The Canary speaks to (hopefully) the next general secretary of the UCU

  • Post last modified:February 27, 2024
  • Reading time:6 mins read

The University and College Union (UCU) is currently in the process of electing a new general secretary. Whoever wins will replace the incumbent Jo Grady. One of the candidates is Vicky Blake. She is a longstanding UCU member, having served in various role right up to UK president.

The UCU has been mired in controversy in recent times – from scaling back industrial action at a time when it was sorely needed to poor decision making via questions over how the union and Grady engaged with members on social media. It would seem that a new face at the helm of the UCU is sorely needed – and Vicky could well be that person.

So, the Canary spoke to her about her bid to become UCU general secretary.

Vicky Blake: the next general secretary?

Vicky explained to the Canary:

I’ve decided to stand for General Secretary of UCU because I believe that our union needs a change in leadership and a new approach, and I am confident I can facilitate the positive changes we desperately need.

I’ve been active in the union since 2009, representing members at every level, from local branch rep to my election as UCU’s UK President. This means I understand first-hand the hard work it takes to organise, campaign, and negotiate locally and at sector level.

I am conscious that many members outside pre-92 universities feel that their concerns have not been amplified or centred in our campaigning. I want to be a General Secretary for all members in the post-16 education sector: workers in Further Education; Adult and Community Education; Prison Education; and Higher Education.

Serious, but not insurmountable, issues in the UCU

Vicky also noted that:

I was unsurprised, sadly, that the most recent ballot of members in Higher Education failed to meet the 50% threshold imposed by the anti-trade union laws in this country. We have also seen mixed results with respect to turnout in recent ballots across our Further Education branches.

This is not because members feel their pay and conditions are acceptable, but because the current approaches to decision-making in the union has led to an erosion of trust and confidence.

Our membership numbers have fallen in the last five years to just below where we were before the last General Secretary election (in 2019).

Relationships between our union’s staff (represented by Unite UCU) and its leadership have seriously broken down. This is evidenced by a recent referral to the Health and Safety Executive, and a recent dispute over proposed reductions to staffing in a key anti-casualisation campaign.

These issues are of very serious concern given that one of the key roles of the General Secretary is the management of staff.

Overall, she said:

These issues are serious, but not insurmountable.

I offer a cast iron commitment to ensuring that UCU models the practices and principles upon which the trade union movement is built: an adherence to democratic structures, decision-making, and accountability; a renewed focus on organising; and fighting for a better workplace for every member.

This means driving forward the implementation of members’ collective decisions. I value the work of the dedicated reps and activists who take on casework, negotiations and campaigns at local level, and these efforts are integral to the success of any action.

Doing things differently

There are numerous things Vicky would do differently if she was elected UCU general secretary:

Years of involvement with the union at national level have taught me that we need a more horizontal and deliberative system of decision-making with time and space for branches and our elected bodies to discuss ideas together prior to voting.

There is a place for electronic surveys of members, but I don’t feel that replicating the kind of shallow e-surveys we see in our workplaces represents the kind of democracy that unions were built to champion. A consistently plebiscitary approach simply individualises what should be collectively made decisions based on a shared understanding of the implications and consequences of possible courses of action.

We need more members to feel able to become more active in our union, and to recognise the breadth of experience and skills that widening participation in activism will bring. This means giving practical and consistent organising support to branches to maximise member engagement and to facilitate open and equal conversations between members and officials.

She also made a point about how a union leader should behave:

A General Secretary has an obligation to listen to critical voices and to engage with members and factions that may not agree: we cannot erase our differences but we need to view disagreement as a starting point for arriving at stronger positions.

I do not view members as opponents to be managed or attacked on social media. We need to restore our union as a place of mutual support and care, and I will do my best to facilitate understanding and to bring people together in contrast to the friction and polarisation that is currently holding us back.

Not taking for granted UCU members’ sacrifices

Vicky said of actual UCU action:

In terms of industrial action, I will never take for granted the sacrifices that members make when they withhold their labour. Striking workers are owed clear leadership that recognises the energy and commitment that goes into any action and that understands how and when to maximise leverage rather than waste our hard-earned mandates.

Many of our problems across post-16 education arise from broken funding models and competition in a sector that should be viewed as a public good. We need to combine serious work at a political/policy level with equally serious campaigning on pay erosion and poor working conditions.

In the union we need to focus less on social media and more on the hard work required to build towards effective campaigning and if mandated industrial action that achieves meaningful change for members.

You can find out more about Vicky here. Follow her on X here.

Featured image supplied

By Steve Topple

Source link