Covid crisis

In her first speech* to the University and College Union’s (@UCU) annual congress as general secretary, Jo Grady set out the challenges workers in prison, adult, further and higher education are facing during the pandemic.


Due to Covid, the two-day conference, which started this morning, is the union’s first ever to be hosted online, and is taking place today (Saturday) and Tuesday (16 February).


Jo set out the struggles UCU members have faced under Covid. She said:

‘Since March last year, we’ve seen employers use Covid as a pretext to continue their attacks on precariously employed workers; freeze pay; and undermine the health and safety of staff, students and local communities.’


Jo said we also have a Conservative government that is hostile to public education so it would not be easy to get “what we want and deserve as workers”. She pointed to victories members had won over pay, conditions and gender inequality as examples for how the trade union movement can take on employers and win.


The speech covered Jo’s delivery of her manifesto commitments, the new ways UCU is engaging members, and the continuing battles over health and safety, casualisation, pensions, and workload. Jo said these challenges could only be won through organising and growing the union.


Jo issued a call to action to UCU members: ‘Now more than ever, we need to build our own power, in our own workplaces, through collective organising, collective bargaining with our employers, and collective action together as workers, and with our students.’


Congress details

Congress will be held on line, on Saturday 13 & 16 February 2021. Business will start from 11:00 - 13:00 and 14:00 - 16:00.


Media credentials

Journalists wishing to attend need to apply for media credentials before 3pm on Friday 12 February. To apply for media credentials email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the name of the journalist, email address and mobile phone number. Members of the press will be sent details of how to attend via email.

*Full speech

Since I took up my post as General Secretary in August 2019, I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen a tougher period for workers in the sectors we organise in. 

Despite the first injection of public money into further education we’ve seen in a decade, there have been continuing attacks on members’ pay and conditions. In adult education, there still isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel of austerity and we’re still campaigning for better funding. In prison education, members have seen their safety and job security undermined by employers at the worst possible time. And in higher education last year, we saw arguably the biggest strike action ever in the sector over pay, workload, job security, equality and USS pensions.

We’ve seen the political landscape become even more hostile to public education, with a new Tory prime minister winning a huge majority in parliament, intent on making access to learning harder for those from deprived communities and the jobs of those who work in education miserable. 

All of that would easily be enough to make this the most eventful period in UCU’s history. And most of it happened before the pandemic had even started.

Since March last year, we’ve seen employers use Covid as a pretext to continue their attacks on precariously employed workers; freeze pay; and undermine the health and safety of staff, students and local communities.

And yet, despite all of this, our union has continued to grow in numbers and in strength. Because we know the only solution to the problems we face, lies with us. I’ve never been more sure of what I said in my election manifesto, that there are no shortcuts to winning what we want and deserve as workers. Some people were hopeful that a new government in Westminster might just give us what we want, but that’s not going to happen. We’ve got fantastic support from some MPs for our agenda in the last eighteen months, but there is no political group or party that is in a position to rescue us from the situation we are in. 

Now more than ever, we need to build our own power, in our own workplaces, through collective organising, collective bargaining with our employers, and collective action together as workers, and with our students.


Victories in further education (FE) and higher education (HE)

Getting the change we need is in our hands.  We’ve seen plenty of victories in further and higher education and I’m going to highlight a few. In the summer and autumn of 2019, UCU members at Nottingham College took strike action for fifteen days over their contracts. The employer was trying to cut their pay, slash other benefits and get rid of their workload protections. As they reached the end of those fifteen days, the employer caved and staff won everything they were demanding.

We’ve seen similar successes in some of our HE branches, too. It’s fair to say that although we got our best ever ballot results for a dispute on pay and conditions, the Four Fights dispute didn’t produce the results we wanted or deserved. But the ballot result was an important departure from previous pay ballots – it demonstrated a dawning of a new age in UCU members’ militancy and appetite to stand up for casualised members, and take action over equality pay gaps. Issues which many long standing UCU members (including myself) felt were not always taken seriously within our branches. 

Branches have made big progress locally on some of the same issues covered by that dispute. Sheffield Hallam UCU won a dispute over workload. Bristol University UCU mounted a brilliant campaign to win a landmark collective gender pay agreement.

