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Employers 'too cowardly' to stand up for education, Jo Grady says

1 June 2021

Speaking at the union's annual congress, held online due to Covid-19, UCU general secretary Jo Grady paid tribute to members for standing up for education and criticised employers who 'care more about business than they do the business of education'.

Jo said the government was 'full of shameless liars' who rely on employers that are 'too cowardly' to stand up with UCU members and fight for education. To overcome these obstacles, the union had to be focused on 'organising to win' in workplaces.

The speech, Jo's second to Congress as general secretary, covered the many successes at branch level over the past year, including at Aston, Heriot Watt and Goldsmiths; as well as the groundbreaking work UCU is doing to create a more trauma informed approach to casework to better support survivors of sexual violence, the new ways UCU is engaging members, and the continuing battles over health and safety, casualisation, pensions, and workload. Jo said these challenges could only be won through organising and growing the union.

Jo went on to blast government for its failures during the pandemic and said UCU was one of the few voices fighting throughout the crisis to keep workers safe. She said that while UCU was calling for in-person teaching to be halted to prevent a second wave, the whole political establishment was siding with prime minister Boris Johnson and against workers. Nevertheless, she said the union's position was crucial to saving lives and the government finally admitted UCU's stance was the right one.

Jo also paid tribute to Donna Coleman, a UCU member and dedicated teacher who tragically passed away after contracting Covid-19. Donna died after UCU raised Covid-19 safety concerns. Jo said far too many workers have contracted Covid-19 due to the incompetence of this government and employers during the pandemic, but that UCU would continue to work tirelessly to ensure the same mistakes will not be repeated.

Jo ended by pointing to the massive struggles ahead: 'We have attacks on the arts and humanities. We have attacks on adult education. We still need to get prison education renationalised, and our campaign to rebuild FE is more pressing now than ever. But friends, I want to end this address as I started, the dedication of UCU members to fight these fights, to stand by each other - whether that's our colleagues, our students, or the victims of the Home Office.'

*Full speech

This weekend 2 years ago I had the immense honour of being elected general secretary.

My first duty was to give my inaugural address as GS elect to congress in Harrogate.

None of us could have possibly known that meeting would have been the last coming together of all parts of the union for at least 2 years. A lot has changed since May 2019, and the road ahead remains bumpy, but I continue to be inspired by the dedication of UCU members to building - not just better workplaces in their sector - but better communities, and a fairer, more just society. I remain more confident than ever that our union is on the right path.

Why do I think it is on the right path?

It is on the right path because of every member we have recruited since I first addressed congress in 2019.

It is on the right path because of every campaign we have won.

Every student that has backed us.

Every job we have saved.

Every risk assessment we improved to ensure workplaces were safer during the pandemic.

Every university, college, and prison educational setting where we were able to keep more activities online during the peak of the pandemic, and keep our members as safe as possible.

It's on the right path because of the thousands of members who have undertaken some form of UCU training or education during the pandemic: from health and safety training, to organiser training, to our new, member-led courses on racial justice and decolonisation.

It's on the right path because of every first time delegate here today.

Every first time branch or committee officer, every ballot we have won, that has stopped a disastrous management decision during the last 12 months. And friends, there have been many of these successful interventions.

It is on the right path because over the last 12 months our union has not only adopted a more strident and ultimately correct position on this pandemic than any other union, but because during that time our union has run and won more industrial action ballots than any other union in the UK.

It's been an incredibly difficult period for education, but every positive thing that has happened in our departments, our workplaces, our sectors, has been because of you.

This union is you and the things you do.

It isn't me. It isn't our buildings. It is you.

It is the effort you put in, the energy you bring, and the capacity we collectively have to bring people along with us, and convince them that it us who have the answers, and it is us who must be listened to. But we don't do that by division and domination - that is what our employers do - and it has no place in the trade union movement.

We do that by building allegiances, by talking to people, by working with those who sometimes we have disagreed with, by building strong campaigns. And as UCU members you have done this better than anyone else during the pandemic.

The odds are more stacked against us now than ever. We have a government full of shameless liars who know they can act with utter impunity because they are exempt from ever facing the consequences of their actions.

We have employers who are either too cowardly to stand up for education and fight with us, or worse still, are supportive of the worst in government because they care more about making education a business than they do the business of education.

This is why we have to be organised. We have to be strategic. We have to be deliberate. And we have to be united.

We will win nothing by accident. We will only win by sticking together, building our numbers, executing well planned campaigns, and organising to win.

Victories - little or small - will not be delivered by luck. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts when you want to achieve long lasting and structural change.

You may not always have had faith that the union's elected leadership would always fight the battles members know are important. I know during my time working in higher education I sometimes was frustrated with a sense of a disconnect between what we wanted in our branch, and what we saw happening in other parts of the union.

But the union and members are one and the same. The union exists to help members organise around collective goals and win, and we all have a role to play in that.

I hope you have seen that over the last 12 months you can rely on me to work tirelessly for our union. This can be seen in the monumental support that has been given to branches and sectors who have balloted. In the political lobbying we have done. In the extensive media work we have done. But also in the way we're changing our approach to casework, too, to ensure members are supported better. Just this week we have agreed to fast track establishing a new and separate process for members who are survivors of sexual violence to seek guidance and help, and our first ever member led task group (a group that was recruited and has met during the pandemic) is due to conclude next month. I really believe we will be the union leading the movement on this issue, and how we respond to it, and ultimately how we eradicate it.

And so, I hope that whatever the issue is, you trust both myself and the staff to continue doing what we believe is best, most strategic, and most likely to deliver success.

