No retreat into a service union

A paradox in UCU’s leadership under General Secretary Jo Grady exists. Her leadership has been defined by the adoption of an ‘organising’ model championed by the writer and activist Jane McAlevey. Yet faced with intransigent employers the actual model being imposed on the union is one of retreat into servicing members until some day in the distant future when employers can be challenged. In the meantime, all that is offered is services, CPD and individual advice on workplace rights (though access to legal support for cases remains elusive).

There is no doubt that our employers are intransigent. UCEA’s recent press release UCEA update on talks completely contradicts the press statement released by UCU only hours earlier UCU – Update on negotiations with UCEA. There is no reconsideration on UCEAS’s part on the continuation of falling pay in the sector. Instead UCEA openly communicate their desire to fundamentally undermine the union’s power in “an urgent need to re-set industrial relations and … end the cycle of industrial action” 2023-24 New JNCHES pay round (

This should not have come as a surprise to UCU’s leadership and Jo Grady should have been astute enough to disbelieve everything that is not public and in writing. She claims to be an industrial relations expert after all!

Faced with such intransigence the union has two options. The first, to increase the pressure on employers until sufficient numbers split from the official UCEA line and enforce a more conciliatory approach to industrial relations in the sector. There is no doubt that many employers are unhappy with UCEA’s approach. The variation of punitive deductions ranging from zero to remaining permanent until marks are handed over is an express recognition of these disagreements. Other employers have gone further still. Queens University got expelled from UCEA for being naughty boys and girls by negotiating a local deal. 

But that pressure needs to be built upon. It isn’t static. Jo Grady, the majority of the HE Officers and her supporters in the HEC have refused to hold a HEC in July. This would have allowed a vote to implement the Congress decision for a summer ballot thus extending our existing mandate into the Autumn term. The General Secretary and HE officers also have powers to call a summer ballot without recourse to a HEC. Only Vice President Maria Chondrogianni was prepared to support this.  These are all acts of deliberate sabotage of our dispute by those at the top of our union.

The alternative to building pressure is to abandon the dispute. Jo Grady has set her course on driving the dispute into the ground as a result. Jo Grady has ensured members taking action are severely restricted in their claims on the hardship fund, in contradiction to policy passed at Congress. She has stopped campaigning for the Four Fights and has called no further action in September, which is possible under the existing mandate. When 20 members on the left of the HEC called for a HEC to vote on a summer ballot and even 19 of her own supporters called for an electronic ballot on her own strategy, she still chose to do nothing. Instead we hear that the union is on holiday, just like Tory Government Ministers; when needed, it is nowhere to be found. 

In order to push through her strategy Jo Grady has overseen the undermining of democratic control of the dispute and repeatedly ignored HEC and Sector Conference decisions. The strike committee made up of striking and MABing branches was never convened. The Branch Delegates’ Meetings aimed at determining strategy were never held and instead substituted with ineffective meetings issuing directives and recently MAB meetings unable to make decisions. Even these have now been cancelled. 

Unsurprisingly, UCEA have recognised this weakness and have offered nothing, refusing to return deducted pay from those participating in the MAB 2023-24 New JNCHES pay round ( Worse still, our employers wish to extend this intransigence into the USS negotiations by replacing the employers’ body UUK with UCEA at the USS Joint Negotiating Committee. Their focus is clear – lower contribution rates, not the return of benefits and compensation for losses. It took five years of our action to force employers and UUK to relent on the destruction of the scheme and now employers are looking at underfunding the scheme as a new way to ensure our guaranteed pensions are taken away. 

There is a £7.4b surplus in the USS scheme which the employers think is there for the taking. USS is our pension fund not a savings pot for employers to dip into on a whim. It could be used to improve benefits and address pension inequalities, such as the gender pension gap. Yet Jo Grady and her supporters have offered this up to employers. Jo Grady’s calls to ‘de-couple’ the two disputes weaken UCU’s campaign in both. Employers aren’t interested in de-coupling and instead what to ensure their desire to maximise their surpluses extends into all areas of HE.

Where do we go from here?

We have been here before with a weak UCU leadership and it requires action from below in branches and among activists to stop the employers and replace poor UCU leadership. We need to maintain pressure on employers by campaigning for financial support for all members participating in the MAB. Donations to branches and wage sharing must become systematic.  Branches need to organise to call strikes now for September under the current mandate. Employers knowing we aren’t ending the dispute, despite the weak leadership in UCU is crucial to force them to change tack. 

Finally, we also need to call to account the leadership of UCU by returning to the votes of censure and no confidence in the General Secretary presented at Annual Congress in 2022 and 2023 and re-assert the democracy in our Congress and Sector Conferences decision making. A new leadership is desperately needed in UCU. The General Secretary election takes place in 2024, along with annual elections for the NEC and HEC. Members can’t afford to have an incompetent General Secretary or a right-wing majority in the HEC.


After this article was drafted Jo Grady announced on Twitter a meeting to be called in 24 hours to discuss the calling of a special HEC. Our General Secretary is astute enough to know when her position is untenable, and due to the pressure from members she has decided to move. What was impossible yesterday is now possible. However, further delay is not needed. There is no point in calling a special HEC to vote to not hold a ballot. Unless you wanted to pass the responsibility for the failure to support members to others. The ballot needs to be announced immediately. There is still time to ensure the current mandate is almost immediately followed by a new mandate. Branches need to inundate HEC members with demands for a summer ballot and a decision-making BDM needs to be held prior to any HEC.


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