Delegates to the UCU congress support Palestine (Picture: Sean Vernell)

This year’s UCU college and university workers’ union congress was held in the context of a rising pro-Palestinian movement, continued attacks on jobs and wages and a general election. UCU delegates rose to the challenge thrown down by our bosses and government.

The left within the union carried an argument into the congress that the political struggle over Palestine and the economic fight over wages and conditions are not separate fights. The political struggle is not—as some in the union would have it—a diversion from the fight to defend terms and conditions. 

In fact, we argued, it is the key to organising a more powerful union organisation in the workplace because the bosses are faced with a united union.

Governments always try to divide the working class through racism, sexism, transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and war.  The culture wars that the Tories have launched are designed to divide us. That is why branches that have continuously raised these political arguments in their workplaces are among the strongest, and therefore the most capable to defend terms and conditions.

UCU members have been at the forefront at organising in support of the Palestinian people. Some 86 colleges and universities have participated in the Stop The War Coalition workplace days of action. These actions have helped to ignite the student encampments at 35 universities, which in turn are inspiring more UCU members and the wider movement to do more.

It was this struggle that laid the basis for a number of the motions to be brought to congress. Six motions on Palestine were debated—after a battle to move them up the agenda paper so that they didn’t fall off—and were all passed overwhelmingly. 

The motions called for the union to support BDS, student encampments, defend freedom of speech as well as a motion arguing that a two states solution was no longer viable.

Unfortunately, the part of this motion that argued that a democratic secular state in Palestine is the only alternative was narrowly defeated by eight votes. This revealed how far the movement, after seven months of genocide, has moved from support of the imperialist “two state” sham to support for the socialist and Palestinian demand.

When the Palestinian ambassador entered the hall to address the congress, delegates greeted him with a standing ovation and chanted, “From the river to the sea Palestine will be Free.” 

The rising Palestinian movement did not only have an impact around Palestine. It also impacted on the wider debates on war and imperialism.

At last year’s congress, to much furore by some within the movement and from within UCU, delegates passed a motion calling for Russian troops to leave Ukraine, a ceasefire and called on the government not to send military aid to Ukraine. The movers of the motion were witch-hunted online and ridiculed by the likes of former left wing journalist Paul Mason.

At this year’s congress, a motion was brought on Ukraine to overturn this position. Once again it was defeated. The motion called for “military aid” to Ukraine. This part of the motion was amended to delete that part and added a new part calling for the union to campaign for a ceasefire now. This amendment was passed by a larger majority than last year’s conference.

Supporters of this amendment convinced delegates to support this position by asking a simple question. This war will sooner or later end in the leaders of these countries sitting down to discuss a ceasefire. How many more Ukrainian and Russian working class lives have to be lost before this happens—50,000, 100,000, half million?

Supporters of the amendment also made the point that there is no military solution to this war. Attempting to match Russian missile by missile with calls for more military aid will only end in one place—Ukraine gaining a nuclear capability supplied by the west. These two arguments won the day.

Welfare not warefare 

Another example of how the movement for Palestine impacted on the congress was delegates’ reception for a motion calling for the UCU to send a motion to the TUC union federation’s conference in September. The motion would be to overturn the TUC’s position on supporting more spending on arms. The motion was passed overwhelmingly.

In introducing the motions, movers explained that Tory ministers’ chilling speeches about putting Britain on a “war footing” are not simply flag waving in an attempt to gain more right wing votes. 

It is a real sign that the British ruling class are attempting to place themselves in the best possible position to be major players alongside the US in the imperialist wars to come. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer is keen to show our rulers he will always put their nationalist interest before our class interests. So he is falling over himself to make clear he will commit to the increase in arms spending and would be happy to press the nuclear button.

The power of the argument that there is no separation between the war abroad and the war at home was further demonstrated by motions passed on, “No honeymoon for a Labour government.” 

It called on UCU to support and encourage those striking in the election period as well as calling for a national demo in the autumn term in defence of post 16 education. An emergency motion was also passed, overwhelmingly, to support Jeremy Corbyn, Dianne Abbot and any independent candidates whose policies align with UCU’s.

Farage and the far right

We need to look no further than the decision by Nigel Farage to stand in Clacton to understand why it is not a luxury or a diversion for trade unionists to fight over the political and economic issues. It is a necessity. We will not defeat Farage and the far right if we fight only on one front. We must explain to working people why the fight for Palestinian rights is also a fight for their rights at home.

He sees his job in this election to shift Sunak further to the right who in turn will drag Starmer in the same direction with the trade union leaders following him.

Farage and Robinson feed off working people’s despair. The working class’s lack of confidence to end the poverty and immiseration of 14 years of Tory rule has put them and their communities through is the reason why filthy rich posh blokes like Farage can gain support in working class communities.

Blaming immigrants, making workers feel proud of their nation rather than their class can only work when workers are passive and not fighting back. Our job as trade unionists is to deepen the argument in every working class community that we want welfare not warfare. 

We must explain that for every pound that is spent on weapons it is another pound not spent on hospitals, schools or social services. 

Our experience at the UCU congress shows that we can begin to do this.

Many delegates were angered at the fact the sector conferences didn’t take place due to industrial action taken by UCU staff in the Unite union. This happened because of the failure of the UCU leadership to resolve the dispute.

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