...and why I won't be

March 3, 2006

The unions are guilty of underhand toing and froing - small wonder there is no pay offer on the table

It seems that I am likely, for the first time in my life, to cross a picket line. As an active trade unionist for 20 years, I've always supported industrial action. But now, and much to my regret, the Association of University Teachers and I (literally) part company. The proposed strike is misguided and, above all, premature, revealing a desperate lack of tactical and political awareness. Sadly, this is a case of dons being led by donkeys.

We are reminded ad nauseum of former Higher EducationMinister Alan Johnson's claim, cited in the initial pay demand, that "at least a third (of fees) will be put back into the salaries and conditions of their staff". The reference to "conditions" as well as pay here could mean any of a range of desiderata. A better library, more teaching assistants, more study leave, a bigger research account. All these things would make my working life better, irrespective of a bigger salary. No campaign should be based on such a disingenuous reading of a minister's words.

And even if we support a claim for better pay - and who doesn't? - there is simply no case for industrial action now. The academic unions submitted their initial claim in October, early and out of sync with unions covering other staff. The AUT declared itself to be "in dispute" in December, two months after submitting its claim and some eight months before pay changes were due. Then, one day prior to a meeting with employers in January, the unions submitted a substantially revised claim, which the employers calculate would absorb more than half of all new fee income. Given such tactics, is it any surprise that there is not yet a concrete offer on the table?

And what of the consequences? We assume that management will tolerate an assessment boycott and academic life goes on. Straws in the wind, however, suggest a more robust response this time. Are colleagues prepared for the escalation of this dispute and the effects that will have on staff and students?

In June 2005, one newspaper felt able to report "strike will follow union merger" in respect of the proposed tie-up between the AUT and Natfhe. The commitment to conflict is long-standing. But in the same way as I'd expect my Government to undertake diplomacy before sending in troops, I want my (former) union to engage in serious negotiations before disrupting my work and the lives of my students.

The author teaches social science at a university in the Midlands.

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