By Sophie Squire
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How can university workers build the strikes after union leader’s failed sellout?

UCU union members staged three days of strikes after their leader Jo Grady tried to shut down the dispute
Issue 2848
University workers and supporters at the UCU London regional strike rally outside Parliament. Strikers are holding up pink and purple UCU union banners, and wearing pink UCU beanie hats, some are holding placards which read 'fight for education'

UCU union members rallied in central London on Tuesday after they stopped the union leaders calling off strikes (Picture: Socialist Worker)

University strikers are fighting to rebuild momentum after the damage caused by UCU union general secretary Jo Grady last week. 

She tried her best—not for the first—to scupper strikes, trash union democracy, and sell a rotten deal over pay, pensions, conditions and equalities. But rank-and-file members stopped her and mounted three days of strikes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Activists at some universities said their picket lines were bigger than during the strikes last week. In Liverpool, for example, the picket line was more than double the size than it was on Friday of last week. Peta said “loads of strikers were offering to help” with the get the vote out (GTVO) in the reballot to renew the strike mandate.

Pickets were smaller on some campuses because their terms have finished. Anne from Cambridge reported “a good day of pickets, smaller than our usual strength but that is most likely because we are out of term”. The “mood was generally good” with “discussions about democracy, plebiscites and the role of the general secretary”. 

Grady had asked union members to pause to consider a rotten deal that wasn’t much better than had previously been offered. But activists successfully organised to stop Grady’s sellout. The union’s higher education committee (HEC) voted to continue the strikes on Friday of last week.

While rank-and-file union members beat back Grady’s sellout, her manoeuvres have still been damaging and demoralising. But it’s possible to overcome the impact. 

Richard Wild is UCU branch co-chair at the University of Greenwich in south east London. “It was a bad time for this to happen, and it was a bad strategy,” he said. “It has undermined the momentum of the strikes.

“From a branch level, there is a lot of anger. They have given a lot to this, and now members feel like they’ve been undermined. 

“We’ve had really mixed messaging from the top, and I think the leadership have been really distant from those that are actually out on strike. If they’d been on pickets I think they’d understand that we are ready to keep fighting. In my branch we have voted to sanction the general secretary.”

Over 200 university workers joined a march organised by the UCU London Region. Strikers gathered outside the UCEA bosses’ body headquarters. Chanting, “We know the money’s there. We demand our share,” they marched past to universities and on to parliament square. 

UCU member Sean Wallis described how it lifted strikers’ spirits—after the disorientation caused by Grady’s manoeuvres. “Lining up outside UCEA offices, we wondered whether we should march,” he explained. “There were a couple of hundred at most. Distracted by the behaviour of our union leaders, the turnout from some branches was low.

“But we marched and something very interesting happened. We went around the universities and it was fairly quiet, but things changed when we hit the main roads.

“The public—on the streets and in cars, buses, trucks—all started tooting and cheering. And a demo that we initially felt was small started to feel more like a catalyst of something much bigger.

He added, “We marched to King’s College London where students greeted us and swelled our ranks. Then we showed solidarity on Downing Street to migrant students prevented from graduating, and mothers on hunger strike.

“What’s the conclusion? Active union members on a visible strike and protest are the tip of an absolutely massive iceberg of hidden anger and discontent in the wider population.”

Striker Ruth from the University of East London (UEL) said she thought it was right for the HEC to vote to continue the strikes. “It was a democratic decision to keep striking, I think they came to the right conclusion, and we should keep on going,” she said. 

“I think now we need to escalate to a marking and assessment boycott, and we need to have more guidance and information about how we do this. I’m confident that we can shift the employer. If we don’t keep going, it will send a message to the bosses that we’ve backed down and they can do whatever they like.” 

Richard said that what workers do now is crucial. “We need a massive vote for strikes in the next ballot,” he said. “Last time we had a record-breaking national mandate, the next vote needs to be even bigger. 

“And it’s not enough to just threaten a marking and assessment boycott. It needs to be a real threat to employers. We also must continue building links with students, other campaigns and unions. 

“How we organise on the ground is really important. The union officials might send emails and tweet a bit, but those who come out onto the picket line make this dispute.”  

The UCU Left, which Socialist Worker supporters are part of, released a statement debunking Grady’s claims about the shoddy deal. It said building the GTVO campaign to renew the strikes and organising “best coordinated and most widely supported” marking and assessment boycott was crucial. 

And it called for activists “to organise local strike committees in every university, composed of all those active in the industrial action”. Their “regular and frequent meetings can discuss and debate the direction of the campaign and can coordinate local initiatives.”

Alongside winning the reballot and pushing for more strikes, it’s vital that union members seize control of their dispute.


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