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Address from Vicky Knight, President

25 May 2019

Chair, comrades, Vicky Knight moving the president's address

And I want to start this address by paying tribute to and thanks to a number of people without whom, I would not have been able to undertake the role. Because there have been times when I wasn't quite sure that I could do it!

In true priority fashion, I have to start with my family, who have supported me throughout, with good grace and good humour and ok, perhaps just a hint of frustration... at having to listen to me moaning and dealing with my frequent absenteeism - but, I am very lucky because as true supporters of this great movement of ours, they gave me the space and time to do this job to the very best of my ability. Knowing that what we do as trade unionists makes the world of work, society and the labour movement a better place for all.

I want to thank UCU staff for doing such a great job - and for supporting me - you wouldn't believe their dedication and commitment to our union, And thanks for keeping me on the right path - because I attempted to stray on occasion - often knowingly!!.....

I thank all of you who have taken the time to disagree with me and challenge me - and there have been many!

Making me think and check - everything. Because we don't make good decisions without testing them, listening to each other's concerns about them and bringing things back when we have got things wrong. And we do get things wrong, because nobody is perfect, no ideology is faultless and never will be.

And as I now fully understand how challenging this role has been over the last 12 months, I want to wish Douglas a great year ahead as our President - I know he will do an amazing job as UCU president.

As well, I wish to pay tribute to all of those who have gone before me in Presiding over this great union of ours, its one hell of a job, and an honour and indeed a privilege - you do well to just coming out the other end in one piece and not too battered! I spoke to the first UCU president Linda Newman in writing this speech, about her first duty as president - and it appears to have been exactly the same as one of the latter of mine - standing on a UCU picket line in Harlow college - a wonderful experience we were able to share! I remember not just the numbers present and the noise or even the buffet! - but I met some fabulous young new UCU women members there who reminded me of what trade unionism really is. Passion, hope, unity and determination.

I myself can see the finishing post of this presidency and hope to get there with your patience and support this week.... Bear with me, I will make mistakes - we all do, but working together, we can get through this and create new policy and direction for our union and leave united by our collective will to make the lives of working people, of our members better as a result of our endeavours.

I want to thank Sally Hunt for her support - and for all that she did for this union as a GS. As I have made my way around the movement, I have realised the scale of her contribution and reach of her voice on not just the education agenda, but the International, women's, equality and social justice agendas too.

And I want to wish as much success and congratulations to the person following in Sally's footsteps. Because navigating the union through the past 12 months without an elected General Secretary (as Paul will tell you!) has made it really clear to me that whoever won the title would need our collective support. So as your President, let me congratulate Jo Grady, our new UCU General Secretary elect.

Now the election campaigning is over - let's be honest, it is not an easy job.

It is not going to be easy to keep together a union where we represent a diverse membership and frequently express conflicting political views over strategy and tactics needed to tackle the problems faced by our members. And on top of that you've got the small task of making sure the offices are kept open, the administration functions and the bills are paid.

So, whatever way you voted, we must acknowledge that the members have spoken. Let's be supportive as Jo gets up to speed, let's be kind when things go wrong, and let's remembers that 'leadership' in a trade union context is complex and not easily reduced to a convenient sound bite.

My term of office has given me the privilege of sitting on the TUC's General Council - as a lay member of a trade union. Sitting in the seats of my own past general secretaries, and trade union giants like Ken Cameron, Bob Crow, Rodney Bickerstaff.

But I also want to mention the sisters that have gone before me and sat at the TUC; who may not have wanted to be a general secretary or were thwarted by circumstances but have made a huge contribution in paving the way for those that follow.

Women like Florence Hancock, Ina Love and Brenda Dean.

Being your President has allowed me to Represent UCU on the Trade union coordination group, I have been the chair of the TUC's women's committee, been on international delegations with ETUCE, EI and the TUC - to Serbia, Taiwan, Greece, Spain, Belgium, Palestine and every corner of the UK, speaking on behalf of post-compulsory education, our trade union and workers world-wide, truly an honour. Meeting so many inspirational people from across the world bringing education and opportunities to the masses, against the odds - whether in Zimbabwe - against a regime, or in Palestine under occupation. Oases of hope and possibility, brought to us by international solidarity.

Our wins for members, whether on pay, workload, pensions or anything else have all been fantastic to have been a part of - because we have stood united when we have been threatened, we have come together in

solidarity when jobs or pensions have been threatened and like we did with USS, we will do the same for the TPS. United and strong.

But what has been the biggest thrill has been to stand shoulder to shoulder with our members on demo's, rally's marches and on picket lines, seeing the passion and drive of our members first hand, whether in deep snow on picket lines in Cumbria or Lambeth with our members, or in torrential rain on our Love our colleges march & rally with Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Raynor on top of a bus...... to have been part of this thing - so much bigger than ourselves - the trade union movement... as a member of this union - and as president of this union - has been an absolute honour.

