Campaigns, mobilisation, fighting for solutions … Jo Grady’s priorities for the new UCU

UCU general secretary Jo Grady © Jess Hurd

When the phone didn’t ring, Jo Grady assumed the worst and thought she’d lost the UCU general secretary election.

The outsider, the new girl on the block, she was sitting at home with her partner, waiting for the call. 

She recalls: “They said they’d phone at 1050, let’s say it was, and it got to 1053, so I was like” ‘It’s not me! They’re calling the other candidates’.

“And then the phone rang and it was Vicky Knight, the previous president, and she just very quickly said: ‘I’m delighted to tell you you won’ and I was like ‘Oh wow!’.

“Then the first thing I did was call my mum and dad, who were over the moon. If you were born in 1984 in Wakefield, I don’t think the government ever intended you to go to uni, let alone become a senior lecturer, let alone have a working class woman becoming the gen sec of the union that represents people in education, so they were very proud.”

Like so many trade unionists, Jo’s background shaped her politics.

“When I was born in 1984, my dad was a miner on strike,” she says. “So probably unlike other people my age, what trade unions are / were / could be / should be / have been / who they represent / why they’re a good thing was just a given, and a regular conversation in my household. 

“But we also talked about working class struggle, that the press doesn’t speak for us, that the police protect certain vested interests, and that’s the rights of property and capital. Obviously if you were brought up during the miners’ strike, the stories you heard from your community were how the police were used to suppress various workers’ movements, so I suppose some of the elements of society that people come politicised by at a later age were background noise for me growing up.”

After the result of the two strike ballots are announced next week, Jo hopes she’ll be able to begin delivering on her election promises to members.

“There are two huge issues for me,” she states. “One, I want to turn the union into much more of a campaigning, mobilising union. I want organiser training – how do you go door-knocking, how do you start a political conversation without freaking them out, without feeling nervous about it yourself, how would you have those workplace conversations which basically leads people to see their commonalities and solidarities. A lot of American unions do it and we could really benefit from it.

“Also how we can use social media? During the pension strike members ended up organically organising via social media. The CWU have done it loads in their ballot and I think they’re going to absolutely smash it with the turnout. [They did, by 97.1%]

“For a long time there’s been a dismissive attitude in industrial relations theory to online activities, but there’s not much of a divide between what people are doing in their day-to-day lives, how they use social media to organise and be active. 

“We’ve a mass on the ground of organised, mobilised people who’ve been taking part in education. I also want to look at how we can disseminate activist toolkits and information and campaigning materials really quickly online, because during ballot periods like this it is going to be important to give people the facts so they can have conversations.

“We have to engage with people all the time. They get really frustrated when you only come to them during a ballot. They want to be organised and mobilised throughout, and if you do end up having strike action, like we did, you’re not demobilising people after fourteen days of action, which is actually pretty irresponsible.

“Building a union that campaigns, is mobilised and realises its strength even in times of non dispute is really important and ways for activists to engage and communicate with each other is really important, bringing that member voice in, so I’ve set up task groups that are going to directly drawing on member experience to inform and value add what we do. Those sort of things are fundamental.

“Another issue is tackling sexual misconduct and harassment in our workplaces, campuses, colleges, libraries, prisons, universities. It ruins careers and we all know in our workplaces either it’s happened to us or people we know, and often the perpetrators walk on to different institutions with non-disclosure agreements signed.

“Sometimes the union has played a role in helping that. We need to have our own house in order, our own robust procedures for how we deal about members complaining about other members.”

Her parting shot, as she hurries for a taxi, could be a soundbite from her election campaign: “I want the union to be a lot more involved in coming up with and fighting for the big solutions we need in our sector for big problems.”

And with that, she’s gone to continue her whirlwind tour across the UK.

  • Read part one of the interview – “If you don’t use your vote, your employer gets your voice” – here
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