There was a clear mood to fight at this year’s UCU union annual congress.
The congress, held online over two days earlier this month, heard from workers across Britain facing attacks on jobs, pay, conditions and safety.
Delegates voted on motions once congress had ended.
They defied their general secretary to back a motion calling on the union to instruct members not to enter unsafe workplaces. As the Tories look to drive more college and university staff and students back to face to face teaching, this will become more crucial.
The motion pointed out that balloting for action “does not provide protection for members who face immediate threats” due to the timescale of ballots.
It also noted the success of primary school workers who refused to return to unsafe schools in January citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act.
The motion resolved to “establish UCU policy that issues clear instructions to members not to enter unsafe workspaces under Sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act”.
The union should “provide advice to branches that outlines how this individual right will be supported collectively”. It should give “full legal support” for anyone facing a legal challenge when invoking the legislation, and “explore ways of encouraging taking legal action against reckless employers”.
The motion was passed despite advice from general secretary Jo Grady in a closed session that several delegates described as a “speech against” it.
Delegates backed a motion opposing a return to face to face teaching. Moving the motion, Sean Vernell from the union’s national executive committee said the Tories had caused “unnecessary deaths”.
“They put profit before people’s lives,” he said. “It is important the union continues to fight. We need national action. We cannot fight it college by college.”
Alison Chapman from City College Plymouth accused the government of running “a PR exercise to convince members of the population that it is safe to return”.
“We need to resist that,” she said. “We are having to mourn the death of at least ten members of FE who have contracted Covid in their place of work.”
In her speech to congress, Grady remembered Donna Coleman, a UCU member at Barnsley College who died of Covid-19 aged 42.
“Too many workers have lost their lives to Covid,” she said. “These deaths are not inevitable. UCU will continue to fight to keep members safe.”
She said the pandemic has given bosses a green light to attack workers. But she added that the UCU has gained 9,000 members since the last congress.
“We need to build our own power through collective organising, collective bargaining and collective action,” she said. “Getting change is in our hands.”
Debates about how best to resist dominated congress. Several delegates criticised the union leadership’s failure to coordinate a stronger, national fightback.
Delegates passed a motion calling on the union to adopt “mass campaigning tactics” and call “large online participatory meetings” to build the fightback. They agreed that education staff and students must organise together, and backed the UCU Solidarity Movement.
Molly Andrews from the University of East London (UEL) spoke on the day that she had been a professor at UEL for 25 years. She now faces compulsory redundancy. Like many delegates, Molly argued that struggles over jobs across Britain are “very much connected” and called for a national campaign.
Roddy Slorach from Imperial College London warned against the risk of focusing on the difficulties of organising during the pandemic.
“It behoves us to help build the hope that we can fight back, not to spread fear,” he argued.
“There is a strong risk that people are atomised and isolated at home. There are also real possibilities of fighting back.”
Roddy said primary school teachers’ refusal to return to unsafe schools in January showed it is “possible to organise, to mobilise, to strike”.
Other motions focused on battles to defend conditions. Delegates backed a motion that committed the union to seeking to take action against bosses whose staff suffer work-related stress.
Marion Mayer from Bournemouth university said, “The burden of excess workload can fall on staff left behind when casualised staff and activists are targeted.
“Workload is indivisible from casualisation, redundancies, from all of the causes in the four fights campaign.”
Sunil Banga from Leicester said the pandemic “has exposed the unstable conditions we are all working in”. He said these play “havoc with physical and mental wellbeing”.
“Staff are already burnt out but management are failing to address work-related stress as a health and safety issue.”
Congress voted to adopt the People Before Profit initiative that fights for workers’ rights during the pandemic.
Margot Hill from Croydon College said that safety battles would be “at the top of the agenda” as the government eases restrictions. She argued it is crucial to make “common cause” with others in different unions and campaigns fighting back.
UCU congress backed fights over racism, sexism, LGBT+ rights and climate change.
Delegates agreed that the union should encourage branches to “actively participate in student climate strikes and activities associated with CoP26”.
A motion warning that “shelving gender recognition reform has had further negative impact” on LGBT+ people was passed.
Bee Hughes from Liverpool said the motion aimed to continue “the long tradition that we have at UCU of self-ID for all members”.
“It’s about dignity and freedom for all LGBT+ people,” they said.
The motion committed the union to “develop branch action plans challenging the use of academic freedom arguments against LGBT+ people”.
Motions passed condemning structural racism and sexism in educational institutions and society. Congress called or the union to back workers fighting for reasonable workload adjustments for carers, overwhelmingly women.
A motion said that the pandemic, with lockdowns and closures of schools and colleges, has hit women hard.
It said the failure to fund social care during is “a threat to women’s rights” and that treating women as an unpaid labour reserve is “discriminatory”.
Delegates backed a motion calling on branches to work with their local Black Lives Matter group. They passed a motion resolving on all UCU branches “to build events organised by the TUC and Stand Up To Racism on Saturday 20 March”.
A three-day political festival