All these victories were a model of how a trade union should work, with members on the ground leading the campaign, supported by staff in our regional and head offices. I’ve spent time with all three of those branches and it’s clear that the members knew exactly what they needed to do to win and they had the initiative and the ability to deliver.


Realising members’ potential

I ran on the conviction that there were massive reserves of potential in our broader membership which we weren’t doing enough to tap into. Branch campaigning is a crucial way to tap into that potential, but it’s not the only way. That’s why I’ve made it a priority to deliver on one of my manifesto pledges, to create task groups of UCU members from all parts of the union to bring their experience and expertise to bear on key issues. 

The first task group is up and running and its focus is on sexual violence in our institutions. This is a new way for members to get involved and advance our priorities, in addition to our more traditional structures. We’ve discovered an appetite to take part in UCU’s campaigning that just wasn’t being satisfied before and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of the group.


Looking ahead

We need to be working together and firing on all cylinders to get through the next few months. And that’s what this Congress is about. 

As delegates you have a massive responsibility. Every time you vote for a motion, you’re not just expressing your personal views. Collectively, you’re taking decisions on behalf of 130,000 UCU members. And when you vote for a motion, you’re not just saying you agree with it. You are asking me as general secretary to commit the union’s resources to making it happen. 

Every decision you take is a decision about where you want to allocate members’ subscription money, and the time and energies of your elected representatives and UCU staff.

There are a few key issues that are on the agenda of this Congress and occupying all of our time right now. 

We’ve got redundancy battles across our sectors. There’s also an existential dispute in FE in Northern Ireland, where the employer is effectively tearing up members’ contracts and collective bargaining agreements. There’s a pay campaign in FE in England, where branches will finally have a chance to capitalise on some increased funding for the sector.

In HE, we’re currently undertaking an unprecedented survey of members for their views about past and future industrial action. And at the same time as we revisit the grounds of our Four Fights and USS pensions disputes we are still looking for other ways to win victories over those issues. That’s why I have recently directed our new Head of Legal Services to focus on casualisation, and conduct a search for potential legal challenges that could set precedents for precariously employed members.

But across our sectors, there’s one very clear priority for the next few months: and that’s health and safety. The government and employers have fuelled a second wave of Covid-19 by telling students they could have a relatively normal experience on FE and HE campuses this year. They did this because they were unwilling to consider alternative ways of funding the sector that could have allowed institutions to put safety first.

All of us have a huge battle on our hands to make our workplaces safer now and stop the same mistakes being made again. We’ve already made massive progress on this front. From the start, the government and employers pushed hard to maximise in-person working, even if it meant exposing staff, students and the wider community to the virus. But we have pushed back at every level: from our national press work, to our legal action against the Department for Education, to our extensive advice and guidance for members and branches, to the 700 reps we’ve trained throughout this pandemic, the staff who have spent countless hours studying risk assessments, the hundreds of activists who enrolled for our health and safety organising school, and to the branches that have organised for collective action on this issue. 

Last term, Northumbria University UCU became the first trade union branch in the UK to win a ballot for industrial action over Covid health and safety, and immediately forced their employer to change its position on in-person work. We’ve got branches everywhere that are following in Northumbria’s footsteps. If you know anything about Prison Education, you’ll know that ballots for industrial action in that sector are extremely rare and very difficult to win. But our Novus UCU Prison Education branch, the only branch whose employer hasn’t met our demands on health and safety, just smashed the threshold in an indicative ballot and are proceeding to a statutory ballot for action as I speak.

But we can’t stop while we still have colleagues who are being forced to do non-essential work on-site. And to remind us of how much continues to be at stake, I’d like to take a moment to remember the life of Donna Coleman, the UCU member and tutor at Burnley College who died of Covid last month at the age of just 42.  Her passing will be deeply felt by her family, her students and her wider community. Too many workers, including those in post-16 education, have lost their lives to Covid. These deaths are not inevitable. UCU will continue to fight to keep our members safe, and for employers and the government to protect their health and safety.


The longer term

But the other thing you need to do as Congress delegates is think about the larger structural changes we need to make to keep winning as a union.

I’ll tell you what my ambitions are. We will not achieve real change unless we can massively increase participation in the union. We have gained nine thousand members since the previous Congress, and that’s impressive by any union’s standards. We’ve seen big increases everywhere from higher education to prison education, where our work on health and safety has increased our membership by more than 50% since the pandemic started.

