New Directions? University and College Union elect Jo Grady General Secretary

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady

In May the University and College Union (UCU) elected a new General Secretary, Jo Grady. Grady is the first General Secretary with first-hand experience as an education worker since UCU was formed in 2006 from the merger of the AUT and NATFHE unions. She rose to national prominence as an activist within the wave of strike action in 2018 over attacks on the USS pension scheme, and helped to found the independent ‘USS Briefs’ publication. The USS strikes were notable for the level of grassroots mobilisation and brought a wave of new members into the union, including many on precarious fixed term or hourly paid contracts. Grady made resistance to the growth of precarious work a central issue of her campaign – in 2016/17, 50.9% of academic staff in UK universities were employed on an insecure contract.

Grady won 48.7% of first preference votes and 64% after allocation of second preference votes, on the highest turnout in UCU’s history. Her opponents were Matt Waddup, a longstanding union bureaucrat and current National Head of Policy and Campaigns, and Jo McNeil, who focused her campaign on her experience doing casework, an important but individualised and therefore politically limited aspect of trade unionism, alongside a fairly apolitical and defensive advocacy of strike action. Waddup was the continuity candidate par excellence, and was implicated in helping to shut down dissent at the 2018 Congress. McNeil was the candidate of the UCU Left faction, closely associated with the SWP.

Grady lacked the established political machines of either of the other candidates, but inspired thousands with her overtly political manifesto, which promised to radically democratise the union – including introducing a right to recall for the General Secretary and making union funds more accessible to the membership – and to confront the racist ‘hostile environment’, surveillance and securitisation within education. Grady is a member of the Labour Party but publicly opposes affiliation by UCU, pointing out quite correctly that as a small union it would have no real influence over Labour Party policies. Her manifesto argues UCU members must not:

‘depend on wishing and waiting for a transformative social-democratic or socialist government…. As things stand, we cannot trust any parliamentary party to do the right thing on the issues that matter to us, like immigration and border controls, Brexit, or direct funding of education and research…. We need a practical roadmap to building our own power, regardless of the larger political circumstances we find ourselves in.’

Grady’s election demonstrates that the proletarianisation of previously privileged sections of workers has the potential to foster mobilisation and radicalisation. Grady will doubtless come under tremendous pressure to rein in her politics and become a more traditional and ‘safe’ General Secretary. Within 24 hours of the election result The Telegraph had already launched the first attack, giving a platform to a succession of ‘academic feminists’ who hate Grady because she stands in solidarity with trans people. The question now is whether rank and file members of the union can seize the opportunity created by Grady’s election and build sufficient independent power to keep the promise of her manifesto alive.

Tom Vickers


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