By Dan Davison, Student Left Network BME rep and Cambridge UCU member

It’s been an eventful year for members of the University and College Union (UCU). After the disheartening experience of twice failing to meet the 50% turnout threshold for industrial action over pay in higher education, the incumbent General Secretary (GS) Sally Hunt stepped down for health reasons. This triggered a dramatic GS election, which the independent left candidate Dr Jo Grady won in a surprise landslide, picking up 48.7% of the vote in the first round and then 64% in the second. 

We in the Student Left Network (SLN) endorsed Grady because she was a rank-and-file worker-activist who rose to prominence during UCU’s national pensions strike in 2018, which was in large part the origin of our organisation. Although Grady’s election manifesto was impressive and we celebrate her victory, we need to think seriously about the as yet unfulfilled promise of the grassroots rebellion in UCU, which grew out of Hunt’s poor handling of the pensions strike last year and her shutting down of UCU Congress 2018 in response to motions critical of her leadership.

One of several activist networks to emerge from this rebellion is UCU Rank and File, which had its inaugural meeting in April 2018. Realising the significance of Grady’s victory, the upcoming ballots on pensions and pay this September/October, and the work still needed to make the union more militant and democratic, UCU Rank and File called for a meeting in Leeds on 30 June. Despite the short notice and the inconvenient time of year, approximately 16 people from various branches, jobs, and grades attended, including Student Left Network members in York, Loughborough and Cambridge.

We had a general discussion of where our power lies and how we should strike given the challenges we face in our sector and how our work is structured. For instance, how can we make it easier for casualised workers to strike? At which points in the academic year and working day would strike action have the most impact? What actions might we take to resist the border regime in which university staff are expected to participate via attendance monitoring and so forth? How do we coordinate the withdrawal of our labour with the actions of students and other unions?

In a session on positive examples of rank-and-file caucus victories that could prove instructive, I presented on how Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) pushed for democratic reforms within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Chicago Teachers Union respectively, and how these internal fights for union democracy directly fed into major, successful strikes. 

I also talked about the US organisation Labor Notes, which serves as an important national hub for rank-and-file activists across different unions and sectors, and explained why such an extensive network based around a regular publication, conventions, and ‘Troublemakers’ Schools’ is a model worth following in the UK. 

Additionally, Katy Fox-Hodess from Sheffield presented on Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a rank-and-file caucus for grad students in the University of California system. AWDU is very much in the same vein as Labor Notes, TDU, and the wider union democracy movement in the US, and has successfully pushed the university to accept open bargaining and various social justice demands.

We spoke at length about other pressing issues in the sector, including the drive towards online content with universities working in partnership with corporations. This has created dystopian conditions of precarity and alienation that reach even further than outsourcing. We also made proposals on how UCU Rank and File should function and on what we need to do practically, forming several working groups on such matters as casualisation, open bargaining, what we want the union and the education sector to be like, skills-sharing, and how to take effective strike action.

UCU Rank and File plans to meet again in September during the first few weeks of the new strike ballots. The meeting will probably take place in London. I also wish to draw attention to the event on 2 November being organised as part of UCU London Region’s #UCUTransformed initiative. This event aims to involve all the different left and grassroots networks in the union. In the long run, I believe it would be most beneficial for the different rank-and-file groupings to integrate into one large, formalised caucus that can transform UCU structurally and culturally from within.

The pay and pensions strike ballots are due to run from 9 September to 30 October. In the meantime, I encourage student activists in and around UCU to join and assist UCU Rank and File’s working groups. The student movement has many years’ worth of ideas of what education should look like and, in any event, we should build closer links between students and workers on campus so that we can coordinate our fight against marketisation, border controls, and other ills in our sector effectively.

If you’re a UCU member and want to get involved, email