As two ballots come to a close, Jo Grady urges UCU members: “If you don’t use your vote, your employer gets your voice”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady © Jess Hurd

Becoming a general secretary has been a baptism of fire for Jo Grady.

The 35-year-old Yorkshirewoman – elected UCU leader in May with a massive majority  has two national ballots on her plate: one over pensions, the other over pay, equality, workload and job security. 

Her employer, Sheffield University, generously gave her two days a week to learn the ropes of her new role until she officially started in August. But from then it’s been non-stop.

I meet her at Hart’s Bakery, a cafe hidden under arches outside Bristol Temple Meads. She’s in the city to speak at a rally at Bristol University, drumming up support for the strike ballot. The previous day she was in Newcastle. This week she’s in Belfast, Ulster, Cardiff and Oxford, having already chalked off Dundee, Sussex, Strathclyde, Leeds, Bangor and a dozen others.

“I’ve seen thousands of members,” she says. “The ultimate success of any strike ballot is to beat the threshold to take action – and that’s quite tight right up until the deadline to know if it’s gone your way or not – but one of the good things about the tour is it’s really energising people. 

“People are the meetings are angry. Not in a defeated way, but in a ‘We have to do something’ way, which is important.”

The ballot results are due to be announced next Thursday (October 31), so there’s not much time left for people to vote – something Jo’s very keen for her members to do.

“Since the 2016 Trade Union Act there is no hiding in disputes, and if you don’t use your ballot, your employer gets your voice,” she stresses. “Do not underestimate how important this is and allow someone else your voice by not voting.

“The two issues we’re balloting over are some of the worst, some of the most serious issues that affect our sector, and we are the only ones who are asking the employers to do something about them.

“They’re not offering to talk to us about how we go about closing race, gender or disability pay gaps. We’re asking to nationally negotiate on those issues, on workload, which accounts for billions of pounds of unpaid labour in the sector and casualisation, which is a moral stain in the way in which we treat people in that we give them a teaching timetable for a semester but not a contract.”

It seems the only person not surprised when Jo won the GS election was Jo herself. When I ask her why she, as a young woman, decided to run in the election, she bristles. 

“I have to say to me it’s never occurred to me I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do,” she replies, curtly.

I apologise and rephrase the question, explaining I was reflecting on trade unions’ domination by, mostly, older men. 

“The idea that because the trade union movement is a masculine environment that I shouldn’t stand didn’t figure on my radar,” she says, the smile coming back. “The UCU has more women members than men members anyway, and the key people leading the union were women.”

Jo grew up in a political household – more of that tomorrow – and became active in the union as a postgraduate. She became involved at committee level, and later at national level.

“In the last five years, my involvement really accelerated and I think that was alined with the marketisation of higher education,” she says. “We were having to stand up in the department and battle against quite aggressive employers.”

At the time of the election, Jo had recently joined the union’s EC and her high profile through her campaigning over pensions proved a vote-winner.

“I sort out came straight through the shop floor and broke through the middle,” she says. “One of the conversations that didn’t dominate, but was asked a few times during the campaign, was ‘What about experience?’ and I said ‘I’ve been in this sector since 2006’.

“That is a hell of a lot of experience in every single level as an academic, but for all the other members UCU covers in HE, from professional services, people working in the library, in counselling services, the various roles I’ve done means I’ve worked with almost everybody you would come across in HE, and I’ve been friends with people who have been burned by the system, that have worked not as academic members but as all the other members the UCU covers.

“The more technocratic experience and the more managerial experience you can learn but you can’t learn quickly what it’s like to work in a sector that has been transformed so quickly, as I have.

“I have’t worked in FE, so I can’t claim the same sort of experience there, or in prison education but I have done quite a bit of adult education, but when you talk to people who have worked in that sector, the common experience of being burned out, of being attacked, of having your professionalism weaponised against you so that you shouldn’t stand up for things that you know are to the detriment to your own professionalism or your own well-being, it’s a common story and for us as educators and professionals that work within education, having someone who genuinely knows what it’s like to struggle in that sector and also dearly love and want to see it thrive and really want to fight for it, you couldn’t get that experience working for decades in the movement but not in the sector.”

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