The growing mood to resist the new Tory government infected the University and College Union (UCU) national conference in Glasgow last weekend.
Delegates voted for strikes, protests and for decent working class political representation. Time and again they supported calls to resist racism, Islamophobia and scapegoating of migrants.
Both the further and higher education sectors signalled their intention to demand better pay rises with votes calling on the UCU leadership to organise national strike ballots.
The key dividing line in the pay debates was whether to fight or not.
In HE delegates voted to instruct the leadership to have an active campaign to argue that members reject a 1 percent pay offer from employers and ballot for strikes. Arguments insisting the union put no recommendation were defeated.
During a debate over launching a national FE pay claim for a £1 an hour rise some argued more consultation was needed before balloting for strikes.
One delegate argued that “a ballot is not democratic consultation” while another pessimistically said there was no point fighting because UCU would lose anyway.
South and City College Birmingham delegate Safia Flissi described such attitudes in a trade union as “shocking”. She said, “I am not here to declare defeat, but to fight.” Nina Doran from Liverpool also emphasised the role of leadership that is expected from union reps “to lead not manage”.
She added, “Members are not waiting for a vague strategy – they want to know how and they want to know when we’re going to do it.”
Richard McEwan from Tower Hamlets College in London argued, “We have to fight for a vision of what strikes will look like. We have to be really serious over this and take members with us.
“It has to be a national campaign and not fought college by college. We have to link all the issues from increasing workloads to the defence of adult education. This can inspire a fight against the Tories.”
As the Tories prepare to attack every trade unionist in Britain by further restricting the right to strike delegates called for full scale resistance to it - up to and including a general strike.
Calls for a national demonstration in defence of post-16 education and to coordinate industrial action against funding cuts with other education unions passed overwhelmingly.
At least 12 colleges in the London region are now balloting for strikes over the impact of the government’s 24 percent cut to adult education. They are looking to coordinate their action. Other regions spoke of how they were keen to replicate this.
The implications of the general election result was a constant theme, as the Tories whip up racism against migrants and Muslims.
Many motions called on the union to continue its excellent stance in opposing lies about immigration and oppose any Tory attacks on equalities. A motion to “step up campaigning activity to expose the policies of Ukip” was moved by Paul Blackledge from Leeds.
He argued, “We have got to shift the terrain around immigration and make sure it is not shaped by Ukip and racism. Bankers, not immigrants, are the problem.” Paul also denounced Labour’s pandering to racism as “appalling”.
One delegate argued this was a “smear” on Labour for which there was “no evidence”. A Staffordshire University delegate pointed out that the evidence was “eight-foot tall and carved in stone, and I believe you could buy a celebratory mug”.
Delegates debated a composite motion opposing the government’s Prevent agenda, including calls for a national boycott of it. Before the debate conference heard a statement from a national officer. He said voting for a boycott would be “extremely challenging” for the union legally and potentially “unlawful”.
The advice was ignored and delegates overwhelmingly backed the motion. The top table was forced to concede that “resources would be spent” to implement the resolution.
It was not the only resolution that the national union sought to influence the debate with legal arguments.
Union general secretary Sally Hunt made a statement before a motion was heard reaffirming the UCU’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The motion called for the union to circulate an email to members reminding them of this existing policy.
Hunt said to do so would bring a “risk of legal challenge” and if delegates voted for it the leadership would “have to treat it as being void”. She argued the only other option was to give “a balance of views”, which she was not prepared to do.
Her speech was met with stony silence.
City University London delegate Rachel Cohen said, “I’m confused as to why it’s illegal to inform members of our policy.” The motion passed.
Delegates also passed a motion instructing the national executive to call for and organise, with other unions, a conference to debate working class political representation. This was perhaps the most interesting motion passed.
A similar motion was passed at the Fire Brigades Union conference this month.
The conference was cut short because of the expected national Network Rail strike that was eventually suspended and much of the fringe programme was cancelled.
Yet over 100 attended the UCU Left fringe meeting discussing solidarity with strikes, Palestine and migrants. A Socialist Workers Party fringe attracted 50 delegates.
This is the mood – days after the Tory election win – in a union that played a significant role in helping kickstart industrial struggle in 2011.
That wave of resistance eventually led to 2.5 million workers striking in defence of pensions. We have to build rank and file strength to stop union leaders selling out future struggles.
But it shows the potential for other union conferences and for igniting wider resistance to five more years of Tory rule.