In a speech distributed to delegates at the union’s congress in Glasgow, which took place on 23 and 24 May, Sally Hunt said trade unionism faced a series of threats over the coming years as a new Conservative government took office.
Ms Hunt did not deliver the speech in front of delegates owing to time restraints. The three-day congress was curtailed to two days to enable delegates to return to their institutions ahead of Bank Holiday Monday, as train services on that day were cancelled following threats by rail workers to hold a strike.
“There is no doubt that Tory legislation on balloting will be designed to make it harder for us to call strikes,” said Ms Hunt.
The Conservative manifesto says that strikes should only ever happen if there has been a ballot “in which at least half the workforce has voted”.
There is also a pledge to require strikes in “core services” to have the backing of at least 40 per cent of eligible union members, rather than a simple majority of those voting in any ballot.
In the UCU’s last national ballot on industrial action, held in October 2013, just 35 per cent of eligible higher education members voted.
Ms Hunt said the proposed changes to the law around strikes were “just the tip of the iceberg”, as the government also wants to “give the legal right for employers to use agency staff to strike break, to undermine the political campaigning work unions including UCU do, to make it harder to win justice at employment tribunals and to reduce facility time for union reps working in the public sector”.
“We must avoid what the Tories want us to do – and start taking lumps out of each other,” said Ms Hunt, who has led the UCU throughout its 10-year history after members of the Association of University Teachers agreed to a merger with the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education in December 2005.
Ms Hunt also warned about the “background of austerity and further cuts” faced by higher and further education, the financial difficulties faced by staff on casual contracts and a fall in UCU membership in recent years.
“We do not have a divine right to exist,” she said, adding the UCU must “build on our successes…learn from our mistakes…and create a culture of solidarity not just among our members but among ourselves too”.