By Sophie Squire in Glasgow
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Anger at union leaders at UCU congress

The conference also opposed Nato's expansion and warmongering
Issue 2857
UCU union members strike at Soas in London, they hold pink placards, illustrating a story about the UCU congress

Workers at Soas university in central London on strike last week (Picture: Guy Smallman)

University workers in the UCU union voted to censure their general secretary Jo Grady at the union’s conference in Glasgow on Saturday. And Grady only avoided a vote of no confidence by a slim margin.

It’s another sign of workers kicking back against union leaders’ inaction and dismissal of members’ views. 

For over a year Grady has worked hard to derail and delay the dispute in universities over pay and conditions—and has used methods that many UCU members feel are undemocratic to do so. 

Conference delegates told Socialist Worker after the debate that speakers had mentioned “tactical mistakes, delays in balloting and statements that opposed decisions made by the democratically elected Higher Education Committee”, 

At a UCU Left fringe meeting on Saturday evening, university workers discussed what had happened inside the congress hall and debated the best way to fight back. 

Mark, from Brighton University, told the meeting, “Our leaders have started to use the term ‘democracy’ a lot more. But true democracy is about holding our elected leaders to account. 

“We didn’t win the motion to censure the general secretary at last year’s congress. But this year, something has shifted.”

Other activists in the meeting linked the censure vote to a broader discontent with union leaders. It follows the decision by nurses in the RCN union to reject a rotten deal — contrary to the wishes of union leaders. 

And in the CWU union, revolt against a deal recommended by union leaders has seen the ballot on it called off.

Others in the meeting stressed the need for workers to build worker democracy from the ground up, especially by building strike committees. 

Richard, a further education worker in East London, added that it’s not just workers in higher education who need to be bolder moving forward. 

“We need to take apart some of the political arguments that our union makes—arguments like we need to wait for a ‘super-majority’ to strike. I think waiting around like this doesn’t consider the period’s dynamism. 

“Members in further education want to fight. We need to look past the pessimism and conservatism of some of our union leaders and say we can.” 

As well as debating the present disputes, delegates also discussed other matters. Delegates passed a motion that, as well as opposing the Russian invasion, explicitly said no to sending arms to Ukraine and no to Nato expansion and escalation. 

Moving the motion, delegate Sean Vernell said, “Nato is not a defensive organisation. It is an offensive organisation. Pouring arms into Ukraine isn’t the answer.”

He added, “More arms to Ukraine isn’t about helping ordinary Ukrainians. It’ll only help the oligarchs and the bigots.” Other delegates said that supporting the anti-war movement in Russia was essential. 

Members of the UCU branch at the University of Leeds proposed an amendment to the motion. It took out part of the original motion that called for the government to stop arming Ukraine. 

It also proposed deleting the part of the motion which resolved to support protests organised by Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other anti-war organisations.  But the conference voted against these amendments that would have blunted the radicalism and anti-war stance of the original motion. 

The passing of this motion is a victory for the anti-war movement.

A motion was also passed to hold solidarity meetings with the people of Sudan, and continue to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. 

Delegates passed a motion to defend the right to boycott Israel. But union leaders cited the Tory anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions law, which has yet to be passed, to void this decision. 

Another motion that discussed breaking trade union laws, if necessary, was left off the agenda for the same reason. Delegates voted for this motion to be put back on the agenda. 

The first day of the UCU congress shows the tension between union leaders and the membership. Workers must continue to argue for democratic control of their union.

The crucial battles are now to continue to fight in higher and further education to protect and extend workers’ living standards and conditions.

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