Unequal treatment

November 12, 2009

Keith Burnett's appointment as the new chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association comes at a critical time for the sector. We had hoped that a new face at the helm would usher in a new approach to industrial relations. Therefore it was rather disappointing to read such provocative comments from Burnett ("Hanging tough", 29 October).

Like Burnett, we have concerns about the difficulties facing the sector, but it is the way of dealing with those concerns where we differ. For a start, we believe Burnett would be better off sorting out the problems on the employers' side, rather than attacking the unions in the press.

Our concerns around who exactly Ucea receives its mandate from and whether it has the ability to speak for its members are well documented. The unions are operating in good faith, but are understandably annoyed at the failure of Ucea to hold up its side of the bargain. The dispute procedure states that "the employers will not impose a resolution ... until the procedure has been fully exhausted". The institutions that have imposed the 0.5 per cent pay deal have broken that agreement, and it is them that Burnett should be taking a "hard line" with, not the unions.

The employers' conduct throughout the negotiations has been questionable. By trying to dictate what can and cannot be discussed, the employers are acting as if they are the senior partners in the relationship. They are not; the trade unions are equal partners.

It is time for Ucea to rethink its approach for the good of the sector. In recognising the concerns about job security, Burnett talked about the need to share "best practice". He is right. However, to give any confidence that the employers are serious about addressing the concerns of the thousands of employees who are anxious about their jobs, there has to be a national recognition about the central role played by the trade unions.

Michael MacNeil, National head of higher education, University and College Union.

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