Delegates at the UCU union congress show support for Palestine (Picture: Sean Vernell)

University and college workers backed taking action for Palestine—and an end to arms sales—at the UCU union congress in Bournemouth on Wednesday.

Delegates passed a motion that called for UCU to “robustly defend branches from attack by employers, including with legal support”. It also called to “step up the pressure to end the war on Gaza” and to work towards stopping “British universities’ involvement in the arms trade and complicit institutions”.

Union leaders repeated that they would not support parts of the motion that called for boycotts as it went against legal advice, which they had received about a year ago.

Delegate Sean argued the situation in Palestine has changed and that the union was acting too cautiously. “This is one of the most important debates, so we can’t just dodge it,” he said.

“Things happening in our universities risk our members being complicit in what Israel is doing. At my university, 350 staff have signed up to a pledge not to collaborate in any way with the Israeli state. We should be able to support that.” 

Despite the union bureaucracy’s warnings, members overwhelmingly voted for the motion in its entirety. 

But union leaders repeated that the part of the motion which mentioned an academic boycott would not be implemented. This was part of a fight with the union bureaucracy to debate the motions on Palestine and imperialism.

The elected members of the Conference Business Committee had omitted some parts of the Palestine motions. Other Palestine motions were pushed together or moved down the agenda, so they weren’t as likely to be heard.

Victoria, a Palestinian member of the UCU, told congress that members needed to have a proper debate about Palestine. “It can’t be overstated, the significance of these motions,” she said.

“This is not just an international issue. It aligns with a broader struggle for dignity. We need to be able to make a collective decision over these motions.”

Delegates voted to reinstate the original motions, in a win for keeping Palestine on the agenda. Later in the day, they passed all of the restored Palestine motions.

Meanwhile, delegates passed another motion that said a two state solution wasn’t “viable”.  And almost half of the congress voted to support establishing a “single democratic secular state in Israel/Palestine”.

Delegate Anne seconded the motion, saying, “The union should be committed to the vision of one state as a positive vision to a real route to transformation”.

But two delegates argued that a line should be voted on separately. It said, “Peace can only be achieved by establishing a single democratic secular state in Israel/Palestine where Muslims, Jews, Christians and all people that live there have equal rights.” This was only narrowly defeated by eight votes.  

At the end of the first session of the day, delegates came together to take a solidarity photo with signs that said, “Hands off Rafah.” Over 100 delegates gathered and chanted, “Free, free Palestine,” and, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The bureaucracy had already said they would take a pro-Palestine photo on Friday, but workers decided this was too late.

Another motion called for the union to “submit a motion/amendment to this year’s TUC union federation congress calling to the government to reverse the rise in arms expenditure”. It passed with virtually no opposition.

Delegates voted to remove a call for military aid to Ukraine from a motion, and added a call for an “immediate ceasefire” between Russia and Ukraine.

There was fierce debate over the motion, which was split into parts. But delegates were able to defend a position won last year, which identified the Ukraine war as a proxy conflict between US Imperialism and Russian imperialism.

Congress calls for ‘no honeymoon’ for Starmer

Delegates overwhelmingly vowed to give “no honeymoon for a Labour government” under Keir Starmer.

Delegate Regi argued that workers should be ready to fight and strike against a Labour government. “We should be encouraging everyone who is prepared to strike to do so,” she said.

“We have to make the argument that we cannot wait for a Labour government. Starmer has proven he won’t be a friend to working people. Striking is our strongest form of resistance.”

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