purpose comes in contrast to the last time members voted to take further industrial action. In the spring, planned strikes were cancelled after “overwhelming” feedback and only a fraction of branches took part in a marking and assessment boycott.

Dr Grady herself advocated a pause in the campaign until 2023 to give the union time to regroup, and she faced a motion of censure at the annual congress as a result, but now says she has changed her mind because of the change in societal circumstances.

Switching to an all-or-nothing approach in the ballots – which are open from 6 September to 21 October – comes after the union secured its biggest successes of late at a local level, including an agreement with the Open University to offer new permanent contracts for 4,800 casualised workers.

While Dr Grady said such local victories should be celebrated, the union does not have “the luxury of time” to take an institution-by-institution approach to settling the disputes.

Ucea has said that action on addressing issues with precarity or pay gaps is best taken at a local level but Dr Grady insisted the national body could do more, for example lobbying government for measures such as student number caps to “allow for universities to plan without volatility” and reduce the perceived need for using casualised contracts.

While acknowledging the likely disruption for students, she said overall responsibility for the industrial action has to lie with the employers who are “sitting on their hands”.

“If I was running an organisation that had industrial action happening as an annual event, I’d probably be asked if I was stepping down from my job but for these guys it doesn’t seem to affect how people view their success – or lack of – at all.”



Print headline: Union chief prepares for UK-wide fight on all fronts

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