Although there was concern among some at the University and College Union special conference on single-table bargaining about giving up the old rights to separate bargaining, as your report rightly notes ("UCU agrees to joint pay talks", November 16) most were persuaded to give up the dual table by the argument that it was necessary to retain national bargaining.
Even those opposed to the single table were divided as to motive. Some wished to hold on, from a belief that academic pay and conditions would otherwise be trapped in a framework that would always favour the lowest common denominator. For others, the real issue was even larger. We felt that the motions represented the greatest tactical blunder since the union's decision to squander time, energy and funds on "debating" an academic boycott of Israel.
The employers and the support staff unions argued that the Framework Agreement, with its aim of securing "equal pay for work of equal value", demanded single-table negotiations. The UCU's position should have been that it would agree to this only if the employers agreed to establish a genuine single table.
Pay is currently negotiated for the top earners, the professoriate and senior administrators, over some 140 separate tables in the vice- chancellors' offices of individual institutions. This is the central "equality" absurdity of the Framework Agreement, although many employers were not averse to announcing that the new "single spine" covered all staff.
Excluding the top earners from the pay spine automatically supplies an artificial pay range at the start of negotiations, and while cleaners through to senior lecturers have had to demonstrate that they do the work necessary to earn their respective salary points, the professors and principals are free to invent their own pay scales, moving upwards from the maximum set by the Framework Agreement. This is the lie at the heart of the agreement's claim to seek transparency and equality according to contribution - and even worse, the protected top earners are the most obvious example of discriminatory practice: in the huge majority white middle-aged males. Women rarely enter their ranks and minority groups are all but excluded. In short, the privileged group represents the most obvious area of equality failure in higher education.
If the most senior staff can negotiate their pay and conditions without reference to the UCU, then the union loses its most powerful internal institutional support. Paradoxically, then, the professoriate is operating in the same way as the support unions - letting the ordinary UCU members take the action that will secure the overall minimum pay rise for the whole sector while they sit back doing nothing and risking nothing.
A single pay and conditions bargaining table is appropriate only when everyone is invited to the party, whether they want to be there or not.