Jo Grady could hardly be better qualified for her new role. She was born in 1984 into a striking miner’s family; she studied industrial relations at university, and she is a leading expert in trade unions and pension disputes.
This week she will become the new general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), whose members last year went out on strike over sweeping pension changes, causing two weeks of disruption on campuses across the country. Grady was on the picket lines, with her Glastonbury wellies and her homemade flapjacks.
This year, as she takes over the leadership of the UCU, which represents university librarians, technicians and administrators as well as academic staff, fresh strike ballots are being prepared for September over pensions – again – as well as pay. With the threat of further industrial action looming, Grady says: “It’s a huge responsibility. I take that very seriously. But this has to be resolved.”
he original strike centred on proposals to overhaul radically the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – the country’s largest private sector pension scheme with 400,000 members at 67 universities and colleges. The changes would have ended guaranteed pension benefits for university staff, who would have lost up to £10,000 a year in retirement.
In an impressive show of solidarity and resourcefulness, UCU members did their homework, held their nerve, and saw off the immediate threat. It was a huge victory in which Grady played a key role as co-founder of USS Briefs – a research project that brought members up to speed on the detail behind the dispute. She was later elected to the union’s national dispute committee and then its national executive committee.
Since then key recommendations designed to resolve the dispute and preserve defined pension benefits in the long term have not been fully implemented, says Grady. “All of the sacrifices and compromises staff made have yet to be rewarded with the implementation of the proposals,” she says.
It’s a defining issue. If we don’t stand up for this, what we are allowing is the managed decline of our pension scheme. Professions are defined by their terms and conditions and benefits, and secure retirement and pension income is one of those things.”
Grady, from Wakefield in West Yorkshire, was the first in her family to go to university. Her father was a striking miner who worked at the Lofthouse colliery, among others; her mother raised her and her two brothers against the backdrop of one of the most bitter and protracted industrial disputes in living memory.
The experience shaped her. She grew up on stories about the kindness of her community, dining on tinned peaches from unlabelled cans donated by a family friend who worked at the local canning factory, and the importance of pulling together and looking after each other.