On 29 April 2018, approximately 50 Higher Education activists from across the UK met as part of a newly formed Rank and File network within the University and College Union (UCU).
UCU Rank and File emerged from the USS pension strikes, which saw a surge in activity within the union at the grassroots level. While 64% of UCU members voted to accept an offer from Universities UK (UUK), many UCU members – myself included – saw the handling of this ballot as a capitulation by the union and particularly by general secretary Sally Hunt.
The Rank and File meeting therefore had a central objective of ensuring we do not lose the energisation of UCU’s activist base, especially as 24,000 new members have joined the union since the USS strike ballot. The question of how to intervene in UCU’s structures and democratise the union was central, with general opinion being that UCU’s weaknesses cannot be solved with a change in leadership alone. Although the network arose from the USS dispute, the common understanding remained that our battle is against larger ills within the education sector, including marketisation and precarity.
The need to share skills and resources, especially between stronger and weaker UCU branches, and to link with broader workers’ and students’ struggles, was also discussed.
Encouragingly, it was suggested that the new network should push UCU to work in closer solidarity with students in the fight for free education. Much inspiration was taken from examples across the world, including the recent West Virginia wildcat strikes and the establishment of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in California. Although involvement in the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was suggested to keep the dynamism of the strike alive, no serious case was made for UCU activists to ″dual card″ as IWGB members or to found another union altogether.
No steering committee was set up, but working groups on democracy, anti-racism (including migrant workers’ rights), the Higher Education pensions dispute, and precarious labour were established.
Overall, the Rank and File meeting was promising, but the onus falls upon the newly connected members to turn its initiatives into concrete gains.
• Originally published on anticuts.org. More: bit.ly/ucu-rf