Delegates gathered for the UCU union’s annual congress in Brighton last weekend. Members in the higher education sector conference defeated the union leadership by backing a motion calling for a “national industrial strategy”.
It also said that a national strategy “needs to contain a clear plan for escalation in response to management intimidation if it is to be credible”.
The decision comes as workers in universities and colleges across Britain face job cuts, attacks on pay, the slashing of courses and mergers.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt had previously told delegates of the need to challenge cuts at a “local level”. Hunt said local disputes had delivered improvements “that would never be achieved at a national level”.
She announced a plan to hold a commission in the autumn to look at “the pros and cons of all forms of industrial action”. This comes as the union leadership seeks to argue that the Tories’ Trade Union Act makes national strikes unachievable.
So it was good that delegates voted for a “special sector conference” in the autumn that “will determine a national UCU industrial strategy”.
Sara Weiner is joint regional secretary of the North West region and is on the UCU’s national executive committee. “This means that ordinary branches will get to have a say and that there could be a national ballot,” She told Socialist Worker.
“But the votes were quite close. There was a general feeling that people feel let down by the national leadership.”
Xanthe, a lecturer at Leeds university, told Socialist Worker that in some universities local bargaining had delivered improvements. “But there was a recognition that most places can’t achieve that without a national campaign,” she said.
A motion calling for “alternative forms of industrial action” following the Trade Union Act was defeated. Xanthe said, “That would have represented a move away from national action.”
She added, “It can sometimes seem like national action never gets off the ground. But people don’t always see how the right organise to dampen it down.”
Another motion passed reaffirmed the union’s commitment to national pay bargaining. And another called for the “full involvement of branches and regions” in developing industrial action strategy.
The key now will be for workers to organise in their branches to hold the union leadership to implementing the motions.
Attacks on education were a big theme of the congress. In the further education (FE) conference, delegates described the hell of restructuring, insecure contracts and college mergers.
John Murphy from Blackburn College was cheered when he said, “Most Tories wouldn’t know an FE college if they tripped over it. They’ve never used them, their children haven’t used them, their friends haven’t used them.
“But they know they cost money and benefit working class people.”
Like other delegates, he described how college mergers left some students with long journeys to get to college. Milly from Hackney said some students needed courses close to schools and home for childcare.
She said that the cuts are leaving students with fewer options too. “There’s an idea that it’s wasteful and inefficient if we have a huge range of classes,” she said. “But there isn’t waste – we have huge waiting lists.”
Delegates passed a motion condemning government plans to allow colleges to be declared insolvent. Nita from Bourneville College said, “We are not a business, we are an educational establishment.
“We can’t be held accountable by the banks.”
There was real anger at the damage being done to education and there are several disputes where workers are fighting cuts. Yet the mood of the congress was flat for much of the time. Many workers have suffered year after year of cuts with not enough of a fight to stop them.
There was enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour and support for resistance. Delegates agreed that the union should call for a vote for Labour in the 8 June general election. Delegates passed a motion calling on the union to back a protest against Donald Trump if he visits Britain.
Another committed the union to continuing to support anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations, including Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up To Racism. Delegates passed a motion resolving to campaign against the Islamophobic Prevent and to support members boycotting it in certain circumstances.
Alistair McTaggart from Chesterfield said Prevent “drives a wedge” between people and feeds a “climate of racism”. Dave Muritu from Sandwell College said, “Now is the time to strike because Prevent has been discredited.”
A late motion opposing troops on campuses following the Manchester attack was also passed.
A motion resolving to campaign for the free movement of labour was also passed. Ioanna from University College London said, “I’m an immigrant. If I was in Greece I’d probably be unemployed. We have to preserve free movement of labour.”
A motion was also passed to reject the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which the right has used to restrict criticism of Israel. Mark Abel from Brighton UCU argued there was a “dangerous conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism”.
The motion was carried overwhelmingly, with only one delegate speaking against it.