Dr Jo Grady, University of Sheffield UCU
I am running for General Secretary as an independent, grassroots candidate because I believe we have a historic opportunity to transform UCU into a force for positive change in education. Last year was a momentous year for the union. In FE, successful strikes have won historic wage gains. In HE, we stood firm against USS employers, forcing them to step back from enforcing detrimental pension changes. Our best victories have drawn directly on the expertise and enthusiasm of our members. But this union’s national campaigns still don’t address the realities of working in tertiary education today. As the only candidate in this election who works on the front line of teaching, research, and administration, I will make sure that changes.
Why I Am Running
Our union’s membership comprises people with strong expertise in education, and it is staffed by dedicated and committed people. But our union struggles to anticipate and respond to emerging issues. I want to embrace our knowledge and expertise as union members, draw upon this lived experience, and foster a proactive approach to meeting the challenges we face.
As a Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations I research trade union organizing; employment relations and regulation; successful industrial action; pay and casualization; and the causes of labour market inequalities. In the 2018 USS pension dispute, I played a vital role in organizing members by drawing upon my research and my skills as an active, experienced branch officer. In UCU, I have served as an elected member of the National Dispute Committee for the USS dispute, and I was recently elected with a huge majority to sit on the National Executive Committee (NEC). I understand these issues both through direct experience and professional expertise.
Putting Members First
In 2006, the same year that UCU was founded, I joined the union as a postgraduate student. Much has changed since then in post-16 education, sadly little for the better. Workloads have increased while investment in staff has dropped. Our sector is rife with deskilling and casualization. Our employers claim to be ‘international’, but they have not done nearly enough for migrant workers. Meanwhile, unsustainable expansion, facilitated by appalling governance and a lack of transparency in our institutions, has led to attacks on pay and pensions, management by metrics, and restructuring and redundancies. We need an industrial strategy to prevent this—we can’t just keep clearing up in the aftermath. If we don’t address the causes of these problems as well as treating the symptoms, further and higher education as we have known it will be remodelled out of existence.
We decided to work in education out of a sense of vocation—out of a powerful belief in the transformative opportunities of education, often because we experienced them ourselves. Education is an end in itself, but beyond that, education contributes to the health of our society. We must reassert our values in the fight for education and challenge the narrative that sees students and workers as raw material for a gig economy.
The environments which we work in are diverse and challenging. We teach in classrooms and community centres. We run vocational workshops with poorly serviced equipment. We work in prison unit classrooms with poor health and safety standards, as well as vanity project new builds that are not fit for purpose; from hot desks and library counters, as well as in lecture theatres and research labs. Whatever contract you are on or however long you have done those roles, we need to hear your voice.
My Plan for UCU
It’s time to open up new fronts in our national campaigning. Preventing cuts to pay and pensions is a start, but we need time, freedom, safety, dignity at work, as well as remuneration. This means fighting against precarity, discrimination, the Hostile Environment, stress caused by intolerable workloads, associated overwork, and the metric-fuelled managerialism that enables all these things. Reports, press releases, and lobbying aren’t enough: for each of these issues, we need to convert awareness-raising exercises into distinctive campaigns, campaigns into victories, and victories into lasting agreements that improve the conditions we work in.
Supporting and learning from branches:
I will secure resources to properly implement a responsive industrial strategy. This will include dedicated national ‘branch coordination’ officers whose role it will be to work with multiple branches, identify emerging patterns arising in the different nations and sectors, and co-ordinate responses from all elements of the union. That means sharing and publicizing information about casework, circulating advice about local negotiating tactics, and making robust, precedent-setting legal challenges. Fundamentally, it will help our national union decide when and what a national campaign on these issues should look like. These officers will bridge the gap between branches and the national union, and provide new mechanisms for converting local disputes into national ones.
We know from past disputes, including the recent USS strike, that as union members we are creative and passionate individuals. We are more than able to produce research-informed, and experience-based, solutions to the problems we face. I will trial member ‘task groups’ for specific issues facing the union, placing motivated and knowledgeable members at the centre of our national campaigning. Task groups will complement and advise our national committees, and give ordinary members experience and a voice. Our employers don’t always recognize or reward our expertise, but our union will.
Our members know better than anyone else what kinds of leverage they have in the workplace. By listening to them, we can complement traditional strike action, and seek ways to develop new and innovative forms of industrial action. We can boost and even win campaigns through mass boycotts, selective withdrawals of administrative labour, and actions that work with our students rather than targeting their contact hours directly. In particular, we need to draw on the power of members whose primary roles are not student-facing, including professional services staff and full-time researchers. Taking more diverse forms of action, that includes more of us, will leave us better placed to reach the 50% threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act, if and when we do need to ballot members for nationwide strikes.
Listening to members:
I don’t want to be a General Secretary you only recognise from an email signature. You will see me in your branch and region, on picket lines, and interacting with members via social media as well as with the press. Part of listening to members means meeting with them. I will establish regular regional and online General Secretary surgeries, where you can come and meet with me and other union officers, tell me about your experiences and worries, and ask me questions.
Vote for a colleague who will represent and support all of us:
I know the problems you face, because I face them too. I’m asking you to enhance our union’s excellent team by electing a candidate who has first-hand experience of this turbulent sector about which we care so much. A candidate who is a leading expert and researcher in the issues we face as a union and who has demonstrated their ability to communicate effectively and mobilise people to vote, and to win. We can change things in education. For ourselves, for our colleagues, and for our students. This election is the start of that change.