The inaugural congress of the University and College Union (UCU) last week brought together two very distinct unions – the AUT and Natfhe, into a new lecturers’ union.
The conference took place at an important political juncture – with Blair’s looming departure and Brown’s assault on public sector pay.
Although media coverage of the conference concentrated on the question of a boycott of Israel, the major debates in fact centred around resisting privatisation and uniting over pay, as well as stopping the BNP, getting more anti-war activity going on campus and fighting the attacks on adult education and Esol classes.
The mood was confident and defiant and the UCU Left, Stop the War, Unite Against Fascism and Respect fringe meetings were packed out with union activists grappling with the big issues.
One of the highlights was seeing education minister Bill Rammell squirm as delegates around the hall held up placards condemning him for not supporting lecturers at Harlow college in his constituency.
Harlow’s management are attempting to smash the union and impose contractual changes which would see wages slashed by up to £13,000.
In his address to congress Rammell also denied that New Labour asked lecturers to spy on “Asian-looking” students.
However, a lecturer from Dundee reported that special branch had been crawling all over his campus following the publication of government guidance on tackling “extremism” in universities.
Delegates protested throughout Rammell’s speech – jeering and heckling his empty spin.
The message coming from the UCU congress was loud and clear – lecturers will not put up with funding cuts, attacks on their pay and conditions and burgeoning privatisation.
The battle lines have been drawn and the 30 members of UCU Left who were elected to the national executive of UCU are ready to kick the union into shape in the first NEC meeting due to take place on Friday of this week.
Lecturers at Harlow college are due to take their second round of strike action on the 11, 12 and 13 June. For more information go to » www.ucu.org.uk