What next for UCU and Jo Grady after strike ballot failure?

With one dispute won but another floundering, some believe lack of strikes could actually benefit UK’s main academic union in latest talks with employers, but others are preparing to try to unseat the general secretary in an election that promises to be a ‘referendum on last five years’

November 14, 2023
Montage showing UCU strike, placards with axe, Jo Grady, Saira Weiner, Vicky Blake and Ewan McGaughey
Source: Alamy/Shutterstock/YouTube montage

Anyone who has followed the UK’s main higher education trade union long enough knows that it tends to do its most important business after 5pm on a Friday.

Back on 17 February, as thoughts were turning to the weekend, a series of announcements began to trickle out of Carlow Street – the Camden headquarters of the University and College Union (UCU) – bringing a dramatic end to months of stalemate in the sector’s two long-running industrial disputes.

General secretary Jo Grady took to Twitter to explain in a video that there had been “significant progress” in talks with employers, with movement on a sector-wide pay review, zero-hours contracts and a pledge to look again at workloads.

What’s more, the improving finances of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) meant controversial cuts to academics’ generous pensions could be reversed, an outcome that had once seemed almost impossible.

For a moment it looked as if all the hours stood on cold picket lines had been worth it. But the victory celebrations barely lasted until Monday morning as Dr Grady began to face a growing backlash to her decision to cancel strikes before much of substance had been agreed.

The union ultimately opted for more drastic action, including a painful, five-month long marking and assessment boycott (MAB) that propelled its cause on to the front pages but also inflamed tensions within universities and lost participants thousands of pounds in wages while failing to move employers any further from what they had been prepared to offer in February.

UCU’s industrial action is at an end, for now at least, after it missed the 50 per cent turnout threshold in ballot results announced earlier this month. A surprisingly high proportion of those who did vote voted no.

“To some degree people are tired, but also it really wasn’t clear to a lot of people what would have been done with a new mandate,” said Michael Carley, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath and veteran UCU activist.

Duncan Adam, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University who specialises in industrial relations and is a UCU member, agreed. “There was a lot of criticism for how the mandate had been used previously,” he said.

“Members will make a cost-benefit analysis of whether the action is going to be worth the pain, and some probably came to the conclusion that UCU has not demonstrated enough tangible success that people felt they could go again.”

Discontent with Dr Grady’s leadership has been growing, with some branches passing no-confidence motions, and the ballot result has heightened calls for her to stand down.

The University of Sheffield lecturer’s five-year term ends next year, and three candidates plan to run against her: Vicky Blake, a past UCU president; Ewan McGaughey, former president of the King’s College London branch; and Saira Weiner, the branch secretary at Liverpool John Moores University.

Dr Carley said the election was being seen as a referendum on the past five years and Dr Grady’s chances of victory hung in the balance. “She seems to have lost the support of many people who were very vocally on her side five years ago, and who are now very vocally against her,” he said.

“The question is going to be, will they transfer their support somewhere else or will they not bother to vote? The biggest threat to Jo Grady getting re-elected is disillusioned former supporters who I think feel very let down by the contrast between how she ran for election and how things have turned out. To some degree Jo Grady 2024 is going to have to run against Jo Grady 2019.”

Dr Grady herself has called the ballot result “bitterly disappointing” and blamed “anti-strike” laws for preventing further action. She has started a consultation with a view to formulating a strategy on where the union goes next.

But much of the criticism of her leadership has focused on her apparent disregard for decisions made by the union’s internal democratic structures, such as the strikes pause and the delays in calling a ballot that could have kept the marking boycott going.

Ms Weiner, the candidate being backed by the UCU Left group, said democratic decisions made by UCU members had been “sidelined or ignored”.

“Arbitrary pauses to action, last-minute ‘opt-outs’ and the MAB’s effective abandonment without any deal on deductions left many members with a very bad taste in their mouths,” she said, adding that she wanted to see “members make the actual decisions in our disputes”.

Ms Blake, a widening participation officer at the University of Leeds, also plans to make democracy a central theme of the election. She said the union needed a change of approach to “move beyond personalities and internal divisions”.

“Our members have sacrificed a lot – they are looking for us to understand what’s gone wrong and that we have a strategy to win. One of the things that really motivates me is our members need to be heard and respected, and that is best achieved through deliberative consultation,” she said.

