Strategy, democracy and the GS election

UCU General Secretary-incumbent Jo Grady has made a number of claims in her election campaign.

In particular, she says that were she re-elected she would treat her strategy, as outlined in her manifesto, as being ‘endorsed’ by members, and expect all members of the union, including elected members of the NEC, to follow it.

This is profoundly undemocratic for obvious reasons.


The first problem with her approach is that the strategy itself cannot work. Any industrial strategy based on a limited industrial action programme set in advance is certain to fail simply because the employers will change their response depending on what the union does! The saying “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is attributed to Moltke the Elder, a German WWI general, but the point is well made.

You don’t need to look very far to see obvious examples. The strength of the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) in 2022 and the early part of 2023 lay in the fact that the employers did not know who was participating and therefore how to respond. On the other hand, the weakness of the MAB in 2023 came from the paralysis at the top of the union as Jo Grady and her supporters left members to hang out to dry over the summer.

Jo Grady herself had to abandon her ‘build now, fight later’ strategy in the summer of 2022 when rising inflation propelled members to support the #ucuRISING campaign.

Changing economic circumstances meant that it was politically unsustainable to advocate such an approach, and instead she had to call for members to vote to take action over pay. But she had no plan to follow through. She bypassed elected negotiations, agreed to stop negotiations over pay with the employers and tried to divert negotiations onto pay-related matters at ACAS.

Despite the rhetoric, Jo Grady has no militant strategy to defend our sectors. But worse, as a top-down leader who sees members’ industrial action as a walk-on-part in stage-managed actions, she struggles to adapt her strategy to face new challenges, such as the current employers’ offensive over jobs and conditions in HE. Moreover, it is profoundly mistaken to see industrial militancy as something which can be turned on and off like a tap. Union members will take action when they are confident they have a union leadership which listens regularly to members and which is capable of following a consistent industrial action strategy. But Jo Grady’s tenure of the General Secretaryship has been marked by stop-start inconsistency and demotivation of members.


The second problem with her approach is that it is undemocratic. Trade union democracy is far more developed than Westminster elections: elections take place annually, replacing half of the executive committees each time, and policies made at national union conferences are binding on the executive.

In our union the rule is simple: members make policy decisions, and executive committees carry them out. This rule applies to union branches and to the national executive committee structure of our union. Congress is binding on NEC and HE and FE Sector Conference resolutions are binding on HEC and FEC. Rule 18.1 says

18.1 The National Executive Committee shall be the principal executive committee of the Union, and shall be responsible for the execution of policy and the conduct of the general business of the Union between meetings of National Congress, and shall abide by decisions passed at National Congress, subject to the Rules. The HEC and FEC shall abide by and implement the decisions passed by their respective Sector Conferences.

By contrast, governing parties in Westminster make decisions in cabinet. In some cases, parties impose policies that were never in their manifestos. Famously, in 1997, following a landslide election, Tony Blair introduced £1,000 university tuition fees, in order to begin a process of marketisation of Higher Education, a proposal entirely absent from the Labour Party manifesto. One can point to numerous other examples!

What Jo Grady is demanding is a centralisation of power around her manifesto that is incompatible with the rules of the union. If she and her supporters wished to make her proposals they would be obliged to win a vote in a quorate union branch meeting, put the motion to Congress or Conference, and then win a vote in those meetings. She wants to bypass both members and debate.

The General Secretary has tried to impose her strategy on the union three times already, and whenever it has been put to a vote, she has lost heavily. Now she is trying to wrap it up in the mantle of her GS election campaign.

But a small proportion of members tend to vote in this election, and they do so by choosing between candidates, not detailed strategy documents. Her strategy has no popular support, hence her attempt to present a vote for her as a vote for her strategy.

If you have not voted yet in the elections, please do vote!

What is increasingly at stake in this GS election is not just a vote for different candidates, but a vote for the future of our union as a democratic and effective union..

Do we want a member-led union which builds on the best of our democratic processes, where the General Secretary does what members tell her to do? Or do we want a union where democracy is reversed, and the members are expected to do what the General Secretary wants?

The alternative

We need to face up to the reality of industrial relations in post-16 education. The days of partnership with management and quiet words in the ear of the Head of Personnel have long gone — if they ever existed. Vice Chancellors want to see “blood on the carpet” and a weakening of our union. They have shown they don’t care about students or the quality of their degree teaching or marking. Most Further Education principals don’t implement national pay offers.

Our pay and conditions are under assault by university and college employers thanks to increasing inflation on top of a toxic combination of market competition, division, and a race to the bottom.

We should not underestimate divide and rule. Not every member is made redundant simultaneously. Some may be prepared to take voluntary redundancy if they don’t see a prospect for a fightback. Not every member takes part in industrial action at the moment.

We need to develop a culture in our union which encourages members to meet together, stick together and participate in strikes together.

To defend our jobs and rates of pay, we must organise members at the grassroots of the union and build members’ confidence to take action. Crucially, this means being honest. It means not abandoning them when the chips are down. Our members need a leadership who will support them when they resist. This means following through on decisions when they are made, like reballoting over the summer.

We have to rebuild UK-wide disputes because otherwise we are forced into fighting over what every individual employer tells us they can afford. Our employers will plead poverty. This is a recipe for a Hobson’s Choice between jobs and pay. HE will become more like FE just as our FE colleagues are attempting to get national pay bargaining back on the agenda.

Nothing argued here is “against strategy”: rather UCU Left is opposed to counterposing the idea of a strategy to the task of real-world organising. In fact, a serious industrial strategy means organising to fight on the terrain where the employers are weak and we are strong. It means, for example, preparing the political ground for industrial action, such as targeting professional bodies accrediting courses before a MAB.

But the best way to guarantee members have confidence in an industrial strategy is simply this: they themselves must be part of developing it in practice under the changing conditions of the struggle.

This means increasing democracy. We need members to have democratic control of strike action and MABs, continually day-by-day, week-by-week, through the development of strike committees in branches, and, in national disputes, linked up UK-wide.

The basic principle that members who take action should control that action is unanswerable.

But this is not just a moral imperative. We should never underestimate our strength.

As a group of workers, we are immensely strong. Other people can’t easily teach our courses or mark our students’ work. If we increase participation in our action, we can be more solid and effective still. That is why the HE employers pulled out all the stops to try to break our action last summer, risking their public reputations and their wider employment relations with staff. It is why FE employers pay better levels of pay to members in better organised and more militant branches.

But for members to have confidence in collective action they need to control it.

In a truly member-led union, democracy and strategy go hand in hand.

One Reply to “Strategy, democracy and the GS election”

  1. I agree 100% with this analysis.

    It is also worth noting that Jo Grady has been using her position as GS to promote her own election campaign in communications to members. This gives her an unfair advantage over the other candidates who are only allowed two emails each to all members.

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