I am a lifelong trade unionist - I have been a proud member of UCU for 9 years, teaching trade union studies at Manchester college - yet my trade union background comes from the Fire Brigades Union, where I spent a happy almost 20 years (for those trying to do the maths - I know, I don't look old enough!) - primarily as a firefighter in Merseyside fire and rescue service, which I joined fresh faced at just 19 years old, then later as a local, regional then national rep and officer of the 18 strong executive council of the FBU, as the first NEC member elected to represent women in the UK fire and rescue service.

A huge honour, yet often a lonely role - but one that made me - because I was made in the public sector, like many of you. Where I had free access to excellent schools, a free BTEC level 3 in my community college, free universal health services, free and accessible library services in my community, community centres, youth clubs and kids summer play schemes - all services that today, we would be pushed to access affordably, let alone free and locally. Because this Tory government has marketised our public sector and decimated our education services - driving a neoliberal coach and horses through our social and economic policies and delivered for the few and not the many....

Which is, in my view driving even harder our need for a labour government - working with strong, independent trade unions and the labour movement as a whole.

In the wider movement, UCU have played a fantastic part as a union is exposing injustice and demanding fairness and equality. In supporting the vulnerable and uncovering the oppressors - a role in which we can be rightly proud - however, if we are being serious about looking after the weak and the vulnerable, about really being for the many - not the few... then we need to talk with a single voice, a compassionate voice and a respectful voice - regardless of our differences.

We need to know who the enemy really is - and go for them together.. Because our unity is our strength, and without it, we have nothing.

To use our unity to defend the attacks on working people, on the weak and the defenceless, and give power to the demands that our communities are rebuilt and properly invested in. And that our educational institutions are at the heart of those communities... fully staffed, funded and accessible to all. With staff who are not exhausted, stressed, depressed and disillusioned by the career that they have chosen... at great cost...

Because corporate interests, the markets and capital have no place in education at primary, secondary or tertiary levels...

We need to Unite to defend staff who are driven to take their own lives in despair, and staff who work full time hours yet are driven to use foodbanks due to poverty wages and precarious systems of work. Staff who just want to support learners, deliver excellent education and research and not be made ill in their endeavours to do so.

And we need to unite to defend our welfare state, our public services, our NHS.

Alongside our Pay, our pensions and our right to organise our members, to assemble and to protest, to withdraw our labour and represent our members effectively.

Despite the Tory laws, the trade union act and a government hell bent on smashing our movement, our unions and our collective voice.

Well we need to send a message to those in power - we will not be pitted against each other, worker against worker. We see your lies.

We will not collude with your divisions by gender or race, or immigration status and will not allow those in despair to blame those being exploited... we see your lies. And we know who the enemy really is - as it is not our comrade or brother..

The savage cuts to our social fabric are exposing the damage... homelessness, in work poverty, increased mental ill health, the rise in racism and fascism and the rise of the far right, increased crime and reduced policing are not an accident. Neither are attacks on mosques and schools and a total lack of response to the bile and vitriol of the EDL, the Brexit party and Steven Yaxley-Lennon...

And all the while.....we see the few lining their pockets on the labour of the precarious many - whilst avoiding the taxes of the privileged...

Well not in our name - this has to stop...

We are trade unionists, socialists and internationalists

And on the international agenda, our union has so much to be proud of, we are a leader on the movement's world stage educationally, socially and politically. We have progressive policy and are proactive in our campaigns and our networking, our solidarity action and our outcomes.

Palestine, Turkey, Colombia, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, Cuba to name just a few of our focus areas internationally... of our contribution and our links we should be rightly proud. I have recently returned from a May day trip to the West Bank - Palestine, taking solidarity greetings to Isreali and Palestinian organisations striving for peace and had the honour to speak at the Palestine rally last week in London too.

Comrades, I've nearly finished - but I couldn't end on anything other than the importance of what we do, what you do - the inspirational, uplifting, door opening, liberating, redemptive power and vital importance of education.

I am a product of further and higher education, & lifelong learning - but don't let that put you off - many people achieve real brilliance!!

But Seriously - returning to education in my late 30's to enable a career change had a life changing effect - and that is what you do every day - change lives, facilitate opportunities and deliver the future potential of every learner that crosses your path despite the hand that has been dealt them- whether in a prison education classroom, in an adult and community education centre, in a college of further education or on a university campus...

You make the magic happen and for that comrades, you should be rightly proud.

Have a good conference, enjoy it, hands up the first time delegates..... I particularly look forward to hearing from each and every one of you!

Congress, to end - I couldn't finish without conveying my thanks, that of the NEC and I'm sure every one of yours to Acting General Secretary Paul Cottrell, who has - without notice and with the tiniest amount of resistance - but all the calm and authority and dare I say, hint of panache required of a general secretary - stepped into the role and kept us safe, functioning and as democratic as always!

Paul, our sincerest thanks...

With that congress, I move.

Last updated: 25 May 2019