I'm sure you'll agree that even during the pandemic - a year when we were all asked to do things with no blueprint - our union responded amazingly.

Nobody in UCU needed to hear Dominic Cummings's sickening testimony earlier this week to know that the government had no plan, and carried on regardless knowing people would die. We lived it.

We didn't need to hear it because from August last year we were one of the first voices calling for the government to take necessary action to prevent a second wave - and stop the return of face to face activities. We backed the safety of UCU members at a time when the entire political establishment instead chose to back Boris Johnson and put faith in his deadly incompetence. Our union spearheaded a policy of online learning which was crucial to saving lives, and would eventually come to influence others to follow suit.

We even launched legal action against the Westminster government to ensure that come January they wouldn't make the same mistake again, and cost countless more lives. We were successful in getting them to admit they were wrong, and change their minds about full-scale reopening in March and April this year. And we will do the same again if we have to.

We adopted a position on health and safety that many other unions who organise in our sectors refused to initially join, a position that the government and our employers refused to recognise was the right one. But one that was ultimately demonstrated to not only be the correct choice for workers, but the correct scientific choice to keep everyone safe.

So whilst I want to remind you that congress is of central importance to our union because it is where we democratically agree our policy, as 2020 demonstrated, we can't control everything, and I hope that the actions of your union this year has demonstrated that when it comes to it, we have the best staff, the best members, and the best instincts of any union about what needs to happen, and you can trust that your elected representatives will do it.

Before I move on from health and safety I want to pay tribute to our UCU Novus prison branch who are currently still fighting a health and safety dispute, having become the first prison educators to get a mandate for industrial action since the 2016 TU Act. I spoke about the importance of prison education in my 2019 address, and I've been so proud of everything our prison members have achieved this year - including a 50% growth in membership in that sector. The whole union stands with you in this dispute.

I also want us to pay tribute to Donna Coleman. A dedicated teacher, UCU member, and tragic victim of Covid. Far too many workers have died from Covid due to the incompetence of this government and employers, who did not take this virus seriously. Some of you will have learned about Donna's tragic death in the Guardian. I'm sure you would all like to join me in extending our deepest sympathy and condolences to Donna's family. I also want to reserve special praise for Marie Monaghan, our regional support official in the north west who worked tirelessly to raise the alarm at Burnley College, and has continued to work tirelessly still to ensure the same mistakes will not be repeated.

Sometimes I get asked what made me run for GS. A relative nobody, with no previous experience or ambitions of holding any kind of elected office other than being a rep and officer in my UCU branch. And the answer is remarkably simple, I looked at what was happening to education and decided I wanted to channel all my energies into changing it.

I wanted to ensure that the system that gave a working class lass from Wakefield the opportunity to be the first in her family to do A-levels. The first to go to university. And then herself become part of the professional community charged with the privilege of offering those life changing, transformational opportunities to others, could still exist and thrive. That it is championed and fought for. That we don't allow managers to attack us or our students. And we don't allow Tory governments to chip away at our funding, and our right to dignity and integrity. I remain as committed to that as I was 2 years ago when I first addressed congress.

And I remain utterly inspired by UCU members and the lengths they will go to protect themselves, their students, their sector, the idea of education as a public good, and the notion that our employers should treat staff with dignity and respect.

Branches fighting right now deserve recognising by congress today, so can we please give a virtual round of applause for Liverpool UCU, currently on strike against the use of bogus metrics to make staff redundant, and for Leicester UCU, currently engaged in ASOS, a global boycott, and about to commence strike action shortly. For members at Kent, London South Bank, Chester, Kingston, Portsmouth, Roehampton, and Sheffield University, RCA where our members are fighting against a number of issues, ranging from brutal cuts to humanities subjects and attacks on staff. And for Warwickshire UCU who are protesting against the slashing of early years and adult further education provision. These branches - and more - are taking action against some of the most egregious practices any of us have seen in the sector, and they all need our support, because if we tolerate what is happening there it could be anyone else next.

And let us celebrate Heriot Watt, Goldsmiths, Central Lancashire, Aston, Brighton, UEL, and United Colleges Group in London, who have all recently made progress and won victories in local disputes about restructures and redundancies. You've all shown your managers that they cannot come for you, and if they do they will have a fight on their hands. We also cannot forget our courageous FE members in Northern Ireland who are engaged in industrial action - demanding better pay and professional recognition. Our FE members in Wales who have won a seriously impressive deal on pay.

Well done to all involved in those endeavours. And speaking of organising our communities for the greater good, I want to give a special mention to our Scottish members. A higher proportion of Scottish members than any other UK nation have enrolled on our Organizing For Power courses, and the community activism that will be essential in winning future battles was evident in the overwhelming response we saw on Kenmure St in Glasgow, when Priti Patel's immigration van arrived, but the residents of Glasgow didn't let it leave until that van was empty. I was incredibly proud and - I'll be honest emotional - to see so many UCU Scotland members and branches right at the centre of that direct action. I believe it was even Strathclyde UCU's megaphone that was used - proving yet again, it really is the gobbiest branch!

We have massive struggles ahead. We have attacks on the arts and humanities. We have attacks on adult education. We still need to get prison education renationalised, and our campaign to rebuild FE is more pressing now than ever. But friends, I want to end this address as I started, the dedication of UCU members to fight these fights, to stand by each other - whether that's our colleagues, our students, or the victims of the Home Office, I know we are on the right path. Things may never have felt harder or darker than they do now, but this union has never been more unified or prepared to face those challenges and win.

Last updated: 2 June 2021