One month on: what does the election of Jo Grady mean for UCU?

One month ago today, Jo Grady was elected as our next General Secretary. Three activists tell us what they think this means for rank and file voices in the union and for our prospects of beating back the employers’ assault? Send us your thoughts:

Lesley McGorrigan, Leeds University UCU Campaigns Officer, Yorkshire & Humberside Regional Secretary, National Executive Committee member (2019/20)

Jo Grady’s election as UCU’s general secretary (GS) is to be celebrated; it symbolises the transformation within our union triggered by the USS strikes.

Eighteen months ago, without agreement from our elected bodies, the then GS, Sally Hunt, promoted a yes vote on a sub-standard USS proposal. One year ago, Hunt and the bureaucrats surrounding her felt confident to trash our democracy by walking out of 2018 Congress.  They even sabotaged the sound system to prevent delegates debating motions criticising Sally’s conduct and calling for her resignation.

One year on, Jo Grady, a rank and file candidate, a product of the USS strikes, has been elected GS on a left platform. Many had assumed that Hunt’s right hand man, Matt Waddup with a long career as a union official, would win.  Seventy four percent of members voted for one or other of the left candidates on an unprecedented turnout. This shift is a direct result of the increased member engagement during and since the USS strikes.  This gained us 16,000 new, young, diverse and energetic members. This mood has inspired FE where a wave of lively pay strikes have recently won victories.

This transformation in the union was reflected throughout the recent 2019 Congress. The grouping to the right of the union, the Independent Broad Left, appeared subdued.  One of their motions which, if passed, would have reduced FE representation, attracted only its author to vote for it! The debates were full, friendly and fruitful with a healthy degree of unity amongst the supporters of the two left candidates who had contested the election. Jo McNeill, the candidate of the organised left who I voted for, delivered a message of solidarity and support to Jo Grady, in the face of criticisms from the Daily Telegraph.

If the left can maintain this unity, we have a lot to gain in the months and years ahead.  We can transform our neoliberal universities and colleges and challenge the ‘hostile environment’ imposed upon staff and students. I voted UCU Left as my 27 years in the union has taught me that we need to be organised. When I observe what Corbyn is subjected to from the determined right in his party, it is clear that a disciplined, united left is necessary to avoid being crushed by the custodians of the status quo. I look forward to being part of that unity.

Andy Williams, Media and Communications Officer, Cardiff UCU

Before 2018 I was never the most active or enthusiastic union activist. I was a department rep, I voted when asked, and I observed industrial action (even that time UCU tried to weaponise the extended lunchbreak with a series of cringe-worthy two-hour strikes over pay). The USS strike changed all that.

Significant numbers of us became much more active, and have been through an intense process of political education. The union, at branch level at least, felt less like a service provider and more like a space for active, member-led campaigning. The manner of our collective strike action in defence of pensions has since boosted our branch-level struggles over dangerous workloads, the scourge of casualization, fighting cuts, and resisting redundancies.

The participatory spirit of the strike showed us what we can do when proper numbers of our uniquely diverse, expert, influential, and persuasive members stand together and use their skills and knowledge to improve our collective lots.

Jo Grady, for me, is one of the individuals who most embodies and represents that spirit, and her manifesto presented a convincing and exciting plan for making UCU into a different kind of union, one which is a more democratic, collaborative, credible, and militant fighting force.

We face huge challenges, no doubt. Our Universities and colleges have never been more marketised, our members more over-worked or relatively under-paid, our students more positioned as consumers in the classroom and competitors in an unjust and precarious job market.

But with Grady as the gaffer, buoyed by a re-energised and bolshy rank-and-file, we’re also better positioned than ever to fight back and improve further and higher education in the UK. And in doing so, we’ll also be giving our students a different kind of education: one which leads by example and shows how solidarity, mutual aid, and collective resistance for the common good gets results, even when the odds are against you.

Marian Carty, President, Goldsmiths UCU

The election of Jo Grady, in a record turnout, as UCU’s new General Secretary heralds the beginning of a new era for the union. with members resolved to fight the attacks on Prison, Adult, Further and Higher Education.

We have seen transformative and unprecedented resistance in both further and higher education over the past two years.  The campaign in Further Education for better pay and conditions continues with strikes taking place throughout the country,resulting in a number of significant victories. There can be no let up as more and more colleagues are at risk of redundancy, and colleges, such as Stourbridge College are threatened with imminent closure due to asset stripping employers’  incompetence.

The debates at this year’s congress showed that members are united in their resolve to mount campaigns to fight the privatisation and commodification of tertiary education in all the nations of the UK.

There is so much to do. Continued threats to the USS pensions and renewed attacks on TPS, will mean stepping up pensions action in higher education. This includes GTVO for a USS strike ballot next term, should the employers persist with their intention to raise our pension contributions again in October.

Congress voted decisively for BAME and gender pay gaps to be addressed in this climate that sees increasing far right narratives coming to the fore. This must be accompanied with resolute and imaginative campaigns to fight the curse of increasing casualisation of education, redundancies  and excessive workload. Our refusal to go along with employers efforts to worsen our pay and conditions in preparation for further privatisation of our sectors, is crucial if we are to defend public education for future generations of students and university workers.

Jo Grady ended her speech with these words ‘…we are one union now, from professional services staff to prison educators, from the regions and nations to Carlow Street. We are the people who will stand up for tertiary education and research in this country, and we have each other’s backs.’

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Some media reaction

FE week, 24 May 2019

FE Week, interview with Jo, 9 June 2019

TES, 24 May 2019

TESinterview with Jo, 27 May 2019

Times Higher, 24 May 2019



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