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Address by Simon Renton, UCU President

Address to UCU Congress 2014 by UCU president Simon Renton

Quotation Comrades and Friends

It is a great privilege to speak to Congress as your president and to have served in that role for the last 12 months.

I have travelled a long way to get here.  Not the distance from London to Manchester, which is not very far; I mean the distance from my Essex secondary modern school to where I am now. 

Simon Renton, UCU Congress 2014 UCU president Simon Renton addresses UCU Congress That I have made the journey on the shoulders of the teachers and lecturers who believed in me on my way makes this moment the greater to cherish.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Lord Adonis, the architect of Academy Schools, say that secondary modern schools were nothing more than warehouses for factory workers.  (Of course there were jobs for factory workers in the 60s and 70s)

After secondary school, I studied for my A Levels at Southend-on-Sea College of Technology, not very successfully, and then went to  work until the age of 27.

I should say that while I have spent most of my academic career in the history department at UCL, my working life up to 27 was an education too.

In my time I have been a Van driver 
Print worker, 
Computer operator 
London Bus driver  
and a 
Motorcycle Messenger in London

I learned my trade unionism in manufacturing industry and on the buses during the 1970s. 

I remember striking in support of the Dockers jailed in 1973, when we forced their release.

I remember when white miners from Yorkshire and engineers from the midlands joined those of us who worked locally to block the roads of Willesden Green and Cricklewood in support of the casually employed predominantly Asian workers at Grunwick.mass pickets.

And I remember the COAL STRIKE 1973.  Which was not just a strike of miners: they had the support of dock workers, road transport workers, rail workers and power workers.  Together the TU movement defeated the Heath Government 

It was not until the age of 27 that I was persuaded by two people - one a college lecturer and the other a Polytechnic Lecturer to give up my job as a bus driver to go to my local Poly. 

I will always be grateful for their help, advice and belief in me.

And I have often wondered how many others benefited from that belief in the power of education. 

What I do know is that I would not do that now! And I could not do that now!

I could not give up a secure job for the possibility that I would enjoy study and be successful at it. 

I received a grant; there were no fees; polytechnics were set-up to accommodate local people who chose to re-skill, re-train or have a second chance at education.

I was able to complete my course without the massive debts, which would be the case today.  Very few would feel able to make that change

I note in passing therefore, that while government Ministers say that we should all be prepared to retrain, they have made it almost impossible to do so!

This is especially shocking as those ministers, in governments of all complexions, who are destroying these opportunities; themselves paid no fees and received grants. 

Where there used to be a ladder of opportunity, ministers have kicked it away behind them, now people are expected to take a leap in the dark.

It is sometimes said that Tories have no ideology: 

They just hate working people; 
They hate the poor; 
They hate the sick; 
They hate the disabled and disadvantaged.

Is that an ideology?  I think it is! 

It may not be a very sophisticated one.  They do not talk much about class war; perhaps because they are too busy doing it.

So the class based attack on education and opportunity should not be seen in isolation.

  • NHS. 
  • Social and Community Housing. 
  • Decent Social Security and Unemployment Benefits. 
  • Decent state pensions. 
  • Safe working conditions. 
  • Full employment or over-full employment 
  • High quality education, open to all who can benefit from it and free at the point of use. 
  • Opportunities for social mobility.   

These are all under attack, under the cloak of the need for Austerity.

When the TUC produced the slogan 'Austerity isn't working' they were wrong! 

Well!  Yes it is! It is working as a mask for a World-wide assault on working people.,

The Austerity Drive is international and super-national.

Using the bankers' crisis (not created by working people) as a cover, as an excuse to attack us on a global scale.

Local Authorities , national governments, the EU, WTO, international bankers are cutting away at everything that makes a society civilised.

Financiers, bankers and their governments are trying to roll-back ALL the gains, all the advances that working people have made since WW2 - and even before that:

We should remember that  these advances were not willingly given to us by our bosses and our rulers! 
They were fought for by our mothers and our fathers, working through their unions!

They were achieved by the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us!

NOT by the Public school educated Liberals at the Guardian and at the BBC!

Attacks on the TU movement are part of this assault. 

Indeed, they are an essential part of this assault.

It was the TUs, who together, narrowed the wealth gap and the income gap, between the rich and the poor through the 1960s and 1970s. 

That is why our unions are attacked, undermined and legislated against by monetarist and neo-conservative governments. 

That is why they are attacked so viciously and so consistently in the press and on the radio and television.

Of course, the attack on trade union power is part of a planned attack on everything that stands in the way of neo-liberal, unregulated markets.   
Strong independent trade unions are a precondition for social democracy, let alone socialism. 

The destruction of all the things that make a civilised society:

  • can only be done if the power of the unions is broken
  • can only be done if working people, who are strong together can be atomised and thus weakened.

That is why we must all work together to build the union, to build the union movement. 
Only then can we stop the damage being done to our society. 
Only then can we begin to rebuild what has been lost,  
Only then can we move forward to make a society in which our children and their children can have access to the same opportunities that we had.

Congress, chairing this conference is the greatest honour of my political and trade union life.

I will endeavour to be fair to all and to respect every delegate's right to speak here on behalf of your members.

There is no such thing as a perfect Chair or perfect Chairing; so when I make a mistake, as inevitably all Chairs do, please be kind to me while you wait patiently for me to come round to your way of thinking.

Let me close by saying that my life history gives me one foot in further and one foot in higher education, in old and new universities and in teaching and academic related work.

I know and understand that our society needs both sectors and that both need each other. 

It is very clear that we are strongest when we can see and build upon what unites us; rather than the small differences that distinguish us from each other.

That is why I was such a strong supporter of merger between AUT and NATFHE.

It is only through unity and solidarity that this union can deliver on behalf of its members.

The people who helped and encouraged me, all those years ago exist in their tens of thousands in UCU.

Such people deserve a trade union that gives voice to their values and provides them with hope for the future.

Let us make this Congress a celebration of what our members do and a signal of our determination to defend them.

There are plenty of problems ahead of us, but I hope that we can approach them in the state of mind that Gramsci recommended for a good comrade:

"Pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will"'

Last updated: 29 July 2016