Activists decry AUT's proposal to stand down equality body for a year

February 17, 2006

Phil Baty discovers that the engagement between the AUT and Natfhe may not be running as smoothly as everyone wanted, with both partners vying to wear the trousers in their eventual marriage amid accusations of power-grabbing

The Association of University Teachers was accused this week of refusing to put the fight for equal opportunities at the heart of the forthcoming academics' super-union after it vetoed plans to set up an equality committee.

A paper prepared by lecturers' union Natfhe and seen by The Times Higher reports thatthe AUTargued, during merger talks last month, that equality should not be a "core business" of the forthcoming University and College Union during its transitional year.

The paper, circulated at Natfhe's national executive committee (NEC) late last week, says that AUT general secretary Sally Hunt "confirmed that the AUT did not believe there was a need for an equality committee during the transitional year".

"Further and higher education business was seen by the AUT as the 'core business' of the new union in the transitional year, and equality was not regarded in the same way," the paper says.

The document prompted an angry response at Natfhe's NEC, attended by about 50 senior Natfhe activists. It is understood that the NEC passed five motions expressing concern about the issue, including one from the higher education committee stating that an equality committee was "essential"

during the transition.

One Natfhe member who had been present said: "Equality is a really hot potato. It is of crucial importance to our members and it was high on the agenda for the new merged union that members of both unions voted for.

"We should apply to ourselves the high standards expected of others and it is gobsmacking that the AUT does not want to put this issue at the very centre of the new union."

The AUT's stance appears to contradict literature produced by both unions on the planned merger, which states that equality will be "at the centre"

of the UCU.

The published literature says: "Fighting discrimination and harassment will be a major priority for the new union. The equality structure proposed stands comparison with the best in the trade union movement."

Natfhe's internal paper records that the AUT's objection to the formation of an equality committee during the transitional year was on practical and organisational grounds, not because the issue is taken lightly by the AUT.

The report says that the AUT argued that "if an equality committee were established, other groups would be able to argue that they should have committees established also". It adds that such a committee "would detract from the essential core work that needed to be carried out to establish the new union in the first year".

It goes on: "Sally Hunt said she would want the minutes to record that the AUT's opposition to an equality committee should not be read in any way as wishing to denigrate equality work, which AUT did regard as important."

But despite this, the row is likely to cause the AUT considerable embarrassment. Last year the union was accused by its members - including its president-elect and a national executive member - of a lack of commitment to race equality.

Executive member Bill Gulam and Gargi Bhattacharyya, AUT president-elect, helped set up a black staff network and were among ten black members who wrote to the AUT warning of possible legal action against the union over lack of representation.

Dr Bhattacharyya told The Times Higher this week: "Keeping equality structures going through the transitional year - among black members and among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members - is of very great concern to us all. (Not doing so) sends a very poor signal to employers at a time we are pushing them on equality."

The AUT said: "We will work to mainstream equality issues into everything the new union does. During the first year, the union will need to be focused on UCU's other priorities."

Both Natfhe and the AUT currently have equal opportunities committees, made up of elected members, and such dedicated groups are almost universal in the trade union movement.

Both parties have said that following the failure to agree on an equality committee, "an exchange of papers would take place, facilitated by the two presidents".

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