Leader: UCU benefits to outlast dispute

June 2, 2006

The continuing uncertainties and bitterness surrounding the pay dispute should not prevent higher education as a whole from welcoming this week's establishment of the University and College Union. The timing of the merger of lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers may not help the resolution of the current conflict, but it will bring beneficial clarity to industrial relations in future. The creation of the new union is a historic moment that is long overdue.

There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks to be cleared before the new organisation runs smoothly, however. In any walk of life, two bodies with long histories and closely argued policies such as the AUT and Natfhe would be bound to have differences of emphasis, not least over what might constitute an acceptable pay deal. All the academic community can demand - including those who do not belong to a union - is that this decision and others are totally divorced from the manoeuvring that is bound to take place among the merger partners.

Naturally, the contest for the post of general secretary will be the object of most suspicion on this score, but that does not need to be settled until next spring. Most other major policies should not be too difficult to harmonise: the two unions have tended to take a similar line on the big questions of the day. The obvious and highly public exception is Natfhe's support for a boycott of Israel, adopted by a narrow margin at last weekend's valedictory conference. Leaders of the AUT will not need reminding of the backlash that followed their own conference's ill-advised excursion into this territory. And, while the Natfhe motion may have been more carefully worded, the contradictions inherent in it are already being loudly rehearsed. The new union will be doing itself - and the rest of academe - a favour if it improves on the AUT's mark for the shortest boycott on record.

All that will matter in the long run is the ability to provide strong and well-respected representation for academics and administrators. The leaders of the two unions have managed the run-up to the merger with great skill and maturity. If the process can continue in the same vein, many of those who have shunned unions in the past may be attracted back and the current dispute will eventually become a fading memory.

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