The deal which the University employers, the UCEA, has made with the new union, the University & College Union (UCU) has caused outrage amongst the membership of both component unions, NATFHE and the AUT.
The deal goes out to ballot to the membership of the merged union, after the negotiating team of the former AUT took a pre-emptive decision to ballot in any case, calling off the no-marking sanctions that had been in operation. NATFHE after a 50-50 split amongst the Executive members who they are required to consult, decided that they had no option but to follow suit.
The deal over three years appears to offer a 13.1 % increase over 3 years. The increase actually received is less than that as the increases are generally phased in 6 month stages.
It comes in sector where wage rates have fallen dramatically over the last 25 years and after years of promises by the employers, and waiting by the lecturer unions, until money was starting to come into the sector. It comes after successful national strike action and a boycott of marking that led to increases in organisation and membership (up generally by nearly 10%).
Employers had threatened a ratcheting up of the dispute in June when pay would be docked by many universities by up to 20 or 30%. But all the evidence shows that rather than lead to a collapse of the dispute this would have led to escalation of the action and major problems for the government and employers.
There were some problems for the union in universities where the union is less strong but the consequences of this deal will create greater problems for those branches, most of which work amongst the poorer universities.
In the short term: the deal allows a 11 month get-out for poorer universities who claim that they cannot pay for the deal; and a number of those universities have also threatened to make redundancies which will be more difficult to fight in the context of a demoralization after this dispute. In the long term, the moves to local settlements will hit hardest at the poorer universities.
In the background the Government continues its plan to expand the provision of skilled workers by widening access to higher education, but doing this by further shifting the cost of education onto students. The expenditure on, and quality of, higher education for the 'many' will be lowered, whilst 'quality' education for the 'few' will be preserved in a minority of universities paid for by high tuition fees, generally from students who are from wealthy backgrounds and destined for high pay employment.
A common national pay agreement that protects all lecturers' pay makes such plans more difficult. If two, three or four-tiered higher education is what the government and the wealthier universities want, then the employers have to destroy the credibility of the national agreement. This could open the door to local pay bargaining and the acceleration of a divide between rich and poor universities. A raising of the cap on tuition fees in 2010 coupled with the low 2.5% increase in year 3 of the deal will lead to even greater pressures for local deals.
This deal has to be opposed and a 'No' vote campaigned for.
Opposition to the deal will be difficult. Most of the union's ammunition will have been handed over in the period of the ballot where union members have been instructed to work normally. The ammunition, of course, is the marks that were not being processed and stood to cause administrative chaos for the employers as well as cause significant problems generally for employers' recruitment programmes and the government's credibility.
At well attended branch meetings of the AUT, protest has been recorded: in Cardiff there have been calls for the resignation of UCU officials involved in the sell-out; in Loughborough there have been near-enough unanimous calls for a 'No' vote. But at the present none of the left, either around Paul Mackney, or in the 'Rank and File' group, or from the former AUT have made any call that might regain the initiative by mapping out a strategy for continuing the dispute. If some such call is not made soon it is difficult to see a 'No' vote winning.
A 'No' vote would mean that the UCEA would again withdraw their offer, as they have done on a number of times so far in the negotiations. That has to be answered.
That is why we call for an early emergency conference of the new union that can get the dispute back on track. We understand an emergency conference requires the support of 10% of the membership or 20% of branches. It would be difficult to achieve, particularly at this time of year, but opponents of the deal, including those who felt that they had no choice but to reluctantly go along with the decision to ballot, are considerable and it is not impossible if they were to take up the call.
How and why did the AUT officials sabotage the action?
The 'how' is still unclear. National officials of the former AUT conducted a ring-round of their executive. What they asked and what each of the executive members answered, who was asked first and in what order they were asked, these are unknown at present.
What is clearer is 'why' the national AUT officials wanted to end the dispute by conducting this ring-round independently of the rest of the union.
Despite the criticisms that the AWL might have of Paul Mackney, under his leadership NATFHE has become a proficient and credible union staffed by generally competent advisors and officials. The AUT on the other hand has a more federal structure with very powerful branches in many areas and some weaker branches with more parochial objectives elsewhere.
Former AUT General Secretary, Sally Hunt, one of the candidates for the General Secretary of the new union, has talked left during the dispute, however she has around her officials who are sympathetic to the Government and its agenda of increased differential tuition fees and local bargaining.
The merger of NATFHE, generally organising the less wealthy post-92, former polytechnics and the AUT representing, in the main, the pre-92 universities posed a threat in terms of better organisation and potential militancy. A victory in the dispute, at this time, would have a significant impact in determining the shape of the new union. The right-wing, well positioned within the AUT apparatus, pretty desperately want to stop this.
Apart from campaigning for a 'No' vote and demanding an early emergency conference, what should UCU members do?
- Regardless of the outcome of the ballot: we should reassert that the deal is not legally binding on the important 3rd year when salaries hardly go up and Universities will be considering raising their tuition fees and the possibilities of doing local deals.
- There should be a full accounting of the decision making in the former AUT that led to the climbdown. UCU members have received emails about the dispute from both of the major contestants for the new General Secretary position in the new union. These are Roger Kline, whose conduct during the dispute had been well supported by NATFHE activists, and Sally Hunt.
The truth has to be investigated and the call by Cardiff for resignations acted on.
- There needs to be a joint campaign of UCU and real activists in the student body prepared to take on together the battle against increasing differential tuition fees and inequities in HE funding.
NUS is more passive and right-wing than in many years: demonstrations against tuition fees have been called off; sections of the left such as the SWP have moved away from trade union and workers issues in making alliances with the religious right in, for example, their support for faith schools. Student support was very patchy during the dispute and real support largely the result of small groups of activists taking the initiative. Official NUS positions were not systematically translated into real campaigns on the ground.
Both workers in HE and students need to prepare for the battle against tuition fees and for free education together with renewed vigour as universities renew their attacksa on free education.
- There needs to be a new genuine movement of the rank and file within the new UCU. This is particularly important this year as the new union has so few established structures to allow for any accountability. The SWP is dominant in the present Rank and File grouping which has launched a conference in London on June 24th. Their promotion of RESPECT and their support for Galloway; their sectarianism and their divisive policies on Israel/Palestine (see this and this): all of these will weaken the left. Activists should attend the conference on the 24th but to assert the importance of building a genuine democratic body of left wing union activists.
If you want to kept informed or give information on the campaign against the settlement and for an emergency UCU conference send an email to this edited email address