In his pitch for the leadership, Professor McGaughey, a law expert who took the USS directors to court over the pensions changes, also emphasised the need to restore democracy and better organise the union around a shared vision. “We must have fair pay and restore our dignity. So we need structural change and leadership change,” he said. 

Dr Grady has stressed that the lack of strikes has not prevented progress being made on pay and working conditions. She said employers – represented by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) – have expressed willingness to hold “extensive negotiations” on various issues. Annual pay talks are also due to begin again in March.

Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University, said the union’s bargaining position going into these talks would be weakened by the ballot result.

But “blaming everything on Grady rather misses the point”, he said, because the “problems in both the sector and the union are structural, not just about one individual”.

David Hitchcock, reader in early modern British history at Canterbury Christ Church University and a co-founder of the UCU Commons group, which is generally supportive of Dr Grady, said the pause in industrial action might actually bring more productive negotiations.

“When you are in a strike campaign, the major concern of all sides is resolving the strike. Now we have a moment free of some of the pressures strikes might bring, it could allow discussions to be a bit freer,” he said.

Dr Hitchcock said he understood why some in the union might blame Dr Grady for the things that had gone wrong, but, within the wider membership – and particularly among further education members – he did not feel there was a consensus building that she was doing a bad job.

Internal union politics would be a challenge for any leader, he added, but Dr Grady had been good at taking the fight to a wider audience, whether on the BBC’s Newsnight programme or at the Trades Union Congress.

Dr Hitchcock said he wanted to see UCU become more involved in the conversation about the sector’s finances, rather than just repeating claims that the sector was awash with cash.

“If I were her, I would say: ‘We have a whole set of national challenges that we need to get into a dialogue with whoever is going to be the government of the day,’” Dr Hitchcock said.

“If higher education trundles along as it currently is, we are in deep, deep trouble. That is a big conversation the union needs to be a part of. If she wants my vote, that’s how she would get it: tell me how we are going to be part of that conversation.”

A further factor in Dr Grady’s favour, Dr Hitchcock added, was that money saved in lower pensions contributions would just be starting to appear in people’s wage slips as they contemplated who to vote for in the election.

UCU’s pensions win was as much down to the markets unexpectedly shifting as it was to a relentless campaign that kept the pressure building. But the progress in this dispute also risks alienating those in post-92 institutions – who are not in USS – and younger academics, more concerned with precarity than retirement.

Manchester Met’s Dr Adam said the resolution of this dispute might also explain some of the drop-off in the ballot vote, because historically USS institutions had tended to deliver higher turnouts, and motivation to vote just on pay and conditions was lower because there had been little clear articulation of what victory might look like.

But, he added, employers should be wary that they might see more localised actions or individuals using internal complaints procedures or employment tribunals, now national strikes are no longer an option.

“Undoubtedly there are going to be a lot of employers who are very relieved that UCU has not got the threshold it needed,” he said.

“But the more erudite employers will realise these grievances have not gone away and actually there is a real danger here that they will see less-structured action, or more locally targeted action.”

UCU branches have had success in achieving local deals in the past, but it has tended to be at wealthier institutions, with others left with nothing, raising more questions about the future of collective bargaining.

Dr Carley predicted that a return to more piecemeal action after the ballot failure would have similarly mixed results.

“Some have already got pretty good deals and we will see some more of the same, where employers just want to settle things and maintain reasonably good relations. But some employers will go after their local branches; we know there are some who seem fairly determined to crush UCU.”


Pensioned up, paid down? The fight for better employment conditions in UK universities

February 2018 UCU members hold the first strike days over planned USS pensions changes

February 2019 Sally Hunt resigns as UCU general secretary, replaced by Jo Grady

November 2019 New strikes over pay and pensions begin, continuing across the winter months

March 2020 Industrial action put on hold as global pandemic forces university activities online, but debates continue

December 2021 Strikes resume, with 37 institutions obtaining mandates for action

April 2022 Cuts to USS pensions following controversial 2020 valuation take effect

October 2022 UCU secures first aggregated ballot win, paving the way for national strikes in November

April 2023 Marking and assessment boycott begins across UK universities

October 2023 UCU members formally vote to accept reversal of cuts to USS pensions and end five-year long dispute

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