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We shouldn’t be suspending action but pushing for escalation, argue Counterfire UCU members

After eagerly awaiting news of the recent negotiations over pay and pensions with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and Universities UK (UUK), the University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, has emailed members to inform them that, ‘In the spirit of attempting to reach agreement’, UCU and sister unions have ‘agreed to intensive negotiations between now and the end of January, with further negotiations continuing into February and beyond as required’.

This was followed by a second email which, following several weeks of obfuscation from head office, publicised the Higher Education Committee’s (HEC) democratically agreed strategy for escalation in the new year: a marking and assessment boycott to begin in January, and an all-out strike and indefinite strike action to begin in February. 

Whilst promising members that she fully supports the marking boycott and that the union is putting the necessary ‘plans in place to implement these decisions’, oddly, Jo Grady is also proposing ‘some alternative strategies’ that, in her view, ‘offer us a better chance of delivering change in our sector’.

However, many of Grady’s proposals are stating the obvious, such as working with other unions, increasing membership and building the fighting fund. Most trade unionists will readily agree that these sorts of activities are among the bread and butter of the labour movement, regardless of factional differences over means and ends.

Besides, UCU leadership has had ample time to think about each of these strategies, especially fund raising, which ought to have been a number one priority long before now.


More problematic is Grady’s suggestion that the union escalate the dispute ‘with blocks of action’ in February, March and April. Whilst there are various disagreements about the HECs decision to call indefinite strike action, these debates ought not be pre-empted by the general secretary going over the heads of the union’s elected bodies.

Indeed, it is the unilateral nature and timing of Grady’s email in which she seeks to bypass the union’s (otherwise collective) decision-making processes, that have caused widespread consternation among the membership.

UCU Rule 28.2 clearly states that ‘the General Secretary shall act in accordance with the instructions of the National Executive Committee’ (NEC), from which the HEC draws both its representatives and authority to implement union policy decided by National Congress and Sector Conferences.

It is not within the General Secretary’s remit to ride roughshod over these democratic structures.

Gifting employers the advantage

Even more alarming is the accompanying MTV like video in which Grady publicly reveals the union’s bargaining hand, its limited resources and internal divisions for all to see, including employers.

Worse still, the video was released barely an hour before UCU negotiators entered into a second round of talks with UCEA and UUK, and the union‘s negotiators had no prior knowledge that the general secretary planned to deviate from the agreed brief at the eleventh hour. It’s no surprise that employers then offered nothing at the negotiations.

This is an errant departure from the usual rules of engagement and negotiating tactics, particularly as the terms and conditions of the dispute are beginning to sharpen. A good many UCU members have angrily protested that the inevitable differences over future strategy ought to have been debated internally and that Grady’s video has gifted employers the advantage.


Whilst much of the union’s use of social media has been positive in recent months, helping to raise the dispute’s visibility and combat the mainstream media’s anti-trade union conservativism, there’s also a danger that the leadership are confusing media strategy for industrial strategy.

Additionally, the leadership ought not use the union’s official social media platforms for factional gain. A cursory glance at the UCU Twitter account would suggest that it is being used to reinforce Grady’s point of view.

Though it’s true to say that general secretaries can and have inspired the movement, equally, individuals are but one cog in the wheel of political struggle. As once noted by the inestimable Jimmy Reid, it’s a co-relationship insofar as ‘you influence the mass movement; the mass movement influences you’. In short, beware the follies of self-seeking egotism and the cult of personality.

Ghosts of disputes past

What’s more, it wasn’t that long ago when Grady (and what is now the UCU Commons faction) rightly criticised Sally Hunt’s (then UCU general secretary) highhanded shenanigans during the 2018 negotiations, which resulted in the rank-and-file membership demanding that the leadership don’t capitulate and, arguably, Grady succeeding Hunt as the union’s most senior official.

And yet, not unlike Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, it would seem that the retrograde spirit of a UCU past is once again haunting the corridors of Head Office in Carlow Street. 

UCU members ought not be beguiled by backward-looking spectres that remind us of the old machinations of the UCU bureaucracy. This risks undoing all the hard work and solidarity building that branches have been doing over the last few years.

Pushing for escalation

Finally, what you don’t get from Grady’s video is that we have just delivered the largest mandate for action in the union’s history. That we have just had three very successful days of action. And that members are angry at the continuing erosion of pay and working conditions. 

We shouldn’t be suspending action and allowing the bosses to move the debate onto future pay rounds. This is the time for concerted action to push for an improved deal on this year’s claim.

Instead, Grady has unnecessarily polarised debate in the union. She has acted in a completely undemocratic manner. Appeals over the internet are not what democracy in a union looks like.

It’s now imperative that, in every branch, mass meetings are held where members can argue for a strategy to win. This will involve the marking and assessment boycott, a full implementation of ASOS and strike action to force employers to confront the overwork crisis in the sector and give us the pay award we deserve and need.

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