But nine thousand members is still not enough to shift the balance of power in our favour and start winning improvements in our working conditions rather than defending what we already have.

We need to become a majority union. We need more than half of the workforce we represent to be in the union, and we don’t currently have that in most of our branches. We need to grow our membership even more, and we need to get the whole membership involved in our collective struggles if we want conclusive power in our workplaces and power over the conditions we work and conduct research, and our students learn and grow. None of this means we don’t continue to fight and struggle now to win what we deserve in our workplaces, but that we must also have a clear focus on a long-term goal of building this union. 

Many of you have already got an idea of what that could look like. One of the most important initiatives I’ve started since I became GS was the organising school with Jane McAlevey which four hundred UCU members signed up to, supported by more than twenty UCU staff. Those of you who did it will have got an idea of what it takes to win massive, transformative victories through collective organising and collective action. Those of you who haven’t, I strongly urge to sign up and sign your friends up when it runs again this year.

What members learnt at that school is that effective organising is about going round your whole workplace and having difficult, one-on-one conversations with people who don’t necessarily agree with you. Conversations with people who might not even want to be involved in the union. It’s about listening to them, working out what the issues are that motivate them and embedding those issues into your campaigning. It’s about systematically testing and mapping your members’ participation in the union so you can work out where you still need to build capacity. It’s about campaigning not just as workers but as part of a community, so everything you do is building solidarity with students, with other workers and everyone who’s connected to your institution. 

And if you do all that you can build a majority of workers who are willing to do what’s needed. If you want an example of what’s possible, look at the Los Angeles Teachers’ Union, who we heard from in the final session of our organising school. They took that organising approach and after years of preparation they ended up going on strike for six days in 2019 with pretty much full participation from every teacher in the school district. They won a big pay increase, they won a big reduction in class sizes, they created new jobs for counsellors and other support staff in every school.

This type of power and transformational change is within our grasp – we have seen victories similar to this in our branches like Nottingham College – but I want it for the entire union, in every workplace we cover. With bigger and bolder demands that go beyond protecting what we have

We can achieve it, but we all must be committed to this project and willing to organise to grow our union in the way those teachers did. And we all have a role to play. This is not just a national project. There is nothing to stop you aiming for this in your department or branch. When I was a departmental rep at Leicester University in 2016, we worked incredibly hard at organising and my department had 95% density. We were a force to be reckoned with, with a Dean who tried to implement draconian measures and lost every time. I want every UCU member to experience that power in their own workplace. To experience what it takes to build it, organise it, and wield it. 

I’m confident you can do that because I’ve seen over and over again that the union has the skills and the resources for it, both in the decade I spent as a UCU rep in different branches and now in my time as general secretary.

I know your staff are there to help you do it. One thing I’ve learnt in the past year is that if in the past it felt like the union wasn’t heading in the right direction, that had nothing to do with the skills or the efforts of UCU’s paid staff. The staff have moved mountains this year. They’ve been involved with every positive action you have taken as members. I’ve seen first-hand how colleagues have worked evenings and weekends and cancelled annual leave to support members. And if we were all together in person I would be asking you for a round of applause in recognition of that.

I know our elected leadership can keep steering us in the right direction, too. We’ve seen a lot of change in our national executive committee in the last year, with record numbers of candidates standing for election and lots of new blood getting elected. And we’re led by a great team of elected officers: our President, Vicky Blake; our President Elect, Janet Farrar; our Vice President, Justine Mercer; our Past President, Douglas Chalmers; and our Honorary Treasurer, Steve Sangwine. They’re working really hard alongside me and all the staff, they’ve been meeting every week to discuss what’s happening across the union.

But I couldn’t mention the elected officers without recording that we’re missing one member from that team. And that’s Nita Sanghera, who would have become President and chaired this Congress had it not been for her untimely death at the beginning of last year. I know that those of you who knew Nita really miss her, and we all remember her above all as a champion of equality in our workplaces and our own democratic structures. It seems even sadder that we can’t all be in the same place to celebrate Nita’s life together, but I hope you will all mark her passing by voting for the two motions on your agenda that recognise and build on her work.

As staff in post-16 education, you have never been under attack on as many fronts as you have been this year. But you’ve also never stood together more or fought harder than you have done this year. And that’s why I’m confident you can keep taking this union in the right direction through this Congress and beyond.

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