Big changes at UCU congress 2019

Last year’s UCU Congress saw a stand-off between the union leadership and a rank and file revolt from the floor, with the leadership closing down the conference. Grant Buttars reports from this year’s Congress which saw a representative of that rank and file elected General Secretary and the leadership only able to force a 10-minute break.

Jo Grady, incoming General Secretary

As a delegate to the 2018 and 2019 Congresses but none before, I can only compare them to each other. However, I think this year’s Congress confirmed the trajectory UCU is on to be a truly member-led union.

The election of Jo Grady as General Secretary

The results were announced the day before and set the positive tone for our time in Harrogate. The increased turnout and near 75% combined vote for the two left candidates (Jo Grady and Jo McNeill) showed at the ballot box what had been incubated during the USS pensions strike and had erupted on the floor of last year’s Congress. The result also shows how successful action within one part of a union can be transformative for the union as a whole.

The bureaucracy and their IBL (Independent Broad Left) supporters were visibly and practically subdued (most of the time). After lunch on day one, Jo Grady gave her address to Congress. It was fiery and worth reading in full. Last year, the bureaucracy closed down Congress to prevent discussion of motions critical of the General Secretary. Importantly for her own and Jo McNeill’s voters, Jo Grady made a clear and unequivocal statement about the relationship between General Secretary and members:

I’ve made clear where I stand. I am your elected political representative. I will take responsibility for my decisions and actions, and I will never use staff as a shield to defend myself from criticism.

Jo also re-affirmed her commitment to abide by any recommendations that will come from the Democracy Commission established from the floor of Congress last year.


The only serious attempt at obstruction came in the session on internal democracy, where a motion was before us that would reduce the ability of members and branches to hold the leadership to account. This was always going to be a flash-point.

The response from the floor was to simply line up, in unfeasible numbers, to speak against. Despite the Chair’s attempt to claim we were breaking some rule (a claim quickly dismantled when the text of the rule was read out), delegates stood our ground. A short break followed and then we overwhelmingly voted the motion down. Other contentious motions were not heard due to time but will be picked up again when a special Democracy Congress convenes in the autumn.

The rank and file

There are two lefts with UCU. First of all, there is UCU Left, the organised left which has successfully been there year after year, curbing the excesses of the right-wing of the union and winning significant victories, and without which there would not have been a USS strike. Secondly, there is the more amorphous rank and file which is far more organic, developed dramatically during the pensions dispute, and to some degree wants to reboot union politics from scratch, starting from the grass roots. McNeill was the candidate of the UCU Left, while Grady gained prominence through the pensions strike as part of the rank and file.

UCU Left and the rank and file simultaneously pull against each other and complement each other, with many members having a foot in both camps. How this plays out is perhaps a topic for a separate article.

Time for action

The unresolved issues of the USS dispute were the subject of many motions but all pointed towards balloting for strike action in the autumn and complete rejection of any proposals that would see us paying increased pension contributions. This is important in its own right, as this dispute should never have been put on hold in the way it was, and much time has been lost. It also removes a logjam where the way the dispute was paused and left unresolved contributed to UCU twice narrowly failing to beat the 50% turnout threshold when we balloted over pay earlier this year.

Time for solidarity

Two important motions were passed in terms of solidarity work. The first was to support outsourced workers at the University of London’s Senate House and show solidarity with the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). The motion commits UCU to a boycott of Senate House and will require action at branch level to be effective.

Secondly, a motion on the climate emergency includes commitments to ‘encourage all UCU branches to recognise a state of climate emergency’ and ‘set up solidarity actions for future strikes’. This was echoed by striking school student who spoke powerfully at a fringe event:

We are striking because we have done our homework; they have not.

Time for equality

For the first time, migrant status will have parity as an equality characteristic within UCU with the creation of an equality group with a standing committee and an annual conference established on the same basis as UCU’s other equality groups. It also provides a much-needed organising tool.

Then there was the contentious debate around ‘Academic freedom to discuss sex and gender’. The motion was a thinly veiled attack on trans rights, posing as defence of academic freedom, and a deliberate conflation of criticism with harassment, with the amplification of specific incidents into the norm, turning perpetrator into victim. It assumed that trans rights and women’s rights are in conflict, undermining solidarity. The motion was defeated but no doubt the arguments will resurface again.*


*Editorial Note

Due to an editorial error, the text of the final paragraph has created an ambiguity about the motion referred to. Several motions were submitted which failed to start from solidarity with trans people against oppression and elevated academic freedom to engage in political debate as an absolute right, as if the promotion of oppressive politics has no real-world consequences. They also failed to support the right to protest against oppressive politics. The motion debated talked about harassment of academics and activists, but not the appalling treatment of trans people. If it had been passed it would have been a setback for trans rights and encouraged those who counterpose women’s and trans rights, undermining solidarity.


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