Good Morning Conference.
I am Branch Secretary of UCU – University & College Union – at Newcastle College and I am proud to sit on both its National Executive and its Further Education Committee.
I would like to thank Tony Dowling and the organisers for inviting me to speak to you here today.
Our theme is “Building Strong Unions” and I want to talk to you about how we build.
Back in November, Newcastle College Branch was the biggest growing UCU branch in the country.
Our branch membership has increased by 68% since September and we remain the largest FE, Further Education branch in the Northern Region.
Our branch has been built on 3 Cs – Campaigning, Casework and Cake.
As a branch we have developed local campaigns that our members are active participants in. Our Workload Working Group is a model that is being rolled out nationally with branches being supported to recruit workload reps.
Our approach to casework is solid and consistent. Ensuring our members have the advice and support they need in grievances and disciplinaries and workplace issues is core.
And cake. We don’t wait for people to come to us. We have gone out to their workplaces, we have taken tea and cake, and we have listened to what matters to them. And we have especially targeted student teachers coming into the education profession and colleagues on less secure contracts.
We run events in line with the Trade Union calendar – LGBT Awareness, Holocaust Memorial Day, International Women’s Day. We celebrate them and we recognise the role of trade unions in supporting and advancing marginalised workers.
We broadcast what we do on Twitter, on Facebook, by email and in regular newsletters.
And we build our Branch by
1. Telling people what we are going to do.
2 . We then do what we say we are going to do.
3. And then we tell people what we have done.
We create the story of our Branch and each event, each casework win, each campaign stage, is a chapter we write.
Trade unions are 3 things. We are a triumvirate of Strong Leadership, Strong Membership and Strong Investment. And like a holy political trinity, we are all 3, together in unity.
*Hands up if you are in a trade union?
*Hands up if you have ever been on strike?
*Keep your hands up if you have been on strike under Tory Austerity?
I am so proud, SO PROUD, that in this 150th Anniversary Year, it is our general secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt, who is the elected President of The TUC.
And I am proud not just because of the celebrations, but because, in this same anniversary year, it is our general secretary’s strong, clear leadership that has driven the biggest industrial action ever seen on our university campuses.
OUR general secretary has led unprecedented strike action on an 88% vote from members on a 58% turnout.
It is Sally Hunt’s STRONG leadership on a STRONG mandate from our members which has broken the back of The Trade Union Act that was designed to cripple the trade unions from organising and to prevent us from taking action.
As The TUC rightly states, The Trade Union Act 2016 represents the most serious attack on the rights of trade unions and our members in a generation.
The Trade Union Act 2016 is as damaging as it is divisive. And it has required us to respond with a new strategy, to respond with new ways of organising and to respond with a new activism.
The law and its constraints are new and our response to it in taking industrial action has had to be new, has had to be diverse and has had to be divergent.
We – UCU – have fought a 2-prong attack on the USS pensions dispute. We have fought an actual real-time strike and we have fought a virtual strike.
Our actual strike has seen strong picket lines – 100 strong – throughout the strike period at over 60 universities, with members out for 14 days – and still out, even when they had lost a lot of pay.
Our narrative has been so strong and our media campaign has been so dynamic that we have involved people who have never been on strike before.
We have had new activism, we have had young activism, we have had women activism.
We have mobilised in a new and different way which has enabled active participation.
And our growth has been exponential with thousands upon thousands joining UCU since action began in February. Locally, Newcastle and Durham universities have both increased membership by more than 25% with branch memberships of well over 1000 each.
And we also have 16 FE colleges on strike over pay with more colleges currently being balloted for action.
We have seen a cross-pollination of support from our Further and Higher Education sectors on the picket lines: If they are coming for USS pensions today, they will come for TPS pensions tomorrow.
This cross sector support has brought us closer together as a union – an attack on one is an attack on all.
Our amazing students have provided phenomenal support despite being adversely affected by the strike action itself. Our students have mobilised, they have organised, they have marched, they have collected for strike funds. And they have engaged because they understand the dispute and because they are part of our narrative.
Our incredible teachers who have been delivering an alternative strike curriculum in pubs and clubs, who have been teaching our students directly on the picket lines – sessions on social history, politics, the history of the trade union movement.
We have provided a different, alternative education and it has been mind-blowingly diverse.
We have brought on and educated thousands, thousands of young people; the next generation of trade unionists. And so, as a movement, we grow.
And then there is our virtual strike – online and on social media.
We have had high level support online from all parties. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Angela Raynor, Vince Cable, Dianne Abbott, Chi Onwurah.
Also Owen Jones, Ken Loach, Maxine Peake, Billy Bragg gigging on the picket line in Exeter. We’ve had pop stars and more.
We have raised strike funds through virtual banking.
We have had pod casts of support from trade unions across the globe including Germany, Norway, New Zealand.
Our first rally in London was broadcast live on social media – reaching 100,000 trade unionists in South Africa alone.
We at UCU have learned that we can build physically and we can build virtually.
The Tory anti-trade union laws have made us work harder, they have made us work stronger and they have made us work better.
We are UCU and we are a more dynamic force and we are more resilient as a result.
The challenge ahead for us now is to harness this new found activism, engage our new activists and sustain the energy beyond our current disputes to ensure that we as UCU are physically, socially and politically sustainable for the long term.
So Conference. Let us build our branches. Let us build our trade unions. And let us continue to build our movement together.